7 Obedience to Authority

Based on Research by Stanley Milgram, Ph.D. Psychology Science Minute written by Sarah Arnett, Psy.D.

Psychology Science Minute brought to you by the School of Psychology at Florida Institute of Technology, I’m Dr. Sarah Arnett

Just after the start of the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, Dr. Stanley Millgram began his quest to answer the question: What is it that leads some to violate the most basic of human morals?

Milgram studied the impact authority has on obedience. He recruited participants to serve as “teachers” who were led to believe they were administering increasingly lethal shocks of electricity to “learners” who failed to answer questions correctly. In reality, the learners were acting and the shocks were not real. Shock levels were labeled as “light shock” all the way up to “danger: severe shock, and XXX.” In response to the shock, the pretending learner would increase in verbal responses from slight complaints to more intense cries for help complaining of heart trouble. When a teacher refused to continue, they were pressured by an experimenter to go on.

Milgram assumed that the majority of teachers would refuse to punish “learners” with seemingly lethal levels of electric shocks. To Milgram’s surprise the majority (65%) of “teachers” administered shocks to the maximum voltage level! Why?  Milgram concluded that we justify ourselves because we think “the authority wouldn’t make me do wrong things,” we fear consequences of going against others, and we feel pressure to appear cooperative even when acting opposite to our own values. Unfortunately, those in authority do not always do the right thing. So remember, think before you follow!

That’s your Florida Tech Psychology Science Minute. I’m Dr. Sarah Arnett.

General References:

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper & Row.

Travis, Carol & Aronson, Elliot. (2007). Mistakes were made (but not by me).  Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc.

Peer-reviewed Reference:

Milgram, Stanley. (1963). Behavioral Study of obedience.  The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. Vol 67(4), Oct, pp. 371-378.

Show More
Back to top button