Obedience to Authority, by Stanley Milgram

Your relationship with government is simple: government knows everything about you, and you know nothing about government. In practice this means government can do whatever it wants to you before you know it's going to happen. Government policy makers think this is a good way of ensuring citizen compliance. Thus, all of these investigations are retrospective -- they look back at the squirrely shit that government has pulled, and occasionally wring their hands about trying to avoid it happening in the future. Not inspiring reading, but necessary if you are to face the cold reality that Big Brother is more than watching.

Obedience to Authority, by Stanley Milgram

Postby admin » Thu Oct 17, 2013 9:39 pm

by Stanley Milgram, © 1974 by Stanley Milgram
The Mike Wallace interview in Chapter 15 is © 1969 by the New York Times Company
Foreword © 2009 by Philip Zimbardo
Cover Design by Milan Bozic
Author Photograph © Eric Kroll




Table of Contents

Opening Pages
Foreword to the Harper Perennial Modern Thought Edition, by Philip Zimbardo
1. The Dilemma of Obedience
2. Method of Inquiry
o Obtaining Participants for the Study
o Locale and Personnel
o Procedure
o Learning Task
o Shock Generator
o Sample Shock
o Shock Instructions
o Experimenter Feedback
o Special Prods
o Feedback from the Victim
o Measures
o Interview and Debriefing
o Recapitulation
3. Expected Behavior
4. Closeness of the Victim
o Bringing the Victim Closer
 1. Empathic cues
 2. Denial and Narrowing of the Cognitive Field
 3. Reciprocal Fields.
 4. Experienced unity of act
 5. Incipient group-formation
 6. Acquired behavior dispositions
o Unexpected Behavior
5. Individuals Confront Authority
o Bruno Batta, Welder (in Experiment 4)
o Professor of Old Testament (in Experiment 3)
o Jack Washington, Drill Press Operator (in Experiment 2)
o Jan Rensaleer, Industrial Engineer (in Experiment 2)
o Morris Braverman, Social Worker (in Experiment 2)
6. Further Variations and Controls
o Experiment 5: A New Base-Line Condition
o Experiment 6: Change of Personnel
o Experiment 7: Closeness of Authority
o Experiment 8: Women as Subjects
o Experiment 9: The Victim's Limited Contract
o Experiment 10: Institutional Context
o Experiment 11: Subject Free to Choose Shock Level
7. Individuals Confront Authority II
o Fred Prozi, Unemployed (in Experiment 5)
o Karen Dontz, Nurse (in Experiment 8)
o Elinor Rosenblum, Housewife (in Experiment 8)
o Gretchen Brandt, Medical Technician (in Experiment 8)
o Pasqual Gino, Water inspector (in Experiment 7)
8. Role Permutations
o Experiment 12: Learner Demands to Be Shocked
o Experiment 13: An Ordinary Man Gives Orders
o Experiment 13a: The Subject as Bystander
o Experiment 14: Authority as Victim: An Ordinary Man Commanding
o Double Authority
o Experiment 15: Two Authorities: Contradictory Commands
o Experiment 16: Two Authorities: One as Victim
o Comparison with Experiment 14
o Comparison with Experiment 15
9. Group Effects
o Distinction Between Conformity and Obedience
o Experiment 17: Two Peers Rebel
 Technique
 Behavior of confederates
 Reactions to the defiant peers
o Experiment 18: A Peer Administers Shocks
10. Why Obedience? -- An Analysis
o The Survival Value of Hierarchy
o A Cybernetic Viewpoint
o Hierarchical Structuring
o Variability
o The Agentic Shift
11. The Process of Obedience: Applying the Analysis to the Experiment
o Antecedent Conditions of Obedience
 Family
 Institutional Setting
 Rewards
 Immediate Antecedent Conditions
o The Agentic State
 Tuning
 Redefining the Meaning of the Situation
 Loss of Responsibility
 Self-image
 Commands and the Agentic State
o Binding Factors
 Sequential Nature of the Action
 Situational Obligations
o Anxiety
12. Strain and Disobedience
o Strain
 Sources of Strain
 Strain and Buffers
o Resolution of Strain
 Physical Conversion
 Dissent
 Disobedience
13. An Alternative Theory: Is Aggression the Key?
14. Problems of Method
15. Epilogue
o Obedience and the War in Vietnam
Appendix I: Problems of Ethics in Research
Appendix II: Patterns Among Individuals


1. Remote-Victim
2. Voice-Feedback
3. Proximity
4. Touch-Proximity
5. A New Base-Line Condition
6. Change of Personnel
7. Closeness of Authority
8. Women as Subjects
9. The Victim's Limited Contract
10. Institutional Context
11. Subject Free to Choose Shock Level
12. Learner Demands to Be Shocked
13. An Ordinary Man Gives Orders
13a. The Subject As Bystander
14. Authority as Victim: An Ordinary Man Commanding
15. Two Authorities: Contradictory Commands
16. Two Authorities: One as Victim
17. Two Peers Rebel
18. A Peer Administers Shocks

Many of the people studied in the experiment were in some sense against what they did to the learner, and many protested even while they obeyed. But between thoughts, words, and the critical step of disobeying a malevolent authority lies another ingredient, the capacity for transforming beliefs and values into action. Some subjects were totally convinced of the wrongness of what they were doing but could not bring themselves to make an open break with authority. Some derived satisfaction from their thoughts and felt that -- within themselves, at least -- they had been on the side of the angels. What they failed to realize is that subjective feelings are largely irrelevant to the moral issue at hand so long as they are not transformed into action. Political control is effected through action. The attitudes of the guards at a concentration camp are of no consequence when in fact they are allowing the slaughter of innocent men to take place before them. Similarly, so-called “intellectual resistance” in occupied Europe -- in which persons by a twist of thought felt that they had defied the invader -- was merely indulgence in a consoling psychological mechanism. Tyrannies are perpetuated by diffident men who do not possess the courage to act out their beliefs. Time and again in the experiment people disvalued what they were doing but could not muster the inner resources to translate their values into action.

A variation of the basic experiment depicts a dilemma more common than the one outlined above: the subject was not ordered to push the trigger that shocked the victim, but merely to perform a subsidiary act (administering the word-pair test) before another subject actually delivered the shock. In this situation, 37 of 40 adults from the New Haven area continued to the highest shock level on the generator. Predictably, subjects excused their behavior by saying that the responsibility belonged to the man who actually pulled the switch. This may illustrate a dangerously typical situation in complex society: it is psychologically easy to ignore responsibility when one is only an intermediate link in a chain of evil action but is far from the final consequences of the action. Even Eichmann was sickened when he toured the concentration camps, but to participate in mass murder he had only to sit at a desk and shuffle papers. At the same time the man in the camp who actually dropped Cyclon-B into the gas chambers was able to justify his behavior on the grounds that he was only following orders from above. Thus there is a fragmentation of the total human act; no one man decides to carry out the evil act and is confronted with its consequences. The person who assumes full responsibility for the act has evaporated. Perhaps this is the most common characteristic of socially organized evil in modern society.

The problem of obedience, therefore, is not wholly psychological. The form and shape of society and the way it is developing have much to do with it. There was a time, perhaps, when men were able to give a fully human response to any situation because they were fully absorbed in it as human beings. But as soon as there was a division of labor among men, things changed. Beyond a certain point, the breaking up of society into people carrying out narrow and very special jobs takes away from the human quality of work and life. A person does not get to see the whole situation but only a small part of it, and is thus unable to act without some kind of over-all direction. He yields to authority but in doing so is alienated from his own actions.


Any feature that reduces the psychological closeness between the subject’s action and the consequence of that action also reduces the level of strain. Any means of breaking down or diluting the experienced meaning of the act -- I am hurting a man -- makes the action easier to perform. Thus, creating physical distance between the subject and victim, and dampening the painful cries of the victim, reduces strain. The shock generator itself constitutes an important buffer, a precise and impressive instrument that creates a sharp discontinuity between the ease required to depress one of its thirty switches and the strength of impact on the victim. The depression of a switch is precise, scientific, and impersonal. If our subjects had to strike the victim with their fists, they would be more reluctant to do so. Nothing is more dangerous to human survival than malevolent authority combined with the dehumanizing effects of buffers. There is a contrast here between what is logical and what is psychological. On a purely quantitative basis, it is more wicked to kill ten thousand by hurling an artillery shell into a town, than to kill one man by pommeling him with a stone, yet the latter is by far the more psychologically difficult act. Distance, time, and physical barriers neutralize the moral sense. There are virtually no psychological inhibitions against coastal bombardment or dropping napalm from a plane twenty thousand feet overhead. As for the man who sits in front of a button that will release Armageddon, depressing it has about the same emotional force as calling for an elevator. While technology has augmented man’s will by allowing him the means for the remote destruction of others, evolution has not had a chance to build inhibitors against these remote forms of aggression to parallel those powerful inhibitors that are so plentiful and abundant in face-to-face confrontations.

-- "Obedience to Authority," by Stanley Milgram
Site Admin
Posts: 17090
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: Obedience to Authority, by Stanley Milgram

Postby admin » Thu Oct 17, 2013 9:40 pm

Opening Pages

With a New Introduction by Philip Zimbardo, Director of the Stanford Prison Experiment

"The classic account of the human tendency to follow orders, no matter who they hurt or what their consequences." -- Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World

About the Author: Stanley Milgram (1933-1984) received his PhD. in psychology from Harvard University. He taught at Yale, where he conducted his famous Milgram Experiment on obedience to authority, and Harvard, where he performed his "Small World Experiment," which yielded the concept of "six degrees of separation." Milgram later served as Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He received several honors and awards, including a Ford Foundation Fellowship, an American Association for the Advancement of Science Socio-Psychological Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Obedience to Authority is his best-known book.

"Milgram's experiments on obedience have made us more aware of the dangers of uncritically accepting authority." -- Peter Singer, New York Times Book Review

"Riveting and significant." -- Rolling Stone

"A major contribution to our knowledge of man's behavior." -- Jerome S. Bruner, New York University

"[Milgram's] investigations accomplish what we should expect of responsible social science: to inform the intellect without trivializing the phenomenon." -- Science

In the 1960s Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram famously carried out a series of experiments that forever changed our perceptions of morality and free will. The subjects -- or "teachers" -- were instructed to administer electroshocks to a human "learner," which the shocks becoming progressively more powerful and painful. Controversial but now strongly vindicated by the scientific community, these experiments attempted to determine to what extent people will obey orders from authority figures regardless of consequences. Obedience to Authority is Milgram's fascinating and troubling chronicle of his classic study and a vivid and persuasive explanation of his conclusions.


STANLEY MILGRAM taught social psychology at Yale University and Harvard University before becoming a Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His honors and awards include a Ford Foundation fellowship, an American Association for the Advancement of Science Socio-Psychological prize, and a Guggenheim fellowship. He died in 1984 at the age of fifty-one.

PHILIP ZIMBARDO is a professor emeritus at Stanford University. The author of The Lucifer Effect, he is known for the famous Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971.
Site Admin
Posts: 17090
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: Obedience to Authority, by Stanley Milgram

Postby admin » Thu Oct 17, 2013 9:41 pm

Foreword to the Harper Perennial Modern Thought Edition
by Philip Zimbardo

What is common about two of the most profound narratives in Western culture -- Lucifer's descent into Hell and Adam and Eve's loss of Paradise -- is the lesson of the dreadful consequences of one's failure to obey authority. Lucifer -- God's favorite angel, "the Light," who is also referred to as "the Morning Star" in scripture -- challenges God's demand that all angels honor Adam, his newly designed perfect human creature. Lucifer and a band of like-minded angels argue that they existed prior to Adam's creation and, further, that they are angels while he is a mere mortal. Instantly, God finds them guilty of the twin sins of Pride and Disobedience to his authority. Without any attempt at conflict resolution, God summons the Archangel Michael to organize a band of obedient angels to forcefully challenge these renegades. Of course, Michael wins (with God in his corner), and Lucifer is transformed into Satan, the Devil, and cast down to God's newly designed Hell, along with the rest of the fallen angels. However, Satan returns to prove that it was appropriate not to honor Adam because he is not only imperfect but, worse, easily corruptible by a serpent.

