The study of obedience lies within the broader context of social psychology. Obedience is a universal phenomena, it exists everywhere but has often been overlooked and overshadowed by studies of conformity. Thankfully, Stanley Milgram’s work disentangles the key components of obedience, and eradicates the myths attached to it. Milgram is seen as a pioneer of social psychology, and this is clearly evident, as over 50 years after his ground-breaking research was conducted, institutions, psychologists and society are still fascinated by it. In this essay I aim to review Milgram’s book ‘Obedience to Authority’(1974) by portraying a clear understanding of his research, as well as looking at the historical context in which the book was written and its influences in the field and beyond.
Obedience is described as an individual’s behavioural response to authority; the individual sees themselves as an instrument used to carry out another person’s command. As Milgram was emotionally involved with the suffering of the Jews in Nazi Germany (Harré, 2006), he was driven to understand the callous and inhumane behaviour displayed by ‘normal’ people in Nazi Germany, and asked the following question: Under what conditions would a normal person obey authority, when asked to perform actions that were contrary to their conscience and morals? He answered this by conducting a series of experiments in 1963 (Milgram, 1974) which uncovered the many factors that affect obedience, and in turn explained why normal people obey unjust commands in certain situations.
Milgram conducted his experiment on 500 male volunteers of varying occupations, between the ages 20 to 50 in New Haven. He told them that the aim of the experiment was to look at the effect of punishment on learning. Unknown to them his actual aim was to identify the underlying factors that cause us to either obey or disobey unjust commands. Milgram made the participants assume the role of a ‘teacher’ that presented word pairs (the learning task) to the ‘learner’ who was a confederate (an actor directed by the experimenter), and every time the learner gave a predetermined incorrect response, the participant had to administer a shock to the learner, increasing the voltage each subsequent time. The shock generator consisted of 30 switches ranging from 15 to 450 volts. The learner produced appropriate groans and cries to stop as the voltage levels increased, and the experimenter insisted that the participant administers the shock, against their protests. Milgram quantified the obedience of each participant with the maximum shock voltage they administered. This standardisation was vital to achieving the study’s academic credibility.
Conducting the experiment was not the only thing that yielded results for Milgram. In chapter three, he compared the expected with the observed behaviour, by describing the experiment to 110 individuals, who all said they would disobey the experimenter, making remarks such as ‘I can’t stand to see people suffer’.(Milgram, pp. 28, 1974). Furthermore, when 40 psychiatrist were asked what percentage of participants will go all the way to 450 volts, they predicted that only 1% would do so, saying that only ‘sadist would engage in such sadistic behaviour’, (Zimbardo, pp.271, 2007). To Milgram’s surprise the predictions of the expected behaviour were very wrong. His findings showed that 65% of the participants went up to the maximum shock level of 450 volts and all of them went up to 300 volts (Milgram, 1974). In view of these results, Milgram explained the reasons for the incorrect predictions in two ways. Firstly, ‘people like to see themselves in a favourable light’, (Milgram, pp.30, 1974) this is called ‘the social desirability bias’ and it may have affected peoples predictions because they wouldn’t want to be seen as sadists. Secondly, he attributed the incorrect predictions to their ignorance of the many situational factors that affect obedience, because they were thinking about the situation abstractly and not actually experiencing it. Zimbardo (2007) said that these people were only thinking about the dispositional factors (the various characteristics, beliefs and morals that a participant brings in) and completely ignoring the fact that some morals are highly fallible in certain situations. Milgram was very thorough in his investigation, he didn’t just rely on the closed result of either ‘obeyed or disobeyed’, the detailed interview accounts with participants in chapters five and seven show this. I was intrigued by the interview with the Professor of the Old Testament. He refused to go beyond 150 volts, but did not see himself as disobeying the experimenter, rather he ‘shifts the person from whom he will take orders’, (Milgram, pp.49, 1974) and adheres to the learner’s cry ‘to stop’. Being a religious man, I assume that he may have recalled a Bible scripture in Matthew 6:24, (New International Version) ‘No one can serve two masters’, so despite situational factors being important, we cannot rule out the dispositions and morals of the individual.
Milgram’s method of inquiry was ingenious; many are still in awe of how he came up with such a unique and scientifically sound method of testing obedience. The experiment previously described was just a motif template for the 16 variations Milgram produced. Each variation was specific to highlighting the various factors that affect obedience. Overall he found that an increased proximity to the ‘learner’, the absence of legitimate authority, the presence of allies (diffusion of responsibility) and the diminished prestige of the experimental setting, were contributing factors to resisting authority. His findings shook the field of psychology, causing many psychologists to look further into the study of obedience. A prime example is Philip Zimbardo, famously known for his Stanford prison experiment (1971, cited in Zimbardo, 2007), and also a former classmate of Milgram, has spent his career investigating why good people become evil, and has an organisation called Heroic Imagination, dedicated to educating society on how to overcome social pressures, whether from obedience, conformity or peers. Still within the psychology realm, Milgram’s study sparked debates about ethics, and resulted in many boards having to reform their policies on issues such as the use of deception, and the failure to offer participants the right to withdraw. Milgram dedicated chapter fourteen to acknowledging the many criticisms of his study, not just identifying them but providing possible solutions and justifiable reasons for his method. For example, when the andocentric nature of his experiment was questioned, he conducted the same experiment on females, and the results were indifferent to the males. Critics have also argued that a lab experiment does not reflect the real world, as it lacks mundane realism. ‘Consider the disparity in time scale. The laboratory experiment takes an hour; the Nazi calamity unfolded for more than a decade’, (Milgram, pp.175, 1974). Despite it being a lab experiment with many limitations, there are still core trends that are parallel to the real world. The Milgram experiment should be seen as microcosm of society with lessons to be learnt.
Psychologist and other social scientists can appreciate how important Milgram’s work is. However, the key questions are; do people beyond the field understand and appreciate the implications of his research, have lessons been learned and is it still relevant today? Jan Rensaleer was a participant who was so compelled by the study that he wrote a letter to the staff saying, ‘Although I am employed in engineering, I have become convinced that the social sciences, especially psychology, are much more important in today’s world’,(Milgram, pp.52, 1974). This shows that the study has had a positive impact on some of the participants. On the other hand, as to whether it has made an impact after all these years, Blass (1999) conducted a study on students in 11 social classes from 1983 to 1990, asking them to predict obedience levels if Milgram’s study was done again during their time. 40% predicted less obedience, 39% said it would remain the same, and 11% said obedience would increase. These results were inconclusive, and they would be very similar today in the 21st century.
In review of the whole book, Milgram effectively communicates his ideas to the reader in such a simple yet academic way. However, in today’s world, inhumane acts are still being performed in the name of obedience, showing that society as a whole hasn’t really listened to the warnings that Milgram’s research has given us. Overall, we understand that situational and dispositional factors are important in obedience, but we need to deal with the ‘systems of dominance’(eg. Military) in society that causes us to be affected by these factors, only then will we be able to move away from the sad reality and manipulation of obedience.
Blass, T. (1999). The Milgram paradigm after 35 years: Some things we now know about obedience to authority. Journal of applied social psychology. 29, (5), 955-978.
Harré, R. (2006). Key thinkers in psychology. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York: Harper & Row Publications Inc.
Zimbardo, P. (2007). The Lucifer effect: How good people turn evil. UK: Rider.