Do People Naturally Obey Authority Figures?
The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures (and related studies) show that, on average and under the right conditions, people will obey authority figures despite moral objections.
More specifically, the Milgram experiments (which included 18 variations of the study) generally showed that people tend to obey orders from others if they recognized their authority as morally right, legally based, or otherwise important (such as “being for the advancement of science”).
However, the study also importantly showed people would not obey authority under all conditions.
For example, if the participant would harm a person in the room with them, they would resist orders to harm them more often than not. Meanwhile, if the person being harmed wasn’t in the room with them, they would obey more often than not.
This means that although we can conclude that people are naturally primed to obey authority, this is only true under certain conditions. Under other conditions, humans actually seem primed to resist authority and rebel based on empathy and their own moral, legal, and other principles (the exact opposite of what a shallow look at Milgram shows).
Thus, Milgram and others don’t teach us that people blindly obey authority, they teach us that under the right conditions they obey authority despite their own moral objections.
With the above said, Milgram, and others like Zimbardo (who conducted the famous Stanford Prison Experiment), none-the-less concluded that while some will question authority, especially under the right conditions, relatively few people seem to have the (cognitive/emotional) resources needed to resist authority under all conditions.
This helps us to understand how propaganda, social conditioning, and the right settings can get a moral person to do immoral acts (for example in the name of science or in the name of the law).
Below we explore the Milgram experiment, the Zimbardo experiment, and what we can learn from them in terms of obeying authority and resisting authority; First a video on social influence and resistance to authority (as our goal is to not just explore Milgram and Zimbardo, but to explore the underlying authority complex and the ways we can resist the call of immoral authority).
Social Influence: Crash Course Psychology #38. This video explains “Social Influence” and the Milgram experiment on resistance to authority.
FACT: The study of obedience, compliance, disobedience, and other authority-based relationships are well-worn fields of behavioral science. To supplement your reading, learn more about obedience, bias, or change, resistance, and adaptation. See also these articles from SimplyPsychology.org: Obedience to Authority, Hofling Hospital Experiment, and Asch Experiment.
MYTH: It is a myth that Milgram and Zimbardo show us that people obey authority – period. They only show that people obey authority under the specific conditions (under other conditions they actually reject authority). So the results aren’t as simple as they appear. See: Alex Haslam’s Contesting the “Nature” Of Conformity: What Milgram and Zimbardo’s Studies Really Show.
TIP: The video below features Alex Haslam debunking the misconceptions of Milgram and Zimbardo, that is important to ponder before jumping into the general Milgram and Zimbardo lore.
The Psychology of Tyranny: Did Milgram Get It Wrong? | Alex Haslam | TEDxUQ.
Why Do People Obey Authority? Why Can’t People Resist Authority Figures?
The Milgram and Zimbardo studies, and subsequent social science shows that people are, on average, hardwired to follow authority and to become authoritative and cruel in positions of power… under the right conditions (such as when it is “for the greater good”).
This is most easily explained by cognitive bias related to group dynamics, simply put, we are hardwired to follow leaders and side with in-groups (and against out-groups), even at the expense of our personal morals.
These findings may seem counter-intuitive. One might assume, like those polled before and after the Milgram experiments, that people will resist authority when it conflicts with their morals. Instead, it seems people will struggle with their actions, but obey authority more often than not under the right conditions.
When polled after the Milgram experiment, participants typically wished they acted differently. If a way could be constructed to re-test subjects, we may find that being primed against the biases related to authority could result in more instances of moral-based rebellion against authority figures.
The problem at the core of these findings: if social influence is so powerful, and we aren’t wired to protect ourselves against an “evil” authority? Is the human race hardwired for disaster? To find out, lets look at the Milgram and Zimbardo studies and see what we can learn about cognitive bias and group dynamics.
Obedience to Authority. This video gives a tame introduction to a deep topic.
Overview of the Studies that Help us Understand the Psychology Behind Why People Obey Authority Figures
There are two major studies that show why people obey authority, the Milgram’s Obedience experiment and Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment. First we look at the Milgram Experiment, and then the more complex Stanford Prison Experiment (which sheds light on additional authority related biases).