Recall that God gave Adam and Eve free reign in the perfect paradise of Eden, with one little exception and admonition: Do not eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. When Satan, in serpent's skin, persuades Eve to take one bite, she in turn urges her mate to follow suit. With one bite of the forbidden fruit, they are instantly condemned, banished from Eden forever. They must toil on earth, experience much suffering, and witness the conflicts between their children, Cain and Abel. They lose their innocence as well. To make matters worse, this tale of the horrific consequences of disobedience to authority results in their sin becoming transgenerational and eternal. Every Catholic child in the world is born bearing the curse of original sin for the misdeeds of Adam and Eve.

Obviously, these narratives are myths created by men, by authorities, most likely by priests, rabbis, and ministers, because they exist in cosmic history before humans could have observed and recorded them. But they are designed, as all parables are, to send a powerful message to all those who hear and read them: Obey authority at all costs! The consequences of disobedience to authority are formidable and damnable. Once created, these myths and parables get passed along by subsequent authorities, now parents, teachers, bosses, politicians, and dictators, among others, who want their word to be followed without dissent or challenge.

Thus, as school children, in virtually all traditional educational settings, the rules of law that we learned and lived were: Stay in your seat until permission is granted by the teacher to stand and leave it; do not talk unless given permission by the teacher to do so after having raised your hand to seek that recognition, and do not challenge the word of the teacher or complain. So deeply ingrained are these rules of conduct that even as we age and mature they generalize across many settings as permanent placards of our respect for authority. However, not all authority is just, fair, moral, and legal, and we are never given any explicit training in recognizing that critical difference between just and unjust authority. The just one deserves respect and some obedience, maybe even without much questioning, while the unjust variety should arouse suspicion and distress, ultimately triggering acts of challenge, defiance, and revolution.

Stanley Milgram's series of experiments on obedience to authority, so clearly and fully presented in this new edition of his work, represents some of the most significant investigations in all the social sciences of the central dynamics of this aspect of human nature. His work was the first to bring into the controlled setting of an experimental laboratory an investigation into the nature of obedience to authority. In a sense, he is following in the tradition of Kurt Lewin, although he is not generally considered to be in the Lewinian tradition, as Leon Festinger, Stanley Schachter, Lee Ross, and Richard Nisbett are, for example. Yet to study phenomena that have significance in their real world existence within the constraints and controls of a laboratory setting is at the essence of one of Lewin's dictums of the way social psychology should proceed.

This exploration of obedience was initially motivated by Milgram's reflections on the ease with which the German people obeyed Nazi authority in discriminating against Jews and, eventually, in allowing Hitler's Final Solution to be enacted during the Holocaust. As a young Jewish man, he wondered if the Holocaust could be recreated in his own country, despite the many differences in those cultures and historical epochs. Though many said it could never happen in the United States, Milgram doubted whether we should be so sure. Believing in the goodness of people does not diminish the fact that ordinary, even once good people, just following orders, have committed much evil in the world. British author C. P. Snow reminds us that more crimes against humanity have been committed in the name of obedience than disobedience. Milgram's mentor, Solomon Asch, had earlier demonstrated the power of groups to sway the judgments of intelligent college students regarding false conceptions of visual reality. But that influence was indirect, creating a discrepancy between the group norm and the individual's perception of the same stimulus event. Conformity to the group's false norm was the resolution to that discrepancy, with participants behaving in ways that would lead to group acceptance rather than rejection. Milgram wanted to discover the direct and immediate impact of one powerful individual's commands to another person to behave in ways that challenged his or her conscience and morality. He designed his research paradigm to pit our general beliefs about what people would do in such a situation against what they actually did when immersed in that crucible of human nature.

Unfortunately, many psychologists, students, and lay people who believe that they know the "Milgram Shock" study, know only one version of it, most likely from seeing his influential movie Obedience or reading a textbook summary. He has been challenged for using only male participants, which was true initially, but later he replicated his findings with females. He has been challenged for relying only on Yale students, because the first studies were conducted at Yale University. However, the Milgram obedience research covers nineteen separate experimental versions, involving about a thousand participants, ages twenty to fifty, of whom none are college or high school students! His research has been heavily criticized for being unethical by creating a situation that generated much distress for the person playing the role of the teacher believing his shocks were causing suffering to the person in the role of the learner. I believe that it was seeing his movie, in which he includes scenes of distress and indecision among his participants, that fostered the initial impetus for concern about the ethics of his research. Reading his research articles or his book does not convey as vividly the stress of participants who continued to obey authority despite the apparent suffering they were causing their innocent victims. I raise this issue not to argue for or against the ethicality of this research, but rather to raise the issue that it is still critical to read the original presentations of his ideas, methods, results, and discussions to understand fully what he did. That is another virtue of this collection of Milgram's obedience research.


A few words about how I view this body of research. First, it is the most representative and generalizable research in social psychology or social sciences due to his large sample size, systematic variations, use of a diverse body of ordinary people from two small towns -- New Haven and Bridgeport, Connecticut -- and detailed presentation of methodological features. Further, its replications across many cultures and time periods reveal its robust effectiveness.

As the most significant demonstration of the power of social situations to influence human behavior, Milgram's experiments are at the core of the situationist view of behavioral determinants. It is a study of the failure of most people to resist unjust authority when commands no longer make sense given the seemingly reasonable stated intentions of the just authority who began the study. It makes sense that psychological researchers would care about the judicious use of punishment as a means to improve learning and memory. However, it makes no sense to continue to administer increasingly painful shocks to one's learner after he insists on quitting, complains of a heart condition, and then, after 330 volts, stops responding at all. How could you be helping improve his memory when he was unconscious or worse? The most minimal exercise of critical thinking at that stage in the series should have resulted in virtually everyone refusing to go on, disobeying this now heartlessly unjust authority. To the contrary, most who had gone that far were trapped in what Milgram calls the "agentic state."

These ordinary adults were reduced to mindless obedient school children who do not know how to exit from a most unpleasant situation until teacher gives them permission to do so. At that critical juncture when their shocks might have caused a serious medical problem, did any of them simply get out of their chairs and go into the next room to check on the victim? Before answering, consider the next question, which I posed directly to Stanley Milgram: "After the final 450 volt switch was thrown, how many of the participant-teachers spontaneously got out of their seats and went to inquire about the condition of their learner?" Milgram's answer: "Not one, not ever!" So there is a continuity into adulthood of that grade-school mentality of obedience to primitive rules of doing nothing until the teacher-authority allows it, permits it, and orders it.

My research on situational power (the Stanford Prison Experiment) complements that of Milgram in several ways. They are the bookends of situationism: his representing direct power of authority on individuals, mine representing institutional indirect power over all those within its power domain. Mine has come to represent the power of systems to create and maintain situations of dominance and control over individual behavior. In addition, both are dramatic demonstrations of powerful external influences on human action, with lessons that are readily apparent to the reader, and to the viewer. (I too have a movie, Quiet Rage, that has proven to be quite impactful on audiences around the world.) Both raise basic issues about the ethics of any research that engenders some degree of suffering and guilt from participants. I discuss at considerable length my views on the ethics of such research in my recent book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding Why Good People Turn Evil (Random House, 2008). When I first presented a brief overview of the Stanford Prison Experiment at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in 1971, Milgram greeted me joyfully, saying that now I would take some of the ethics heat off his shoulders by doing an even more unethical study!

Finally, it may be of some passing interest to readers of this book to note that Stanley Milgram and I were classmates at James Monroe High School in the Bronx (class of 1950), where we enjoyed a good time together. He was the smartest kid in the class, getting all the academic awards at graduation, while I was the most popular kid, being elected by senior class vote to be "Jimmie Monroe." Little Stanley later told me, when we met ten years later at Yale University, that he wished he had been the most popular, and I confided that I wished I had been the smartest. We each did what we could with the cards dealt us. I had many interesting discussions with Stanley over the decades that followed, and we almost wrote a social psychology text together. Sadly, in 1984 he died prematurely from a heart attack at the age of fifty-one. He left us with a vital legacy of brilliant ideas that began with those centered on obedience to authority and extended into many new realms -- urban psychology, the small-world problem, six degrees of separation, and the Cyrano effect, among others -- always using a creative mix of methods. Stanley Milgram was a keen observer of the human landscape, with an eye ever open for a new paradigm that might expose old truths or raise new awareness of hidden operating principles. I often wonder what new phenomena Stanley would be studying now were he still alive.

Philip Zimbardo
January 2009
Site Admin
Posts: 17090
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: Obedience to Authority, by Stanley Milgram

Postby admin » Thu Oct 17, 2013 9:41 pm


Obedience, because of its very ubiquitousness, is easily overlooked as a subject of inquiry in social psychology. But without an appreciation of its role in shaping human action, a wide range of significant behavior cannot be understood. For an act carried out under command is, psychologically, of a profoundly different character than action that is spontaneous.

The person who, with inner conviction, loathes stealing, killing, and assault may find himself performing these acts with relative ease when commanded by authority. Behavior that is unthinkable in an individual who is acting on his own may be executed without hesitation when carried out under orders.

The dilemma inherent in obedience to authority is ancient, as old as the story of Abraham. What the present study does is to give the dilemma contemporary form by treating it as subject matter for experimental inquiry, and with the aim of understanding rather than judging it from a moral standpoint.

The important task, from the standpoint of a psychological study of obedience, is to be able to take conceptions of authority and translate them into personal experience. It is one thing to talk in abstract terms about the respective rights of the individual and of authority; it is quite another to examine a moral choice in a real situation. We all know about the philosophic problems of freedom and authority. But in every case where the problem is not merely academic there is a real person who must obey or disobey authority, a concrete instance when the act of defiance occurs. All musing prior to this moment is mere speculation, and all acts of disobedience are characterized by such a moment of decisive action. The experiments are built around this notion.

When we move to the laboratory, the problem narrows: if an experimenter tells a subject to act with increasing severity against another person, under what conditions will the subject comply, and under what conditions will he disobey? The laboratory problem is vivid, intense, and real. It is not something apart from life, but carries to an extreme and very logical conclusion certain trends inherent in the ordinary functioning of the social world.

The question arises as to whether there is any connection between what we have studied in the laboratory and the forms of obedience we so deplored in the Nazi epoch. The differences in the two situations are, of course, enormous, yet the difference in scale, numbers, and political context may turn out to be relatively unimportant as long as certain essential features are retained. The essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred in the person, all of the essential features of obedience follow. The adjustment of thought, the freedom to engage in cruel behavior, and the types of justification experienced by the person are essentially similar whether they occur in a psychological laboratory or the control room of an ICBM site. The question of generality, therefore, is not resolved by enumerating all the manifest differences between the psychological laboratory and other situations but by carefully constructing a situation that captures the essence of obedience -- that is, a situation in which a person gives himself over to authority and no longer views himself as the efficient cause of his own actions.

To the degree that an attitude of willingness and the absence of compulsion is present, obedience is colored by a cooperative mood; to the degree that the threat of force or punishment against the person is intimated, obedience is compelled by fear. Our studies deal only with obedience that is willingly assumed in the absence of threat of any sort, obedience that is maintained through the simple assertion by authority that it has the right to exercise control over the person. Whatever force authority exercises in this study is based on powers that the subject in some manner ascribes to it and not on any objective threat or availability of physical means of controlling the subject.

