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Stanley Milgram and the Obedience Study

Discuss about the People Obey Authority and Commit Actions for Against Conscience.

In a communal living it is requirement that we have some form of authority that can give a structure to our social life. Authority gives birth to obedience which is a basic structure in the social life of living beings. Only a man who would live in isolation would be free from obeying and submitting to others commands. In the long history of mankind there are several examples where hideous crimes were committed in the name of the obedience. Some examples are reliably established, when in the years 1933-1945 millions were slaughtered under the command of a leader. The policies that gave rise to this inhumane behavior was the seed of one twisted mind but was followed and carried out in the form of orders by many (Colman, 2009). So obedience dragged these numerous people to carry out orders that may or may not be against their beliefs and conscience? The most famous study that was conducted in the field of psychology was conducted by Stanley Milgram who explained that obedience can be linked to political purposes; it can be productive as well as destructive.  Obedience is the manifestation that ensures that an individual carries out the instructions that are issued by people in authority. It is cement that binds the individual to the system of authority. The question arises how so many people could engage in such unconscionable behaviors? How could they be blinded in doing and engaging in clear injustice? Well the answer is, a new creature is formed in an organisational structure that has no barriers of personal ethics, he or she is free from any inhibitions and is only concerned with the authority sanctions. People will obey orders if they recognize that the authority is legally based or morally right.

Stanley Milgram was a psychologist from the Yale University. He wanted to know whether the Germans were extraordinarily obedient to their authority figures as an explanation to the killings in the World War II.  Were there any justifications for the genocide of the World War II? In his study 40 males were selected between the ages of 20-50 (Milgram, 1963). These participants had various occupations such as high school teachers, laborers, salesman, engineer and postal clerks. They also ranged in educational level as some had not even finished elementary school whereas some had a doctorate ( Nicholson, 2011). They were told in the start of the experiment that they would be paid $4.50 for turning up to the lab and this payment does not depend on the result of the experiment.

Procedure of the study was that every participant was teamed up with another participant as a “teacher” and “learner”. They had already drawn from their research on the participants that who is more suitable to be a “teacher” and who is naïve enough to be the “learner”. But still they pretended to take out slips of paper to decide who will be who. The slips were rigged predicting the same outcome as the researchers were aiming for (Griggs, & Whitehead, 2015). After the slips were drawn the learner participant was taken to a different adjacent room and was strapped to a electric chair. Now the learner and teacher were paired in a learning task where the learner has to remember the word pairs. If he answers an incorrect answer, he will be subjected to an electric shock by the teacher. Moreover the key command was that the teacher has to move one higher level in shock generator each time the learner flashes the wrong answer. The teachers were also asked to announce the voltage before administering the shock. This was done to ensure that the teacher knows that he is increasing the intensity of the voltage. But actually each time only 45 volts of shock was being delivered to the “learner”. (Freckelton, 2012).

The Procedure of the Obedience Study


Through his “Obedience Study” Milgram wanted to know how far human beings can obey orders from someone if it resulted in hurting another human being. If the teacher does refuse to administer the shock they were given prods/orders to continue it (Persaud, 2005).. These prods or orders were not any punishments or forceful terms that were being dictated but they were sentences like Please continue, the experiment requires you to continue, it is absolutely essential that you continue, and you have no other choice but to continue. This proves that they were under no kind of pressure (Slater, et al., 2006). Many teachers were asked whether they think that the shocks they are delivering are painful. Almost all replied they know that the shocks are painful. All most all teachers subjected their “learners” to 300 Volts shocks. 5 out of 40 refused to deliver shocks beyond 300 volts. 26 participants delivered shocks till the end and were visibly stressed while administering the shocks. Through this experiment two findings were very clear; the first was the strength of the obedient tendencies that has manifested in this situation. The participants were clear that it is a moral breach to hurt another person yet 26 of them listened to a person who had no special authority to command them. They were to suffer no material loss if they disobeyed this person or no punishment would be given to them if they discontinued this experiment. Secondly the stress and agitation that these “teachers” experienced while delivering the shocks showed that this act of violence was against their values but still they were continuing with it. (Haslam, & Reicher,2006).

Milgram’s experiment proves that even when none of the participants were under any violent or physical restraints they continued to go along, as people tend to follow orders as obedience to authority is ingrained in all of us. It is how we are brought up. We learn it in institutions such as school, family and work. Through this experiment the extreme willingness of adults to obey commands of authority was seen and demanded further explanation (Burger, 2009).. His study was also carried out in different replications in Spain and Netherlands. In Netherlands and Spain the results showed 90% compliance by the participants. This shows that obedient participants were in majority in other countries as well.

Another study that demonstrated the power of roles was the Prison study conducted in Stanford Prison by Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues. They wanted to know if university students were assigned in the roles of guards and prisoners, what would happen (Bocchiaro, & Zimbardo, 2010). Men who participated in the study were being paid daily fees and agreed to a part of the experiment for two weeks. They were randomly assigned in the roles of prisoners and guards. It was noticed that the participants that were assigned the roles of prisoners became panicky, distressed and helpless in a short time. Some started becoming rebellious and started showing emotional distress. After a few days the prisoners were begging to get out even forfeiting their monitory gains but on the other hands the participants that were assigned as guards were adjusting well to their new power (Carnahan, & McFarland, 2007). They were free to use any method to maintain peace and order but they automatically choose to be abusive and harsh even when the prisoners were not resisting. The guards that were less cruel never complained about the behavior of their abusive peers.  It was clear, that the situation rather than their individual personality was causing the person’s behavior. The experiment lasted for six days as the students that were assigned as “Prisoners” were heading towards a terrifying transformation that the researchers never wanted. Critics of the study maintain that the study is flawed as students knew how to behave as guards and prisoners as they have all watched numerous movies about it. But Craig Haney and Philip Zimbardo explained that if they the guards were just having fun and acting why would they behave as it is their real job. In the year 1998 Zimbardo studied real prisoners and guards and was able to support his study findings. (Griggs, 2014).

