02 July 2015

Milgram’s Authority Study

The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures was a series of social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, which measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. Milgram first described his research in 1963.

The Perils of Obedience by Stanley Milgram
Harpers 1974
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.

The Lucifer Effect by Zimbardo, 2007, Excerpts

Methods from Milgram’s paradigm:

- Prearranging some form of contractual obligation, verbal or written, to control the individual’s behavior in pseudo-legal fashion.

- Giving participants meaningful roles to play that carry with them previously learned values and automatically activate response scripts [teacher, guard]

- Presenting basic rules to be followed that seem to make sense before their actual use but then can be used arbitrarily and impersonally to justify mindless compliance.

- Altering the semantics of the act, the actor, and the action. Replacing unpleasant reality with desirable rhetoric, gilding the frame so that the real picture is disguised.

- Creating opportunities for the diffusion of responsibility or abdication of responsibility for negative outcomes; others will be held responsible.

- Starting the path toward the ultimate evil act with a small, seemingly insignificant first step, the easy “foot in the door” that swings open subsequent greater compliance pressures, and leads down a slippery slope.

- Increasing steps on the pathway that are gradual.

- Gradually changing the nature of the authority figure from initially “just” reasonable to “unjust” and demanding, even irrational.

- Making the “exit costs” high and making the process of exiting difficult by allowing verbal dissent, which makes people feel better about themselves while insisting on behavioral compliance.

- Offering an ideology, or a big lie, to justify the use of any means to achieve the seemingly desirable, essential goal. Most nations rely on ideology, typically, “threats to national security,” before going to war or to suppress dissident political opposition. - When citizens fear that their national security is being threatened, they become willing to surrender their basic freedoms to a government that offers them that exchange. Erich Fromm’s classic analysis in Escape from Freedom made us aware of this trade-off, which Hitler and other dictators have long used to gain and maintain power: namely, the claim that they will be able to provide security in exchange for citizens giving up their freedoms, which will give them the ability to control things better.

- There are no male-female gender differences in obedience.


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