The major problem for the subject is to recapture control of his own regnant processes once he has committed them to the purposes of the experimenter. The difficulty this entails represents the poignant and in some degree tragic element in the situation under study, for nothing is bleaker than the sight of a person striving yet not fully able to control his own behavior in a situation of consequence to him.
Site Admin
Posts: 17090
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: Obedience to Authority, by Stanley Milgram

Postby admin » Thu Oct 17, 2013 9:41 pm


The experiments described here emerge from a seventy-five-year tradition of experimentation in social psychology. Boris Sidis carried out an experiment on obedience in 1898, and the studies of Asch, Lewin, Sherif, Frank, Block, Cartwright, French, Raven, Luchins, Lippitt, and White, among many others, have informed my work even when they are not specifically discussed. The contributions of Adorno and associates and of Arendt, Fromm, and Weber are part of the zeitgeist in which social scientists grow up. Three works have especially interested me. The first is the insightful Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State, by Alex Comfort; a lucid conceptual analysis of authority was written by Robert Bierstedt; and Arthur Koestler’s The Ghost in the Machine developed the idea of social hierarchy in greater depth than the present book.

The experimental research was carried out and completed while I was in the Department of Psychology at Yale University, 1962-63. And I am grateful to the department for helping me with research facilities and good advice. In particular I would like to thank Professor Irving L. Janis.

The late James McDonough of West Haven, Connecticut, played the part of the learner, and the study benefited from his unerring natural talents. John Williams of Southbury, Connecticut, served as experimenter and performed an exacting role with precision. My thanks also to Alan Elms, Jon Wayland, Taketo Muata, Emil Elges, James Miller, and J. Michael Boss for work done in connection with the research.

I owe a profound debt to the many people in New Haven and Bridgeport who served as subjects.

Thinking and writing about the experiments went on long after they had been conducted, and many individuals provided needed stimulation and support. Among them were Drs. Andre Modigliani, Aaron Hershkowitz, Rhea Mendoza Diamond, and the late Gordon W. Allport. Also, Drs. Roger Brown, Harry Kaufmann, Howard Leventhal, Nijole Kudirka, David Rosenhan, Leon Mann, Paul Hollander, Jerome Bruner, and Mr. Maury Silver. Eloise Segal helped me get several chapters under way, and Virginia Hilu, my editor at Harper & Row, displayed remarkable faith in the book and in the end lent me her office and rescued the book from a reluctant author.

At the City University of New York, thanks are due to Mary Englander and Eileen Lydall, who served as secretaries, and to Wendy Sternberg and Katheryn Krogh, research assistants.

Judith Waters, a graduate student and skilled artist, executed the line drawings in Chapters 8 and 9.

I wish to thank the Institute of Jewish Affairs, London, for permission to quote at length from my article "Obedience to Criminal Orders: The Compulsion to Do Evil," which first appeared in its magazine, Patterns of Prejudice.

Thanks also to the American Psychological Association for permission to quote at length several of my articles which first appeared in its publications, namely, "Behavioral Study of Obedience," "Issues in the Study of Obedience: A Reply to Baumrind," "Group Pressure and Action Against a Person," and "Liberating Effects of Group Pressure."

The research was supported by two grants from the National Science Foundation. Exploratory studies carried out in 1960 were aided by a small grant from the Higgins Fund of Yale University. A Guggenheim Fellowship in 1972-73 gave me a year in Paris, away from academic duties, that allowed me to complete the book.

My wife, Sasha, has been with these experiments from the start. Her abiding insight and understanding counted a great deal. In the final months it came down to just the two of us, working in our apartment on the Rue de Remusat -- jointly dedicated to a task that is now, with Sasha’s sympathetic help, complete.

Stanley Milgram
April 2, 1973
Site Admin
Posts: 17090
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: Obedience to Authority, by Stanley Milgram

Postby admin » Thu Oct 17, 2013 9:42 pm

1. The Dilemma of Obedience

Obedience is as basic an element in the structure of social life as one can point to. Some system of authority is a requirement of all communal living, and it is only the man dwelling in isolation who is not forced to respond, through defiance or submission, to the commands of others. Obedience, as a determinant of behavior, is of particular relevance to our time. It has been reliably established that from 1933 to 1945 millions of innocent people were systematically slaughtered on command. Gas chambers were built, death camps were guarded, daily quotas of corpses were produced with the same efficiency as the manufacture of appliances. These inhumane policies may have originated in the mind of a single person, but they could only have been carried out on a massive scale if a very large number of people obeyed orders.

Obedience is the psychological mechanism that links individual action to political purpose. It is the dispositional cement that binds men to systems of authority. Facts of recent history and observation in daily life suggest that for many people obedience may be a deeply ingrained behavior tendency, indeed, a prepotent impulse overriding training in ethics, sympathy, and moral conduct. C. P. Snow (1961) points to its importance when he writes:

When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion. If you doubt that, read William Shirer's ‘Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.’ The German Officer Corps were brought up in the most rigorous code of obedience in the name of obedience they were party to, and assisted in, the most wicked large scale actions in the history of the world. (p. 24)

The Nazi extermination of European Jews is the most extreme instance of abhorrent immoral acts carried out by thousands of people in the name of obedience. Yet in lesser degree this type of thing is constantly recurring: ordinary citizens are ordered to destroy other people, and they do so because they consider it their duty to obey orders. Thus, obedience to authority, long praised as a virtue, takes on a new aspect when it serves a malevolent cause; far from appearing as a virtue, it is transformed into a heinous sin. Or is it?

The moral question of whether one should obey when commands conflict with conscience was argued by Plato, dramatized in Antigone, and treated to philosophic analysis in every historical epoch. Conservative philosophers argue that the very fabric of society is threatened by disobedience, and even when the act prescribed by an authority is an evil one, it is better to carry out the act than to wrench at the structure of authority. Hobbes stated further that an act so executed is in no sense the responsibility of the person who carries it out but only of the authority that orders it. But humanists argue for the primacy of individual conscience in such matters, insisting that the moral judgments of the individual must override authority when the two are in conflict.

The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import, but an empirically grounded scientist eventually comes to the point where he wishes to move from abstract discourse to the careful observation of concrete instances. In order to take a close look at the act of obeying, I set up a simple experiment at Yale University. Eventually, the experiment was to involve more than a thousand participants and would be repeated at several universities, but at the beginning, the conception was simple. A person comes to a psychological laboratory and is told to carry out a series of acts that come increasingly into conflict with conscience. The main question is how far the participant will comply with the experimenter’s instructions before refusing to carry out the actions required of him.

But the reader needs to know a little more detail about the experiment. Two people come to a psychology laboratory to take part in a study of memory and learning. One of them is designated as a “teacher” and the other a “learner.” The experimenter explains that the study is concerned with the effects of punishment on learning. The learner is conducted into a room, seated in a chair, his arms strapped to prevent excessive movement, and an electrode attached to his wrist. He is told that he is to learn a list of word pairs; whenever he makes an error, he will receive electric shocks of increasing intensity.

The real focus of the experiment is the teacher. After watching the learner being strapped into place, he is taken into the main experimental room and seated before an impressive shock generator. Its main feature is a horizontal line of thirty switches, ranging from 15 volts to 450 volts, in 15-volt increments. There are also verbal designations which range from SLIGHT SHOCK to DANGER—SEVERE SHOCK. The teacher is told that he is to administer the learning test to the man in the other room. When the learner responds correctly, the teacher moves on to the next item; when the other man gives an incorrect answer, the teacher is to give him an electric shock. He is to start at the lowest shock level (15 volts) and to increase the level each time the man makes an error, going through 30 volts, 45 volts, and so on.

The “teacher” is a genuinely naive subject who has come to the laboratory to participate in an experiment. The learner, or victim, is an actor who actually receives no shock at all. The point of the experiment is to see how far a person will proceed in a concrete and measurable situation in which he is ordered to inflict increasing pain on a protesting victim. At what point will the subject refuse to obey the experimenter?

Conflict arises when the man receiving the shock begins to indicate that he is experiencing discomfort. At 75 volts, the “learner” grunts. At 120 volts he complains verbally; at 150 he demands to be released from the experiment. His protests continue as the shocks escalate, growing increasingly vehement and emotional. At 285 volts his response can only be described as an agonized scream.

Observers of the experiment agree that its gripping quality is somewhat obscured in print. For the subject, the situation is not a game; conflict is intense and obvious. On one hand, the manifest suffering of the learner presses him to quit. On the other, the experimenter, a legitimate authority to whom the subject feels some commitment, enjoins him to continue. Each time the subject hesitates to administer shock, the experimenter orders him to continue. To extricate himself from the situation, the subject must make a clear break with authority. The aim of this investigation was to find when and how people would defy authority in the face of a clear moral imperative.

There are, of course, enormous differences between carrying out the orders of a commanding officer during times of war and carrying out the orders of an experimenter. Yet the essence of certain relationships remain, for one may ask in a general way: How does a man behave when he is told by a legitimate authority to act against a third individual? If anything, we may expect the experimenter’s power to be considerably less than that of the general, since he has no power to enforce his imperatives, and participation in a psychological experiment scarcely evokes the sense of urgency and dedication engendered by participation in war. Despite these limitations, I thought it worthwhile to start careful observation of obedience even in this modest situation, in the hope that it would stimulate insights and yield general propositions applicable to a variety of circumstances.

A reader’s initial reaction to the experiment may be to wonder why anyone in his right mind would administer even the first shocks. Would he not simply refuse and walk out of the laboratory? But the fact is that no one ever does. Since the subject has come to the laboratory to aid the experimenter, he is quite willing to start off with the procedure. There is nothing very extraordinary in this, particularly since the person who is to receive the shocks seems initially cooperative, if somewhat apprehensive. What is surprising is how far ordinary individuals will go in complying with the experimenter’s instructions. Indeed, the results of the experiment are both surprising and dismaying. Despite the fact that many subjects experience stress, despite the fact that many protest to the experimenter, a substantial proportion continue to the last shock on the generator.

Many subjects will obey the experimenter no matter how vehement the pleading of the person being shocked, no matter how painful the shocks seem to be, and no matter how much the victim pleads to be let out. This was seen time and again in our studies and has been observed in several universities where the experiment was repeated. It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

A commonly offered explanation is that those who shocked the victim at the most severe level were monsters, the sadistic fringe of society. But if one considers that almost two-thirds of the participants fall into the category of “obedient” subjects, and that they represented ordinary people drawn from working, managerial, and professional classes, the argument becomes very shaky. Indeed, it is highly reminiscent of the issue that arose in connection with Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt contended that the prosecution’s effort to depict Eichmann as a sadistic monster was fundamentally wrong, that he came closer to being an uninspired bureaucrat who simply sat at his desk and did his job. For asserting these views, Arendt became the object of considerable scorn, even calumny. Somehow, it was felt that the monstrous deeds carried out by Eichmann required a brutal, twisted, and sadistic personality, evil incarnate. After witnessing hundreds of ordinary people submit to the authority in our own experiments, I must conclude that Arendt’s conception of the banality of evil comes closer to the truth than one might dare imagine. The ordinary person who shocked the victim did so out of a sense of obligation -- a conception of his duties as a subject -- and not from any peculiarly aggressive tendencies.

This is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: 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. A variety of inhibitions against disobeying authority come into play and successfully keep the person in his place.

Sitting back in one’s armchair, it is easy to condemn the actions of the obedient subjects. But those who condemn the subjects measure them against the standard of their own ability to formulate high-minded moral prescriptions. That is hardly a fair standard. Many of the subjects, at the level of stated opinion, feel quite as strongly as any of us about the moral requirement of refraining from action against a helpless victim. They, too, in general terms know what ought to be done and can state their values when the occasion arises. This has little, if anything, to do with their actual behavior under the pressure of circumstances.