Here is an overview of both:
- Milgram Experiment: An authority figure tells a person to shock a person in the other room when that person gets the wrong answer on a test.
- The Stanford Prison Experiment: Participants are assigned the roles of prisoner and guard in a closed setting meant to mirror a prison. The participants role-played in this dynamic for six days.
The Milgram Experiment on Obedience to Authority Figures
In 1961 experimental phycologist Stanley Milgram began a study at Yale to look at obedience to authority figures. Personally, as a Jewish American, Milgram wanted to answer the question, “why did the average German submit to the cruel orders of the NAZI party, seemingly without question?” Or more specifically, “Could it be that Adolf Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?”
An Introduction to Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority – A Macat Psychology Analysis.
The Milgram Experiment overview.
TIP: There are lots of Milgram related movies and books, I suggest the new movie “Experimenter (2015)” or Milgram’s original book you can buy here.
Modfied from source: Wikipedia.org
The Milgram Experiment
To find the answers to the above questions, Milgram set up a simple test. An experimenter (authority figure) orders a teacher (person obeying authority) to give a shock to a learner (victim) when they get a question wrong.
The caveat is that the teacher is the only participant. The experimenter and learner, unbeknownst to the learner, are Milgram’s partners.
The learner is put in a separate room. After explaining the rules and giving the teacher a test shock, the experimenter then orders the teacher to ask questions to the learner. When the learner gets the question wrong, they are told to give shocks of increasing voltage to the learner. There is no actual shock, and the learner’s experience is faked, but the learner does poorly at the test and this results in the teacher having to shock the learner at dangerous voltages reaching up to 450-volts, which is as much as ten times as much as the test shock given to the teacher.
If at any time the subject indicated the desire to stop the experiment, they were given a succession of verbal prods by the experimenter, in this order:
- Please continue.
- The experiment requires that you continue.
- It is absolutely essential that you continue.
- You have no other choice, you must go on.
If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted. Otherwise, it was halted after the subject had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession
The Milgram Experiment 1962 Full Documentary. Will normal people shock their fellow humans because someone with authority says so, despite no solid reasoning?
The Outcome of the Milgram Experiment
Although it was predicted by a Yale survey prior to the first experiment that only about 3% would administer the maximum voltage, in practice 65 percent (26 of 40) of participants from the first study administered the final 450-volt shock, despite many being uncomfortable doing so.
Every single one of the participants stopped the study to question what they were doing, but as noted, only a small fraction stopped torturing the learner despite their own increased stress over what they were being asked to do.
None of the participants ever checked on the learner in the other room to see if they were OK, and no one ever requested that the experiment be stopped.
Generally, all participants obeyed the authority figure without question despite any personal moral objections.
With that said, as noted above, there were 18 variations of the study, and not all variations had such disturbing results. This shows that under the right conditions, people will not obey authority despite moral objections! That point confuses the issue and isn’t as “attractive” as a simple conclusion, but it is of course vital to note!
What Does the Milgram Experiment Conclude?
The study concludes that people will, on average, go far beyond the bounds of their morality without question to obey authority. At least this seems to be true if the person isn’t primed against authority related biases. Relatively few people seem to naturally have the resources needed to resist authority.
According to University of California’s take on Milgram’s book, generally people:
- Obeyed but justified themselves. Some obedient participants gave up responsibility for their actions, blaming the experimenter. If anything had happened to the learner, they reasoned, it would have been the experimenter’s fault. Others had transferred the blame to the learner: “He was so stupid and stubborn he deserved to be shocked.”
- Obeyed but blamed themselves. Others felt badly about what they had done and were quite harsh on themselves. Members of this group would, perhaps, be more likely to challenge authority if confronted with a similar situation in the future.
- Rebelled. Finally, rebellious subjects questioned the authority of the experimenter and argued there was a greater ethical imperative calling for the protection of the learner over the needs of the experimenter. Some of these individuals felt they were accountable to a higher authority.
In Milgram’s words:
“The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.
Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.” – Stanley Milgram.
FACT: In 1975, CBS made a made-for-TV movie based on Milgram and the obedience experiments called The Tenth Level. Interestingly, William Shatner played a Milgram-like scientist. Milgram was a consultant for the film, although he was reportedly never happy with the final product.
William Shatner 1976 The Tenth Level.
The Stanford Prison Experiment and Obedience to Authority
Now that you understand the findings of the Milgram Experiment, let’s look at another famous experiment related to obedience conducted at Stanford University during the 1970s by Phillip Zimbardo. The Stanford Prison Experiment, done in response to the Milgram experiment, studied the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard.
Participants were randomly assigned the status of guard or prisoner. What the study found was that guard became authoritative and abusive, while the prisoners tended to obey the guards. All participants quickly and naturally fell into their role and went far beyond what the study had called for. Guards sadistically tormented and abused prisoners in uniquely creative ways that were not even called for in the experiment. Prisoners generally reacted to the abuse without breaking their role. Things got so dark that the experiment had to be pulled after Zimbardo’s assistant and future wife came to interview the prisoners and then questioned the morality of the study. The study lasted 6 of a planned 14 days.
The Stanford Prison Experiment. The experiment that makes the Milgram experiment look tame.
What Did the Stanford Prison Experiment Find?
One interesting thing that happened, aside from the horrific mirroring of the worst parts of the Milgram experiment, is that a really interesting bias occurred.
Prisoners had a chance to earn the right to be a guard. One prisoner was overly obedient in order to win. He had fully committed to proving he could rise from prisoner to guard. When another prisoner was picked instead of him, something triggered and he rebelled (perhaps rebelling against injustice in one fell swoop when his moral outrage against the unfair choice triggered him to “snap” and do a 180).
Moving forward the once obedient man became the most rebellious of the prisoners.
In other words, there is a breaking point for allegiance to authority that makes people reframe who they consider their in-group and out-group. Hitting that breaking point seemed to result in a total reversal of viewpoints and allegiances.
Thus, while most takeaways of the Prison experiment are horrific (much like the Milgram experiment), this one aspect is fascinating and has many profound implications in regards to change resistance, identification, and dis-identification. See “Fueling Terror: How Extremists Are Made” by Scientific American.
MUSING: In other words it seems morality can be temporarily be suppressed, but it also seems suppressing that morality has a powerful effect once “a line has been crossed” and they realize they were being duped.
Philip Zimbardo: The psychology of evil.
Further Studies, Could Milgram and Zimbardo Have Been Wrong?
All repeated studies (by Milgram, Zimbardo, and others since the 70’s) have shown roughly the same thing, but specific results tended to change on what variation of the study was being done.
In all cases the results show that people obey authority under the right conditions, despite moral objections… but resist authority just as adamantly under others (and the same person can take both positions, like the obedient prisoner in the Zimbardo experiment who rebelled).
Thus, the moral is, we should really be looking into what awakens that spirit of rebellion in those who are currently under the spell of an immoral authority and we should be studying what the specific conditions are which cause people to fall under that spell… “if only in the name of science, as it is for the greater good.”
- You can learn more about Milgram’s obedience experiment at WikiPedia where it is covered in detail.
- You can learn more about the Stanford Prison experiment at WikiPedia where it is covered in detail.
- I also personally suggest watching movie Experimenter, which is about the life of Milgram. There are a few Prison Experiment movies too, although they are so dark I don’t know that I would suggest seeing them.
- Milgram’s other significant study is the small world experiment. You can learn more about small world theory here. It’s interesting to note that the average person would shock someone with less than 6 degrees of separation to them.
Experimenter Official Trailer 1 (2015).
Why is authority always viewed negatively? Almost every idea of truth or moral right relies in one way or another on authority for most people. When an authority is disobeyed, it’s usually because its legitimacy is called into question by reference to some other authority. The problem with nazis wasn’t that they used their authority, it was that they managed to control the formation of common sense and consensus opinion in Germany through censorship, propaganda and violence against their opponents.
Authority and obedience to it in itself is a good thing.