Findings of the Obedience Study

Both experiments “Obedience study” and the “Prison experiment” support the result that the participant’s behavior was changed by the authority and environment around them. These studies also prove how social roles influence our behavior. Even when the guards that were less harsh on the prisoners, decided to look the other way as they thought under the circumstances they have to support their peers.


Allocating responsibility to the authority is a common way in which people try to justify their uncommon behavior. These people hand the responsibility of their actions to the authority therefore trying to absolve them of accountability. It was observed in the Milgram “Obedience Study” that many participants who were assigned “teacher’s” role showed an attitude that the learner is getting shocks because he has committed a mistake and the “Teacher” is just following orders. In contrast the ones that refused to give high voltage shocks took responsibility for their actions thus refused to grant legitimacy to the authority (Edenfield, 2003). After the experiment a participant explained how shoving the responsibility of his actions was the most cowardly thing to do.

Symbols such as scientist in the white coat, chain on prisoners and sunglasses on guards played a crucial role. In the “Prison experiment” by Zimbardo the guards were provided by sunglasses to prevent any eye contact this reduced the human factor between the participants. Prisoners were made to wear a bolted chain around the ankle to feel humiliated, and emasculated. In the Milgram “Obedience study” the lab coat scientist or experimenter was a figure of authority even when he had no real authority on the participants as they had volunteered to be in the study.

The famous Kitty Genovese murder in New York in 1964 is an example of bystander effect as when Genovese was stabbed outside her apartment, many observed but none stepped to help or call the police. This perceived diffusion in responsibility can be caused by factors such as the presence of many people. The term “bystander effect” is the phenomenon when the presence of a number of people discourages a person to help another in distress. The chance of others helping individual’s in need is inversely related to number of bystanders. So if more people are involved than it is less likely that one of the bystanders will help. (Hudson, & Bruckman, 2004), (Fischer, et al., 2006).

Conclusion 

The study conducted by Milgram shows that every person has a conscience which controls their destructive drives. But when they are integrated in an organisational structure the individual changes in a new creature that is released from any inhibition and he is only concerned with the authority sanctions. The result of the experiment shows that people usually do what they are being asked by someone else. When authority was pitted against the participant’s moral imperatives of hurting others, authority won many times.( Haslam, & Reicher, 2007).  The fundamental breach of moral belief of not hurting the other person is over ridden by authority. The sheer strength of obedient tendencies is manifested in this situation. Where some participants expressed deep disapproval of the electrical shocks and some branded the experiment as stupid and unnecessary. Yet all complied with the commands. The Stanford Prison Experiment is a central contribution to the Milgram’s paradigm of quantifying aggression where good people can be induced into doing evil deeds. The human nature, in some powerful social settings can be transformed in character, and studies like these leave the people disturbed, mystified and surprised.

People will obey orders if they recognize that the authority is legally based or morally right. Against the victim blaming and despairing perspective the hard lessons that we can learn from Stanford prison experiment and Milgram studies are that, good and normal people can be made into doing something evil.

References 

Burger, J. M. (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today? American Psychologist, 64(1), 1–11. 

Bocchiaro, P., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2010). Defying unjust authority: An exploratory study. Current Psychology, 29(2), 155–170.

Carnahan, T., & McFarland, S. (2007). Revisiting the Stanford Prison experiment: Could participant self-selection have led to the cruelty? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(5), 603–614

 Colman, Andrew (2009). A Dictionary of Psychology. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press. 

Edenfield, K. A. (2003). “Irrational exuberance” Robert J. Shiller, Princeton university press, Princeton, NJ

Freckelton, I. (2012). Behind the shock machine: The untold story of the notorious Milgram psychology experiments, by Gina Perry. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 19(3), 448–450. 

Fischer, P., Greitemeyer, T., Pollozek, F., & Frey, D. (2006). The unresponsive bystander: Are bystanders more responsive in dangerous emergencies? European Journal of Social Psychology, 36(2), 267–278.

Griggs, R. A. (2014). Coverage of the Stanford Prison experiment in introductory psychology textbooks. Teaching of Psychology, 41(3), 195–203

Griggs, R. A., & Whitehead, G. I. (2015). Coverage of Milgram’s obedience experiments in social psychology textbooks: Where have all the criticisms gone? Teaching of Psychology, 42(4), 315–322.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371–378.

Nicholson, I. (2011). “Shocking” masculinity: Stanley Milgram, “Obedience to authority,” and the “Crisis of Manhood” in cold war America. Isis, 102(2), 238–268.

Haslam, S. A., & Reicher, S. (2007). Beyond the Banality of evil: Three dynamics of an Interactionist social psychology of tyranny. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(5), 615–622. 

Haslam, S. A., & Reicher, S. (2006). Stressing the group: Social identity and the unfolding dynamics of responses to stress. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(5), 1037–1052.

Hudson, J. M., & Bruckman, A. S. (2004). The bystander effect: A lens for understanding patterns of participation. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13(2), 165–195.

Persaud, R. (2005). The man who shocked the world: The life and legacy of Stanley Milgram. BMJ, 331(7512), 356–356.

Slater, M., Antley, A., Davison, A., Swapp, D., Guger, C., Barker, C., Sanchez-Vives, M. V. (2006). A virtual Reprise of the Stanley Milgram obedience experiments. PLoS ONE, 1(1), e39. 

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