If people are asked to render a moral judgment on what constitutes appropriate behavior in this situation, they unfailingly see disobedience as proper. But values are not the only forces at work in an actual, ongoing situation. They are but one narrow band of causes in the total spectrum of forces impinging on a person. Many people were unable to realize their values in action and found themselves continuing in the experiment even though they disagreed with what they were doing.

The force exerted by the moral sense of the individual is less effective than social myth would have us believe. Though such prescriptions as “Thou shalt not kill” occupy a pre-eminent place in the moral order, they do not occupy a correspondingly intractable position in human psychic structure. A few changes in newspaper headlines, a call from the draft board, orders from a man with epaulets, and men are led to kill with little difficulty. Even the forces mustered in a psychology experiment will go a long way toward removing the individual from moral controls. Moral factors can be shunted aside with relative ease by a calculated restructuring of the informational and social field.

What, then, keeps the person obeying the experimenter? First, there is a set of “binding factors” that lock the subject into the situation. They include such factors as politeness on his part, his desire to uphold his initial promise of aid to the experimenter, and the awkwardness of withdrawal. Second, a number of adjustments in the subject’s thinking occur that undermine his resolve to break with the authority. The adjustments help the subject maintain his relationship with the experimenter, while at the same time reducing the strain brought about by the experimental conflict. They are typical of thinking that comes about in obedient persons when they are instructed by authority to act against helpless individuals.

One such mechanism is the tendency of the individual to become so absorbed in the narrow technical aspects of the task that he loses sight of its broader consequences. The film Dr. Strangelove brilliantly satirized the absorption of a bomber crew in the exacting technical procedure of dropping nuclear weapons on a country. Similarly, in this experiment, subjects become immersed in the procedures, reading the word pairs with exquisite articulation and pressing the switches with great care. They want to put on a competent performance, but they show an accompanying narrowing of moral concern. The subject entrusts the broader tasks of setting goals and assessing morality to the experimental authority he is serving.

The most common adjustment of thought in the obedient subject is for him to see himself as not responsible for his own actions. He divests himself of responsibility by attributing all initiative to the experimenter, a legitimate authority. He sees himself not as a person acting in a morally accountable way but as the agent of external authority. In the post experimental interview, when subjects were asked why they had gone on, a typical reply was: “I wouldn’t have done it by myself. I was just doing what I was told.” Unable to defy the authority of the experimenter, they attribute all responsibility to him. It is the old story of “just doing one’s duty” that was heard time and time again in the defense statements of those accused at Nuremberg. But it would be wrong to think of it as a thin alibi concocted for the occasion. Rather, it is a fundamental mode of thinking for a great many, people once they are locked into a subordinate position in a structure of authority. The disappearance of a sense of responsibility is the most far-reaching consequence of submission to authority.

Although a person acting under authority performs actions that seem to violate standards of conscience, it would not be true to say that he loses his moral sense. Instead, it acquires a radically different focus. He does not respond with a moral sentiment to the actions he performs. Rather, his moral concern now shifts to a consideration of how well he is living up to the expectations that the authority has of him. In wartime, a soldier does not ask whether it is good or bad to bomb a hamlet; he does not experience shame or guilt in the destruction of a village: rather he feels pride or shame depending on how well he has performed the mission assigned to him.

Another psychological force at work in this situation may be termed “counter-anthropomorphism.” For decades psychologists have discussed the primitive tendency among men to attribute to inanimate objects and forces the qualities of the human species. A countervailing tendency, however, is that of attributing an impersonal quality to forces that are essentially human in origin and maintenance. Some people treat systems of human origin as if they existed above and beyond any human agent, beyond the control of whim or human feeling. The human element behind agencies and institutions is denied. Thus, when the experimenter says, “The experiment requires that you continue,” the subject feels this to be an imperative that goes beyond any merely human command. He does not ask the seemingly obvious question, “Whose experiment? Why should the designer be served while the victim suffers?” The wishes of a man -- the designer of the experiment -- have become part of a schema which exerts on the subject’s mind a force that transcends the personal. “It’s got to go on. It’s got to go on,” repeated one subject. He failed to realize that a man like himself wanted it to go on. For him the human agent had faded from the picture, and "The Experiment” had acquired an impersonal momentum of its own.

No action of itself has an unchangeable psychological quality. Its meaning can be altered by placing it in particular contexts. An American newspaper recently quoted a pilot who conceded that Americans were bombing Vietnamese men, women, and children but felt that the bombing was for a “noble cause” and thus was justified. Similarly, most subjects in the experiment see their behavior in a larger context that is benevolent and useful to society -- the pursuit of scientific truth. The psychological laboratory has a strong claim to legitimacy and evokes trust and confidence in those who come to perform there. An action such as shocking a victim, which in isolation appears evil, acquires a totally different meaning when placed in this setting. But allowing an act to be dominated by its context, while neglecting its human consequences, can be dangerous in the extreme.

At least one essential feature of the situation in Germany was not studied here -- namely, the intense devaluation of the victim prior to action against him. For a decade and more, vehement anti-Jewish propaganda systematically prepared the German population to accept the destruction of the Jews. Step by step the Jews were excluded from the category of citizen and national, and finally were denied the status of human beings. Systematic devaluation of the victim provides a measure of psychological justification for brutal treatment of the victim and has been the constant accompaniment of massacres, pogroms, and wars. In all likelihood, our subjects would have experienced greater ease in shocking the victim had he been convincingly portrayed as a brutal criminal or a pervert.

Of considerable interest, however, is the fact that many subjects harshly devalue the victim as a consequence of acting against him. Such comments as, “He was so stupid and stubborn he deserved to get shocked,” were common. Once having acted against the victim, these subjects found it necessary to view him as an unworthy individual, whose punishment was made inevitable by his own deficiencies of intellect and character.

Many of the people studied in the experiment were in some sense against what they did to the learner, and many protested even while they obeyed. But between thoughts, words, and the critical step of disobeying a malevolent authority lies another ingredient, the capacity for transforming beliefs and values into action. Some subjects were totally convinced of the wrongness of what they were doing but could not bring themselves to make an open break with authority. Some derived satisfaction from their thoughts and felt that -- within themselves, at least -- they had been on the side of the angels. What they failed to realize is that subjective feelings are largely irrelevant to the moral issue at hand so long as they are not transformed into action. Political control is effected through action. The attitudes of the guards at a concentration camp are of no consequence when in fact they are allowing the slaughter of innocent men to take place before them. Similarly, so-called “intellectual resistance” in occupied Europe -- in which persons by a twist of thought felt that they had defied the invader -- was merely indulgence in a consoling psychological mechanism. Tyrannies are perpetuated by diffident men who do not possess the courage to act out their beliefs. Time and again in the experiment people disvalued what they were doing but could not muster the inner resources to translate their values into action.

A variation of the basic experiment depicts a dilemma more common than the one outlined above: the subject was not ordered to push the trigger that shocked the victim, but merely to perform a subsidiary act (administering the word-pair test) before another subject actually delivered the shock. In this situation, 37 of 40 adults from the New Haven area continued to the highest shock level on the generator. Predictably, subjects excused their behavior by saying that the responsibility belonged to the man who actually pulled the switch. This may illustrate a dangerously typical situation in complex society: it is psychologically easy to ignore responsibility when one is only an intermediate link in a chain of evil action but is far from the final consequences of the action. Even Eichmann was sickened when he toured the concentration camps, but to participate in mass murder he had only to sit at a desk and shuffle papers. At the same time the man in the camp who actually dropped Cyclon-B into the gas chambers was able to justify his behavior on the grounds that be was only following orders from above. Thus there is a fragmentation of the total human act; no one man decides to carry out the evil act and is confronted with its consequences. The person who assumes full responsibility for the act has evaporated. Perhaps this is the most common characteristic of socially organized evil in modern society.

The problem of obedience, therefore, is not wholly psychological. The form and shape of society and the way it is developing have much to do with it. There was a time, perhaps, when men were able to give a fully human response to any situation because they were fully absorbed in it as human beings. But as soon as there was a division of labor among men, things changed. Beyond a certain point, the breaking up of society into people carrying out narrow and very special jobs takes away from the human quality of work and life. A person does not get to see the whole situation but only a small part of it, and is thus unable to act without some kind of over-all direction. He yields to authority but in doing so is alienated from his own actions.

George Orwell caught the essence of the situation when he wrote:

As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me. They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are only “doing their duty,” as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it.
Site Admin
Posts: 17090
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: Obedience to Authority, by Stanley Milgram

Postby admin » Thu Oct 17, 2013 9:48 pm

2. Method of Inquiry

Simplicity is the key to effective scientific inquiry. This is especially true in the case of subject matter with a psychological content. Psychological matter, by its nature, is difficult to get at and likely to have many more sides to it than appear at first glance. Complicated procedures only get in the way of clear scrutiny of the phenomenon itself. To study obedience most simply, we must create a situation in which one person orders another person to perform an observable action and we must note when obedience to the imperative occurs and when it fails to occur.

If we are to measure the strength of obedience and the conditions by which it varies, we must force it against some powerful factor that works in the direction of disobedience, and whose human import is readily understood.

Of all moral principles, the one that comes closest to being universally accepted is this: one should not inflict suffering on a helpless person who is neither harmful nor threatening to oneself. This principle is the counterforce we shall set in opposition to obedience.

A person coming to our laboratory will be ordered to act against another individual in increasingly severe fashion. Accordingly, the pressures for disobedience will build up. At a point not known beforehand, the subject may refuse to carry out this command, withdrawing from the experiment. Behavior prior to this rupture is termed obedience. The point of rupture is the act of disobedience and may occur sooner or later in the sequence of commands, providing the needed measure.

The precise mode of acting against the victim is not of central importance. For technical reasons, the delivery of electric shock was chosen for the study. It seemed suitable, first, because it would be easy for the subject to understand the notion that shocks can be graded in intensity; second, its use would be consistent with the general scientific aura of the laboratory; and finally, it would be relatively easy to simulate the administration of shock in the laboratory.

Let us now move to an account of the details of the investigation.

Obtaining Participants for the Study

Yale undergraduates, being close at hand and readily available, would have been the easiest subjects to study. Moreover, in psychology it is traditional for experiments to be carried out on undergraduates. But for this experiment the use of undergraduates from an elite institution did not seem wholly suitable. The possibility that subjects from Yale would have heard of it from fellow students who had already participated in it seemed too great a risk. It appeared better to draw subjects from a much larger source, the entire New Haven community of 300,000 people. There was a second reason for relying on New Haven rather than the university: the students were too homogeneous a group. They were virtually all in their late teens or early twenties, were highly intelligent, and had some familiarity with psychological experimentation. I wanted a wide range of individuals drawn from a broad spectrum of class backgrounds.

Fig. 1. Announcement placed in local newspaper to recruit subjects.

To recruit subjects, an advertisement was placed in the local newspaper. It called for people of all occupations to take part in a study of memory and learning, and it offered $4 payment and 50 cents carfare for one hour of participation (see illustration). A total of 296 responded. As these were not sufficient for the experiment, this mode of recruitment was supplemented by direct mail solicitation. Names were sampled from the New Haven telephone directory, and a letter of invitation was sent to several thousand residents. The return rate for this invitation was approximately 12 percent. The respondents, for whom we had information on sex, age, and occupation, constituted a pool of subjects, and specific appointments were made with participants a few days before they were to appear in the study.

Typical subjects were postal clerks, high school teachers, salesmen, engineers, and laborers. Subjects ranged in educational level from one who had not finished high school to those who had doctoral and other professional degrees. Several experimental conditions (variations of the basic experiment) were contemplated, and from the outset, I thought it important to balance each condition for age and occupational types. The occupational composition for each experiment was: workers, skilled and unskilled: 40 percent; white-collar, sales, business: 40 percent; professionals: 20 percent. The occupations were intersected with three age categories (subjects in twenties, thirties, and forties assigned to each experimental condition in the proportions of 20, 40, and 40 percent respectively).

Locale and Personnel

The experiment was conducted in the elegant Interaction Laboratory of Yale University. This detail is relevant to the perceived legitimacy of the experiment. In some subsequent variations, the experiment was dissociated from the university (see Chapter 6). The role of experimenter was played by a thirty-one-year-old high school teacher of biology. Throughout the experiment, his manner was impassive and his appearance somewhat stern. He was dressed in a gray technician’s coat. The victim was played by a forty-seven-year-old accountant, trained for the role; he was of Irish-American descent and most observers found him mild-mannered and likable.

Fig. 2. The "victim."


One naive subject and one victim performed in each experiment. A pretext had to be devised that would justify the administration of electric shock by the naive subject. (This if true because in every instance of legitimate authority the subordinate must perceive some connection, however tenuous, between the specific type of authority and the commands he issues.) The experimenter oriented the subjects toward the situation in which he wished to assess obedience with the following instructions:

Psychologists have developed several theories to explain how people learn various types of material.

Some of the better-known theories are treated in this book. (The subject was shown a book on the teaching- learning process.)

One theory is that people learn things correctly whenever they get punished for making a mistake.

A common application of this theory would be when parents spank a child if he does something wrong.

The expectation is that spanking, a form of punishment, will teach the child to remember better, will teach him to learn more effectively.

But actually, we know very little about the effect of punishment on learning, because almost no truly scientific studies have been made of it in human beings.

For instance, we don't know how much punishment is best for learning -- and we don’t know how much difference it makes as to who is giving the punishment, whether an adult learns best from a younger or an older person than himself -- or many things of that sort.

So in this study we are bringing together a number of adults of different occupations and ages. And we’re asking some of them to be teachers and some of them to be learners.

We want to find out just what effect different people have on each other as teachers and learners, and also what effect punishment will have on learning in this situation.

Therefore, I’m going to ask one of you to be the teacher here tonight and the other one to be the learner.

Does either of you have a preference --

[Subject and accomplice are allowed to express preference.]

Well, I guess the fairest way of doing this is for me to write the word Teacher on one slip of paper and Learner on the other and let you both draw.

[The subject draws first, then the accomplice.]

Well, which of you is which?

All right. Now the first thing we'll have to do is to set the Learner up so that he can get some type of punishment.

If you’ll both come with me into this next room.

The drawing described above had been rigged so that the subject was always the teacher and the accomplice always the learner. (Both slips contained the word “Teacher.”) Immediately after the drawing, the teacher and learner were taken to an adjacent room and the learner was strapped into an “electric chair” apparatus.

The experimenter explained that the straps were to prevent excessive movement while the learner was being shocked. The effect was to make it appear impossible for him to escape from the situation. An electrode was attached to the learner’s wrist, and electrode paste was applied “to avoid blisters and burns.” Subjects were told that the electrode was attached to the shock generator in the adjoining room.

To improve credibility the experimenter declared, in response to a question by the learner, “Although the shocks can be extremely painful, they cause no permanent tissue damage.”

Learning Task

The lesson conducted by the subject was a paired-associate learning task. The subject read a series of word pairs to the learner, and then read the first word of the pair along with four terms. For example, the subject read such pairs as:

blue box
nice day
wild duck

Then, in the testing sequence he would read:

blue: sky ink box lamp

The learner was to indicate which of the four terms had originally been paired with the first word. He communicated his answer by pressing one of four switches in front of him, which lit up one of four numbered quadrants in an answer box located on top of the shock generator.

Shock Generator

The instrument panel consisted of 30 lever switches set in a horizontal line. Each switch was clearly labeled with a voltage designation that ranged from 15 to 450 volts. The labels showed a I5-volt increment from one switch to the next, going from left to right. In addition, the following verbal designations were clearly indicated for groups of four switches, going from left to right: Slight Shock, Moderate Shock, Strong Shock, Very Strong Shock, Intense Shock, Extreme Intensity Shock, Danger: Severe Shock. Two switches after this last designation were simply marked XXX.

When a switch was depressed, a pilot light corresponding to each switch was illuminated in bright red; an electric buzzing was heard; an electric blue light, labeled “voltage energizer, flashed; the dial on the voltage meter swung to the right; and various relay clicks were sounded.

The upper left-hand corner of the generator was labeled SHOCK GENERATOR, TYPE ZLB, DYSON INSTRUMENT COMPANY, WALTHAM, MASS. OUTPUT 15 VOLTS—450 VOLTS.

Sample Shock

Each subject was given a sample shock from the shock generator, prior to beginning his run as teacher. This shock was always 45 volts and was applied by pressing the third switch of the generator. The shock was applied to the wrist of the subject, and the jolt strengthened the subject’s belief in the authenticity of the generator.

Shock Instructions

The subject was told to administer a shock to the learner each time he gave a wrong response. Moreover -- and this is the key command -- the subject was instructed to “move one level higher on the shock generator each time the learner gives a wrong answer. He was also instructed to announce the voltage level before administering a shock. This served to continually remind the subjects of the increasing intensity of shocks administered to the learner. [1] If the subject reached the 30th shock level (450 volts), he was instructed to continue the procedure using this maximum voltage. After two further trials, the experimenter called a halt to the experiment. [2]

Experimenter Feedback

At various points in the experiment the subject would turn to the experimenter for advice on whether he should continue to administer shocks. Or he would indicate that he did not wish to go on.

The experimenter responded with a sequence of “prods,” using as many as necessary to bring the subject into line.

Prod 1: Please continue, or, Please go on.
Prod 2: The experiment requires that you continue.
Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.
Prod 4: You have no other choice, you must go on.

The prods were made in sequence: Only if Prod 1 had been unsuccessful could Prod 2 be used. If the subject refused to obey the experimenter after Prod 4, the experiment was terminated. The experimenter’s tone of voice was at all times firm, but not impolite. The sequence was begun anew on each occasion that the subject balked or showed reluctance to follow orders.

Special Prods

If the subject asked if the learner was liable to suffer permanent physical injury, the experimenter said:

Although the shocks may be painful, there is no permanent tissue damage, so please go on. (Followed by Prods 2, 3, and 4, if necessary.)

If the subject said that the learner did not want to go on, the experimenter replied:

Whether the learner likes it or not, you must go on until he has learned all the word pairs correctly. So please go on. (Followed by Prods 2, 3, and 4, if necessary.)

Feedback from the Victim

In all conditions the learner gave a predetermined set of responses to the word-pair test, based on a schedule of approximately three wrong answers to one correct answer.

The victim’s responses were a key element in the situation and needed to be worked out carefully. In pilot studies, at first no vocal feedback from the victim was used. It was thought that the verbal and voltage designations on the control panel would create sufficient pressure to curtail the subject’s obedience. However, this proved not to be the case. In the absence of protests from the learner, virtually every subject in the pilot study, once commanded, went blithely to the end of the board, seemingly indifferent to the verbal designations. This deprived us of an adequate basis for measuring obedient tendencies. A force had to be introduced that would strengthen the subject’s resistance to the experimenter’s commands, and reveal individual differences in terms of a distribution of break off points.

This force took the form of protests from the victim. Initially, mild protests were used, but these proved inadequate. Subsequently, more vehement protests were inserted into the experimental procedure. To our consternation, even the strongest protests from the victim did not prevent many subjects from administering the harshest punishment ordered by the experimenter. But the protests did lower the mean of the maximum shocks somewhat and created some spread in the subject’s performance; therefore, the victim’s cries were recorded on tape and incorporated into the regular experimental procedure.

The situation did more than highlight the technical difficulties of finding a workable experimental procedure: it indicated that subjects would obey authority to a greater extent than we had supposed. It also pointed to the importance of feedback from the victim in controlling the subject’s behavior.

Each vocal response of the victim was coordinated to a particular voltage level on the shock generator. It is difficult to convey on the printed page the full tenor of the victim’s responses, for we have no adequate notation for vocal intensity, timing, and general qualities of delivery. In general, however, the victim indicated no discomfort until the:75-volt shock was administered, at which time there was a little grunt. Similar reactions followed the 90- and 105-volt shocks, and at 120 volts the victim shouted to the experimenter that the shocks were becoming painful. Painful groans were heard on administration of the 135 volt shock, and at 150 volts the victim cried out, “Experimenter, get me out of here! I won’t be in the experiment any more! I refuse to go on!” Cries of this type continue with generally rising intensity, so that at 180 volts the victim cried out, “I can’t stand the pain,” and by 270 volts his response to the shock was definitely an agonized scream. Throughout, from 150 volts on, he insisted that he be let out of the experiment. At 300 volts the victim shouted in desperation that he would no longer provide answers to the memory test.

At this juncture, it was found, subjects would usually turn to the experimenter for guidance. The experimenter would instruct the subject to treat the absence of a response as a wrong answer, and to shock the subject according to the usual schedule. He advised the subjects to allow 5 to 10 seconds before considering no response as a wrong answer, and to increase the shock level one step each time the learner failed to respond correctly. At 315 volts, after a violent scream, the victim reaffirmed vehemently that he was no longer a participant. He provided no answers, but shrieked in agony whenever a shock was administered. After 330 volts he was not heard from, nor did his answers reappear on the four-way signal box.


The main measure for any subject is the maximum shock he administers before he refuses to go any further. In principle this may vary from 0 (for a subject who refuses to administer even the first shock) to 30 (for a subject who administers the highest shock on the generator).

Interview and Debriefing

An important aspect of the procedure occurred at the end of the experimental session. A careful post experimental treatment was administered to all subjects. The exact content of the session varied from condition to condition and with increasing experience on our part. At the very least every subject was told that the victim had not received dangerous electric shocks. Each subject had a friendly reconciliation with the unharmed victim and an extended discussion with the experimenter. The experiment was explained to defiant subjects in a way that supported their decision to disobey the experimenter. Obedient subjects were assured that their behavior was entirely normal and that their feelings of conflict or tension were shared by other participants. Subjects were told that they would receive a comprehensive report at the conclusion of the experimental series. In some instances, additional detailed and lengthy discussions of the experiment were also carried out with individual subjects.

When the experimental series was complete, subjects received a written report which presented details of the experimental procedure and results. Again, their own part in the experiments was treated in a dignified way and their behavior in the experiment respected. All subjects received a follow-up questionnaire regarding their participation in the research, which again allowed expression of thoughts and feelings about their behavior.


In this situation the subject must resolve a conflict between two mutually incompatible demands from the social field. He may continue to follow the orders of the experimenter and shock the learner with increasing severity, or he may refuse to follow the orders of the experimenter and heed the learner’s pleas. The experimenter’s authority operates not in a free field but against ever-mounting countervailing pressures from the person being punished.

Fig. 3: Shock generator; Victim is strapped into chair; Subject receives sample shock; Subject breaks off experiment.

This laboratory situation gives us a framework in which to study the subject’s reactions to the principal conflict of the experiment. Again, this conflict is between the experimenter’s demands that he continue to administer the electric shock and the learner’s demands, which become increasingly insistent, that the experiment be stopped. The crux of the study is to vary systematically the factors believed to alter the degree of obedience to the experimental commands and to learn under what condition submission to authority is most probable and under what conditions defiance is brought to the fore.

What the experimental situation does is to condense the elements present when obedience occurs in the larger world such that the essential ingredients are brought into a relatively narrow arena where they are open to scientific scrutiny. The power of the situation derives from the fact that we are able to see, and the subject can experience, the concurrent operation of antagonistic forces that in the larger world rarely impinge on him at the identical instant.
Site Admin
Posts: 17090
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: Obedience to Authority, by Stanley Milgram

Postby admin » Thu Oct 17, 2013 9:52 pm

3. Expected Behavior

Too often, the value of a work in social science is played down by asserting the self-evident character of the findings. But rarely do we have clear information on exactly how people expect behavior to unfold in a given set of circumstances. If we acquire this information, we will be able to compare it with the actual outcome of the study. It will provide us with a benchmark from which to see how much or little we learn through the experiment. Further, should there be a disparity between what people expect and what actually occurs, we are left with the interesting problem of accounting for the gap. For the expectations then come to have the character of an illusion, and we must ask whether such an illusion is a chance expression of ignorance or performs some definite function in social life. [LC-1]

The procedure for getting at such expectations is straightforward. In each case the respondents consist of an audience that has come to hear a lecture on the topic of obedience to authority. The experiment is described in detail without, however, disclosing the results in any way. The audience is provided with a schematic diagram of the shock generator, showing verbal and voltage designations. Each respondent is asked to reflect on the experiment, then privately to record how he himself would perform in it. Predictions were made by three groups: psychiatrists, college students, and an audience of middle-class adults of varied occupations.

Fig. 4. Diagram of control panel.

Table 1 summarizes the breakoff points predicted by these groups.

Each one of the 110 respondents sees himself disobeying the experimenter at some point in the command series, and typical explanations offered to explain their disobedience are:

‘... I myself am scared stiff of shocks and I couldn’t give shocks to people that were protesting because I was causing the pain. I couldn’t deliberately hurt a perfect stranger.” (Maximum: 90 volts)

“I do not think any experiment is worth inflicting strong shock on another human being. The fact that the subject responded as he did indicates to me that he was suffering from severe discomfort. I could not be the one to inflict this pain on him. The moment the subject insists he wants to leave the experiment, I respect his judgment.” (Maximum: 135 volts)

‘... I can’t stand to see people suffer. If the learner wanted to get out, I would free him so as not to make him suffer pain.” (Maximum 150 volts)

... since the subject volunteered, and I volunteered, and since the experimenter has no physical authority over me, the subject should be released when he is at such a point that he asks to be released, and I would release him.” (Maximum: 150 volts)

‘The reason I would break off is because the person would scream with pain. Knowing how I would feel if I even scraped my knee, I would then feel compassion for the learner.” (Maximum: 180 volts)

Table 1. Individuals Predict Their Own Breakoff Points

These subjects see their reactions flowing from empathy, compassion, and a sense of justice. They enunciate a conception of what is desirable and assume that action follows accordingly. But they show little insight into the web of forces that operate in a real social situation.

Fig. 5. Psychiatrists' predictions of behavior in Voice-Feedback Experiment.

Perhaps the question posed to them was unfair. People like to see themselves in a favorable light. So we asked also a somewhat different question to eliminate the bias induced by vanity. We asked them to predict how other people would perform. (And more specifically, we requested that they plot the distribution of break off points of one hundred Americans of diverse ages and occupations.) Psychiatrists, graduate students and faculty in the behavioral sciences, college sophomores, and middle-class adults responded to the question, and there is remarkable similarity in the predictions of the several groups. They predict that virtually all subjects will refuse to obey the experimenter; only a pathological fringe, not exceeding one or two per cent, was expected to proceed to the end of the shock board. The psychiatrists’ predictions are shown in detail in Figure 5. They predicted that most subjects would not go beyond the 10th shock level (150 volts, when the victim makes his first explicit demand to be freed); about 4 percent would reach the 20th shock level, and about one subject in a thousand would administer the highest shock on the board.

What are the assumptions that underlie these predictions? First, that people are by and large decent and do not readily hurt the innocent. Second, that unless coerced by physical force or threat, the individual is preeminently the source of his own behavior. A person acts in a particular way because he has decided to do so. Action takes place in a physical-social setting, but this is merely the stage for its occurrence. The behavior itself flows from an inner core of the person; within the core personal values are weighed, gratification’s assessed, and resulting decisions are translated into action.

Most people start with presuppositions of this sort when asked to think about the obedience experiment. They focus on the character of the autonomous individual rather than on the situation in which he finds himself. With this view, they are likely to expect few subjects to go along with the experimenter’s orders.


Librarian's Comment:

The illusion that "most people are basically good" is created by the authorities in order to hide their tremendous power to negatively affect our actions, to make it easier for them to control us, to render us impotent against their attacks, and to create a large number of people who will egotistically protect them from any criticism. It also creates the opposite category of "a few bad people," to promote their idea that when people want to do evil, it is their own choice, and not due to any situational factors. The illusion benefits entirely the authorities.
Site Admin
Posts: 17090
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: Obedience to Authority, by Stanley Milgram

Postby admin » Thu Oct 17, 2013 9:57 pm

4. Closeness of the Victim

Now let us look at the actual performance of subjects in the experiment. To begin, we shall consider the results of the Remote- Feedback variation (Experiment 1). It differs slightly from the usual situation in that no vocal complaint is heard from the victim. He is placed in another room where he cannot be seen by the subject, nor can his voice be heard; his answers flash silently on the signal box. However, at 300 volts the laboratory walls resound as he pounds in protest. After 315 volts, no further answers appear, and the pounding ceases.

It is instructive to reprint the subjects’ remarks at the point of defiance, as transcribed from the tape recordings:

“I think he’s trying to communicate, he’s knocking.... Well it’s not fair to shock the guy ... these are terrific volts. I don’t think this is very humane. Oh, I can’t go on with this; no, this isn’t right. It’s a hell of an experiment. The guy is suffering in there. No, I don’t want to go on. This is crazy.” (Subject refuses to administer more shocks.)

“He’s banging in there. I’m gonna chicken out. I’d like to continue, but I can’t do that to a man. I’m sorry I can’t do that to a man. I’ll hurt his heart. You take your check.... No really, I couldn’t do it.”

Of the 40 subjects, 26 obeyed the orders of the experimenter to the end, proceeding to punish the victim until they reached the most potent shock available on the generator. After the 450-volt shock was administered three times, the experimenter called a halt to the session.

Subjects were frequently in an agitated state. Sometimes, verbal protest was at a minimum, and the subject simply got up from his chair in front of the shock generator, indicating that he wished to leave the laboratory. Some obedient subjects expressed reluctance to administer shocks beyond the 300-volt level and displayed tensions similar to those who defied the experimenter.

After the maximum shocks had been delivered, and the experimenter called a halt to the proceedings, many obedient subjects heaved sighs of relief, mopped their brews, rubbed their fingers over their eyes, or nervously fumbled cigarettes. Some shook their heads, apparently in regret. Some subjects had remained calm throughout the experiment and displayed only minimal signs of tension from beginning to end.

Bringing the Victim Closer

An experiment differs from a demonstration in that in an experiment, once an effect has been observed, it becomes possible to alter systematically the conditions under which it is produced, and in this way to learn the relevant causes.

What we have seen thus far applies only to a situation in which the victim is out of sight and unable to communicate with his own voice. The recipient of the punishment is thus remote, nor does he indicate his wishes very clearly. There is pounding on the wall, but this has an inherently ambiguous meaning; possibly, some subjects did not interpret this pounding as evidence of the victim’s distress. The resulting obedience may be attributable to this. Perhaps there will be no obedience when the victim’s suffering is more clearly communicated; when the victim is given a sense of presence, and he is seen, heard, and felt.

Behavior noted in our pilot studies lent credence to this notion. In those studies the victim could be dimly perceived by the subject through a silvered glass. Subjects frequently averted their eyes from the person they were shocking, often turning their heads in an awkward and conspicuous manner. One subject explained, “I didn’t want to see the consequences of what I had done.” Observers noted:

... subjects show a reluctance to look at the victim, whom they could see through the glass in front of them. When this fact was brought to their attention, they indicated that it caused them discomfort to see the victim in agony. We note, however, that although the subject refuses to look at the victim, he continues to administer shocks.

This suggested that the salience of the victim may have, in some degree, regulated the subject’s performance. If in obeying the experimenter the subject found it necessary to avoid scrutiny of the victim, would the reverse be true? If the victim were rendered increasingly more salient to the subject, would obedience diminish? A set of four experiments was designed to answer this question. We have already described the Remote condition.

Experiment 2 (Voice-Feedback) was identical to the first except that vocal protests were introduced. As in the first condition, the victim was placed in an adjacent room, but his complaints could be heard clearly through the walls of the laboratory.

Experiment 3 (Proximity) was similar to the second, except that the victim was placed in the same room as the subject, a few feet from him. Thus he was visible as well as audible, and voice cues were provided.

Experiment 4 (Touch-Proximity) was identical to the third, with this exception: the victim received a shock only when his hand rested on a shock plate. At the 150-volt level the victim demanded to be let free and refused to place his hand on the shock plate. The experimenter ordered the subject to force the victim’s hand onto the plate. Thus obedience in this condition required that the subject have physical contact with the victim in order to give him punishment at or beyond the 150-volt level.

Forty adult subjects were studied in each condition. The results, shown in Table 2, revealed that obedience was significantly reduced as the victim was rendered more immediate to the subject. The mean maximum shock for the conditions is shown in Figure 6.

Table 2. Maximum Shocks Administered in Experiments 1, 2, 3, and 4

Thirty-five percent of the subjects defied the experimenter in the Remote condition, 37.5 percent in Voice-Feedback, 60 percent in Proximity, and 70 percent in Touch-Proximity.

Fig. 6. Mean maximum shocks in Experiments 1, 2, 3 and 4.

How are we to account for the diminishing obedience as the victim is brought closer? Several factors may be at work.

1. Empathic cues. In the Remote and, to a lesser extent, the Voice-Feedback conditions, the victim’s suffering possesses an abstract, remote quality for the subject. He is aware, but only in a conceptual sense, that his actions cause pain to another person; the fact is apprehended but not felt. The phenomenon is common enough. The bombardier can reasonably suppose that his weapons will inflict suffering and death, yet this knowledge is divested of affect and does not arouse in him an emotional response to the suffering he causes.

Fig. 7: General arrangement for Touch-Proximity Condition; Obedience subject in Touch-Proximity Condition.

It is possible that the visual cues associated with the victim’s suffering trigger empathic responses in the subject and give him a more complete grasp of the victim’s experience. It is also possible that the empathic responses are themselves unpleasant, possessing drive properties which cause the subject to terminate the arousal situation. Diminishing obedience, then, would be explained by the enrichment of empathic cues in the successive experimental conditions.

2. Denial and narrowing of the cognitive field. The Remote condition allows a narrowing of the cognitive field so that the victim is put out of mind. When the victim is close it is more difficult to exclude him from thought. He necessarily intrudes on the subject’s awareness, since he is continuously visible. In the first two conditions his existence and reactions are made known only after the shock has been administered. The auditory feedback is sporadic and discontinuous. In the Proximity conditions his inclusion in the immediate visual field renders him a continuously salient element for the subject. The mechanism of denial can no longer be brought into play. One subject in the Remote condition said, “It’s funny how you really begin to forget that there’s a guy out there, even though you can hear him. For a long time I just concentrated on pressing the switches and reading the words.”

3. Reciprocal fields. If in the Proximity conditions, the subject is in an improved position to observe the victim, the reverse is also true: the actions of the subject now come under scrutiny by the victim. Possibly, it is easier to harm a person when he is unable to observe our actions than when he can see what we are doing. His surveillance of the action directed against him may give rise to shame or guilt, which may then serve to curtail the action. Many expressions of language refer to the discomfort or inhibitions that arise in face-to-face attack. It is often said that it is easier to criticize a man “behind his back” than to confront him directly. If we are lying to someone, it is reputedly difficult to “look him in the eye.” We “turn away in shame” or in “embarrassment,” and this action serves to reduce our discomfort. The manifest function of allowing the victim of a firing squad to be blindfolded is to make the occasion less stressful for him, but it may also serve a latent function of reducing the stress of the executioner. In short, in the Proximity conditions, the subject may sense that he has become more salient in the victim’s field of awareness and consequently becomes more self-conscious, embarrassed, and inhibited in his punishment of the victim.

4. Experienced unity of act. In the Remote conditions it is more difficult for the subject to see a connection between his actions and their consequences for the victim. There is a physical separation of the act and its effects. The subject depresses a lever in one room, and protests and cries are heard from another. The two events are in correlation, yet they lack a compelling unity. The unity is more fully achieved in the Proximity conditions as the victim is brought closer to the action that causes him pain. It is rendered complete in Touch-Proximity.

5. Incipient group-formation. Placing the victim in another room not only takes him farther from the subject, it also draws the subject and the experimenter relatively closer. There is incipient group formation between the experimenter and the subject, from which the victim is excluded. The wall between the victim and the others deprives him of an intimacy which the experimenter and the subject could feel. In the Remote condition, the victim is truly an outsider, who stands alone, physically and psychologically.

When the victim is placed close to the subject, it becomes easier to form an alliance with him against the experimenter. The subject no longer has to face the experimenter alone. He has an ally who is close at hand and eager to collaborate in a revolt against the experimenter. Thus, the changing set of spatial relations leads to a potentially shifting set of alliances over the several experimental conditions.

6. Acquired behavior dispositions. It is commonly observed that laboratory mice will rarely fight with their litter mates. Scott (1958) explains this in terms of passive inhibition. He writes: “By doing nothing under ... circumstances [the animal] learns to do nothing, and this may be spoken of as passive inhibition. This principle has great importance in teaching an individual to be peaceful, for it means that he can learn not to fight simply by not fighting.” Similarly, we may learn not to harm others simply by not harming them in everyday life. Yet this learning occurs in a context of proximal relations with others and may not be generalized to situations in which the others are physically remote from us. Or perhaps, in the past, aggressive actions against others who were physically close resulted in retaliatory punishment that extinguished the original form of response. In contrast, aggression against others at a distance may rarely have led to retaliation.

We move about; our spatial relations shift from one situation to the next, and the fact that we are near or remote may have a powerful effect on the psychological processes that mediate our behavior toward others. In these experiments, as the victim was brought closer to the man ordered to give him shocks, increasing numbers of subjects broke off the experiment, refusing to obey. The concrete, visible, and proximal presence of the victim acted in an important way to counteract the experimenter’s power and to generate disobedience. Any theoretical model of obedience will have to take this fact into account.

Unexpected Behavior

The over-all level of obedience, across all four experimental variations, requires comment. Subjects have learned from childhood that it is a fundamental breach of moral conduct to hurt another person against his will. Yet, almost half the subjects abandon this tenet in following the instructions of an authority who has no special powers to enforce his commands. To disobey would bring no material loss or punishment. It is clear from the remarks and behavior of many participants that in punishing the victim they were often acting against their own values. Subjects often expressed disapproval of shocking a man in the face of his objections, and others denounced it as stupid and senseless. Yet many followed the experimental commands.

The results differed sharply from the predictions made in the questionnaire described earlier. (Here, however, it is possible that the remoteness of the respondents from the actual situation and the difficulty of conveying to them the concrete details of the experiment could account for the serious underestimation of obedience.) But the results were also unexpected to people who observed the experiment in process through one-way mirrors. Observers often expressed disbelief upon seeing a subject administer more and more powerful shocks to the victim; even persons fully acquainted with the details of the situation consistently underestimated the amount of obedience subjects would display.

The second unanticipated effect was the tension generated by the procedures. One might suppose that a subject would simply break off or continue as his conscience dictated. This is very far from what happened. There were in some subjects striking reactions of emotional strain.

In the interview following the experiment subjects were asked to indicate on a 14-point scale just how nervous or tense they felt at the point of maximum tension (Figure 8). The scale ranged from “Not at all tense and nervous” to “Extremely tense and nervous.” Self-reports of this sort are of limited precision and at best provide only a rough indication of the subject’s emotional response. Still, taking the reports for what they are worth, it can be seen that the distribution of responses spans the entire range of the scale, with the majority of subjects concentrated at the center and upper extreme. A further breakdown showed that obedient subjects reported themselves as having been slightly more tense and nervous than the defiant subjects at the point of maximum tension.

Fig. 8. Level of tension and nervousness reported by subjects.

How is the occurrence of tension to be interpreted? First, it points to the presence of conflict. If a tendency to comply with authority were the only psychological force operating in the situation, all subjects would have continued to the end, and there would have been no tension. Tension, it is assumed, results from the simultaneous presence of two or more incompatible response tendencies (Miller, 1944). If sympathetic concern for the victim were the exclusive force, all subjects would have calmly defied the experimenter. Instead, there were both obedient and defiant outcomes, frequently accompanied by extreme tension. A conflict develops between the deeply ingrained disposition not to harm others and the equally compelling tendency to obey others who are in authority. The subject is quickly drawn into a dilemma, and the presence of high tension points to the considerable strength of each of the antagonistic vectors.

Moreover, tension defines the strength of the aversive state from which the subject is unable to escape through disobedience. When a person is uncomfortable, tense, or stressed, he tries to take some action that will allow him to terminate this unpleasant state. Thus tension may serve as a drive that leads to escape behavior. But in the present situation even where tension is extreme, many subjects are unable to perform the response that will bring about relief. Therefore there must be a competing drive, tendency, or inhibition that precludes activation of the disobedient response. The strength of this inhibiting factor must be of greater magnitude than the stress experienced, or else the terminating act would occur. Every evidence of extreme tension sat the same time an indication of the strength of the forces that keep the subject in the situation.

Finally, tension may be taken as evidence of the reality of the situation for the subject. Normal subjects do not tremble and sweat unless they are implicated in a deep and genuinely felt predicament.
Site Admin
Posts: 17090
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: Obedience to Authority, by Stanley Milgram

Postby admin » Thu Oct 17, 2013 9:59 pm

5. Individuals Confront Authority

From each person in the experiment we derive one essential fact: whether he has obeyed or disobeyed. But it is foolish to see the subject only in this way. For he brings to the laboratory a full range of emotions, attitudes, and individual styles. Indeed, so varied in temperament and manner are the people passing through the laboratory that it sometimes seems a miracle that we emerge with any regularities at all. One subject may be an inarticulate bricklayer, diffident and awkwardly humble in the presence of a scientist. He is followed by a self-assured, businessman, who thrusts his cigar at the experimenter to underscore his assertions.

We need to focus on the individuals who took part in the study not only because this provides a personal dimension to the experiment but also because the quality of each person’s experience gives us clues to the nature of the process of obedience.

We shall rely heavily on the participant’s own comments and assertions in building up the picture. At the same time a warning is in order. While we must take very seriously everything the subject says, we need not necessarily think that he fully understands the causes of his own behavior. A line must be drawn between listening carefully to what the subject says and mistaking it for the full story. The subject is controlled by many forces in the situation beyond his awareness, implicit structures that regulate his behavior without signaling this fact to him, And we have one enormous advantage over the subject: In each condition, we have slightly varied the nature of the circumstances which the subject confronts and thus know the importance of each of the factors. The participant, and he alone, has experienced the predicament, but he cannot place it in the perspective that comes only from an overview.

The sources of information are, first, our observation of the individual as he performs in the experiment in particular, the dialogue arising between him and the experimenter. Additionally, all subjects provided information on their background in a post- experimental interview (we have changed their names in the following accounts). Finally, a number of subjects took part in individual and group discussions, led by a member of the Yale School of Psychiatry.

Bruno Batta, Welder (in Experiment 4)

Mr. Batta is a thirty-seven-year-old welder. He was born in New Haven, his parents in Italy. He has a rough-hewn face that conveys a conspicuous lack of alertness. His over-all appearance is somewhat brutish. An observer described him as a “crude mesomorph of obviously limited intelligence.” But this is not fully adequate, for he relates to the experimenter with a submissive and deferential sweetness.

He has some difficulty in mastering the experimental procedure and needs to be corrected by the experimenter several times. He shows appreciation for the help and willingness to do what is required. The experiment is the Touch-Proximity variation. After the 150-volt level, Batta has to force the learner’s hand down on the shock plate, since the learner himself refuses to touch it.

When the learner first complains, Mr. Batta pays no attention to him. His face remains impassive, as if to dissociate himself from the learner’s disruptive behavior. When the experimenter instructs him to force the learner’s hand down, he adopts a rigid mechanical procedure. He tests the generator switch. When it fails to function, he immediately forces the learner’s hand onto the shock plate. All the while he maintains the same rigid mask. The learner, seated alongside him, begs him to stop, but with robotic impassivity, he continues the procedure. What is extraordinary is his apparent total indifference to the learner; he hardly takes cognizance of him as a human being. Meanwhile, he relates to the experimenter in a submissive and courteous fashion.

At the 330-volt level, the learner refuses not only to touch the shock plate but also to provide any answers. Annoyed, Batta turns to him, and chastises him: “You better answer and get it over with. We can’t stay here all night.” These are the only words he directs to the learner in the course of the hour. Never again does he speak to him. The scene is brutal and depressing: his hard, impassive face showing total indifference as he subdues the screaming learner and gives him shocks. He seems to derive no pleasure from the act itself, only quiet satisfaction at doing his job properly.

When he administers 450 volts, he turns to the experimenter and asks, “Where do we go from here, Professor?” His tone is deferential and expresses his willingness to be a cooperative subject, in contrast to the learner’s obstinacy.

In the post experimental interview, he gives a jumbled account of the experiment. The experimenter routinely asks him whether the experiment has any other purpose he can think of. He uses the question, without any particular logic, to denigrate the learner, stating, “Well, we have more or less a stubborn person (the learner). If he understood what this here was, he would'a went along without getting the punishment.” In his view, the learner brought punishment on himself.

The experimenter asks whether he felt tense or nervous during the experiment. Again, he uses the question to express his feelings toward the learner. “The only time I got a little -- I wouldn’t say nervous -- I got disgusted, is when he wouldn’t cooperate.” The experimenter has great difficulty in questioning the subject on the issue of responsibility. He does not seem to grasp the concept.

The interviewer simplifies the question. Finally the subject assigns major responsibility to the experimenter: “I say your fault for the simple reason that I was paid for doing this. I had to follow orders. That’s how I figured it.”

Then, assigning all possibilities of initiative to the experimenter, he says, “Now you could have just as soon said, ‘Now look, gimme the money back and we’ll forget about this thing.' Then we could have made up our own minds.”

We note that while for many subjects offering to return the payment is regarded as an honorable means of withdrawing from the experiment, this subject can only conceive of the act if initiated by the authority. The experimenter rejoins, “But I told you the money was yours simply for coming, no matter what happened.”

“That’s right.”

At the end of the session, he tells the experimenter how honored he has been to help him, and in a moment of contrition, remarks, “Sir, sorry it couldn’t have been a full experiment.”

He has done his honest best. It is only the deficient behavior of the learner that has denied the experimenter full satisfaction.

In a questionnaire returned by Mr. Batta several months later, he informs us that he followed the experimenter’s instructions to the end, that he fully believed the learner was getting painful shocks, and that the experiment has not bothered him at all. He believes more experiments of this sort should be carried out, and he answers “yes” to our question of whether he has learned something of personal value. But he does not tell us what.

Professor of Old Testament (in Experiment 3)

A somewhat gaunt, ascetic man, this subject could be taken for a New England minister. In fact, he teaches Old Testament liturgy at a major divinity school. In this Proximity condition, he adjusted his seat to look at the learner while administering shocks. While reading the word pairs, he employs exaggerated precision in his pronunciation, and seems curt and officious in saying, “Correct.” Whenever the learner makes an error, he appears almost to be chastising him for his failing. Each time he administers a shock, his lips are drawn back, and he bares his teeth. An excessive fastidiousness characterizes all his actions. After administering 150 volts he balks at going further. The experimenter states that the learner’s protests are to be disregarded, and the experiment must continue:

EXPERIMENTER: Its absolutely essential to the experiment that we continue.

SUBJECT: I understand that statement, but I don’t understand why the experiment is placed above this person’s life.

EXPERIMENTER: There is no permanent tissue damage.

SUBJECT: Well, that’s your opinion. If he doesn’t want to continue, I’m taking orders from him.

EXPERIMENTER: You have no other choice, sir, you must go on.

SUBJECT: If this were Russia maybe, but not in America. (The experiment is terminated.)

In his discussion with the experimenter, the subject seems in no way intimidated by the experimenter’s status but rather treats him as a dull technician who does not see the full implications of what he is doing. When the experimenter assures him of the safety of the shock generator, the subject, with some exasperation, brings up the question of the emotional rather than physiological effects on the learner.

SUBJECT (spontaneously): Surely you’ve considered the ethics of this thing. (extremely agitated) Here he doesn’t want to go on, and you think that the experiment is more important? Have you examined him? Do you know what his physical state is? Say this man had a weak heart (quivering voice).

EXPERIMENTER : We know the machine, sir.

SUBJECT: But you don’t know the man you’re experimenting on. That’s very risky (gulping and tremulous). What about the fear that man had? It’s impossible for you to determine what effect that has on him….. the fear that he himself is generating. But go ahead, you ask me questions; I’m not here to question you.

He limits his questioning, first because he asserts he does not have a right to question, but one feels that he considers the experimenter too rigid and limited a technician to engage in intelligent dialogue. One notes further his spontaneous mention of ethics, raised in a didactic manner and deriving from his professional position as teacher of religion. Finally, it is interesting that he initially justified his breaking off the experiment not by asserting disobedience but by asserting that he would then take orders from the victim.

Thus, he speaks of an equivalence between the experimenter’s and the learner’s orders and does not disobey so much as shifts the person from whom he will take orders.

After explaining the true purpose of the experiment, the experimenter asks, “What in your opinion is the most effective way of strengthening resistance to inhumane authority?”

The subject answers, “If one had as one’s ultimate authority God, then it trivializes human authority.”

Again, the answer for this man lies not in the repudiation of authority but in the substitution of good -- that is, divine -- authority for bad.

Jack Washington, Drill Press Operator (in Experiment 2)

Jack Washington is a black subject, age thirty-five, who was born in South Carolina. He works as a drill press operator and stresses the fact that although he did not complete high school, he was not a dropout but was drafted into the army before he could get his diploma. He is a soft man, a bit heavy and balding, older-looking than his years. His pace is very slow and his manner impassive; his speech is tinged with Southern and black accents.

When the victim’s first protests are heard, he turns toward the experimenter, looks sadly at him, then continues reading the word pairs. The experimenter does not have to tell him to continue. Throughout the experiment he shows almost no emotion or bodily movement. He does what the experimenter tells him in a slow, steady pace that is set off sharply against the strident cries of the victim. Throughout, a sad, dejected expression shows on his face. He continues to the 450-volt level, asks the experimenter what he is to do at that point, administers two additional shocks on command, and is relieved of his task.

He explains in the interview that although he feels the shocks were extremely painful, he accepted the experimenter’s word that they would cause no permanent damage. He reaffirms this belief in a questionnaire answered almost a year after his participation. When asked about responsibility for the victim’s suffering, he places the heaviest burden on the experimenter, then on the victim, and assigns the least to himself. Of the learner he says, “He agreed to it, and therefore must accept responsibility.” The experimenter has “the biggest share of the responsibility. I merely went on. Because I was following orders I was told to go on. And I did not get a cue to stop.

He becomes enmeshed in this formulation which he repeats several times. He explains to the experimenter that if he had received a cue from the experimenter, he would have stopped, implying that he would behave in whatever manner the experimenter required. The only dereliction he can conceive of in the situation is that of not obeying the experimenter.

He explains in his slow, steady manner, “I know that up to a certain point a shock won’t kill you. I had a shock to the point where I was almost knocked down.... My whole hand was numb. But it didn’t kill me.”

Thus, he indicates acceptance of the experimenter’s statement that the shocks may be painful but are not dangerous. In all respects he expresses total faith in the experimenter and indeed accepts his authority more easily and with less inner conflict than many subjects.

Jan Rensaleer, Industrial Engineer (in Experiment 2)

The subject is a thirty-two-year-old industrial engineer, sporting blond hair and a mustache. He is self-contained and speaks with a trace of a foreign accent. He is neatly dressed. In the interview he tells us that he emigrated from Holland after the Second World War and that he is a member of the Dutch Reformed Church. He is mild-mannered and intelligent.

When the victim complains at the 150-volt level, the subject turns to the experimenter and asks, “What do I do now?”

The experimenter tells him to continue.

The engineer presses his hand to his head and proceeds with the test. He glances more and more often at the experimenter. At 255 volts, he pushes the chair away from the shock generator and turns to the experimenter:

MR. RENSALEER: Oh, I can’t continue this way; it’s a voluntary program, if the man doesn’t want to go on with it.

EXPERIMENTER: Please continue.

(A long pause.)

MR. RENSALEER: No, I can’t continue. I’m sorry.

EXPERIMENTER: The experiment requires that you go on.

MR. RENSALEER: The man, he seems to be getting hurt.

EXPERIMENTER: There is no permanent tissue damage.

MR. RENSALEER: Yes, but I know what shocks do to you. I’m an electrical engineer, and I have had shocks … and you get real shook up by them -- especially if you know the next one is coming. I’m sorry.

EXPERIMENTER: It is absolutely essential that you continue.

MR. RENSALEER: Well, I won’t -- not with the man screaming to get out.

EXPERIMENTER: You have no other choice.

MR. RENSALEER: I do have a choice. (Incredulous and indignant:) Why don’t I have a choice? I came here on my own free will. I thought I could help in a research project. But if I have to hurt somebody to do that, or if I was in his place, too, I wouldn’t stay there. I can’t continue. I’m very sorry. I think I’ve gone too far already, probably.

When asked who was responsible for shocking the learner against his will, he said, “I would put it on myself entirely.”

He refused to assign any responsibility to the learner or the experimenter.

“I should have stopped the first time he complained. I did want to stop at that time. I turned around and looked at you. I guess it’s a matter of ... authority, if you want to call it that: my being impressed by the thing, and going on although I didn’t want to. Say, if you’re serving in the army, and you have to do something you don’t like to do, but your superior tells you to do it. That sort of thing, you know what I mean?"

"One of the things I think is very cowardly is to try to shove the responsibility onto someone else. See, if I now turned around and said, ‘It’s your fault ... it’s not mine,’ I would call that cowardly.”

Although this subject defied the experimenter at 255 volts, he still feels responsible for administering any shocks beyond the victim’s first protests. He is hard on himself and does not allow the structure of authority in which he is functioning to absolve him of any responsibility.

Mr. Rensaleer expressed surprise at the underestimation of obedience by the psychiatrists. He said that on the basis of his experience in Nazi-occupied Europe, he would predict a high level of compliance to orders. He suggests, “It would be interesting to conduct the same tests in Germany and other countries.” [3]

The experiment made a deep impression on the subject, so much so that a few days after his participation he wrote a long, careful letter to the staff, asking if he could work with us.

“Although I am ... employed in engineering, I have become convinced that the social sciences and especially psychology, are much more important in today’s world.”

Morris Braverman, Social Worker (in Experiment 2)

Morris Braverman is a thirty-nine-year-old social worker. He looks older than his years because of his bald pate and serious demeanor. His brow is furrowed, as if all the world’s burdens were carried in his face. He appears intelligent and concerned. The impression he creates is that of enormous overcontrol, that of a repressed and serious man, whose finely modulated voice is not linked with his emotional life. He speaks impressively but with perceptible affectation. As the experiment proceeds, laughter intrudes into his performance. At first, it is a light snicker, then it becomes increasingly insistent and disruptive. The laughter seemed triggered by the learner’s screams.

When the learner refuses to answer and the experimenter instructs him to treat the absence of an answer as equivalent to a wrong answer, he takes his instruction to heart.

Before administering 315 volts he asserts officiously to the victim, “Mr. Wallace, your silence has to be considered as a wrong answer.” Then he administers the shock. He offers half-heartedly to change places with the learner, then asks the experimenter, “Do I have to follow these instructions literally?” He is satisfied with the experimenter’s answer that he does. His very refined and authoritative manner of speaking is increasingly broken up by wheezing laughter.

The experimenter’s notes on Mr. Braverman at the last few shocks are:

Almost breaking up now each time gives shock. Rubbing face to hide laughter.

Ratting eyes, trying to hide face with hand, still laughing.

Cannot control his laughter at this point no matter what he does.

Clenching fist pushing it onto table.

In the interview, Mr. Braverman summarizes the experiment with impressive fluency and intelligence. He feels the experiment may have been designed also to “test the effects on the teacher of being in an essentially sadistic role, as well as the reactions of a student to a learning situation that was authoritative, rigid, and punitive.” When asked how painful the last few shocks administered to the learner were, he indicates that the most extreme category on the scale is not adequate (it read EXTREMELY PAINFUL) and places his mark at the extreme edge of the scale with an arrow carrying it beyond the scale.

It is almost impossible to convey the extremely relaxed, sedate quality of his conversation in the interview. In the most quiescent terms, he speaks about his extreme inner tension.

EXPERIMENTER: At what point were you most tense or nervous?

MR. BRAVERMAN: Well, when he first began to cry out in pain, and I realized this was hurting him. This got worse when he just blocked and refused to answer. There was I. I’m a nice person, I think, hurting somebody, and caught up in what seemed a mad situation and in the interest of science, one goes through with it. At one point I had an impulse to just refuse to continue with this kind of a teaching situation.

EXPERIMENTER: At what point was this?

MR. BRAVERMAN: This was after a couple of successive refusals and silences. This is when I asked you a question as to whether I have a choice in my teaching method. At this point my impulse was to plead with him, talk with him, encourage him, try to ally myself with his feelings, work at this so we could get this through together and I wouldn’t have to hurt him.

When Mr. Braverman states that he considered “not going through with it,” he does not mean that he considered disobeying but rather that he considered modifying the manner of teaching the victim.

When the interviewer brings up the general question of tension, Mr. Braverman spontaneously mentions his laughter.

“My reactions were awfully peculiar. I don’t know if you were watching me, but my reactions were giggly, and trying to stifle laughter. This isn’t the way I usually am. This was a sheer reaction to a totally impossible situation. And my reaction was to the situation of having to hurt somebody. And being totally helpless and caught up in a set of circumstances where I just couldn’t deviate and I couldn’t try to help. This is what got me.”

A year after his participation in the experiment, he affirms in the questionnaire that he has definitely learned something of personal importance as a result of being in the experiment, adding: “What appalled me was that I could possess this capacity for obedience and compliance to a central idea, i.e. the value of a memory experiment even after it became clear that continued adherence to this value was at the expense of violation of another value, i.e. don’t hurt someone else who is helpless and not hurting you. As my wife said, ‘You can call yourself Eichmann.’ I hope I can deal more effectively with any future conflicts of values I encounter.”
Site Admin
Posts: 17090
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am


Return to Investigations of Government

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest