When (and when not to) Listen to Authority: Lessons from Milgram
Most of us acknowledge the role of legitimate authority and authority figures. Society, put simply, would have a hard time functioning without legitimate authority.
But what are the limits to authority?
Stanly Milgram, a social psychologist from Yale University, wanted to find out. More specifically, reflecting on the atrocities committed by the Nazi’s during WWII, Milgram wanted to know how so many people could collaborate and aid Hitler, helping him to carry out his egregious crimes. Put simply, Milgram wanted to know: How far would a person go in following orders from an authority figure?
The results were shocking . . . literally.
Back in the 60s, in order to investigate his research question, Milgram design an experiment that included three participants. One person, who was the researcher, or authority figure, gave instructions to the “teacher.” The latter, who was actually the research subject, was instructed to give electric shocks to an individual, the learner (who, unbeknownst to the teacher, was actually an associate of Milgram’s), if he or she answered questions incorrectly. The shocks increased for each wrong answer, from a 15-volt “slight shock” to a more severe, 420-volt “severe shock.” The teacher, who, again, was actually the research subject, was told he or she was participating in a study about learning.
So, with all the elements in place, the question remained: Would the subject follow Milgram’s orders to shock to the participant, continuing to harm them (so they believed), simply because they were ordered to do so by the researcher?
In Milgram’s original experiments, as many as 65 percent of the participants had reached the 420-volt “severe shock” intensity level, despite cries and protests from the learner.
When the teachers increased the shock intensity—and therefore the level of suffering—many would turn to Milgram, who would respond coldly, “ Please go on,” or “The experiment requires that you continue,” which, as noted above, many did continue.
After it was first conducted, Milgram’s Obedience study was replicated many times and has yielded consistent results.
Listen to Authority?
There remain many lessons from Milgram’s Obedience Study. It has also captured the imagination of many people. Milgram’s Obedience Study has been the subject of many popular books, television shows, and documentaries. Initially, many people refused to believe that a person would intentionally harm another human being simply because they were instructed to do so. “I would never do that,” many individuals have said. Milgram’s experiment, however, begs to differ. It has shown that individuals will often follow orders from an authority figure, even if it means harming another person . . . like many of the Nazi “underlings” during WWII.
So, when is the “I-was-just-doing-my-job” defense acceptable? In many cases, as it was revealed subsequently at the Nuremburg Trials, this was the defense used by many Nazi’s, including Adolf Eichmann, one the chief architects of the “final solution.” One of the lessons we could extract from Milgram’s experiments (and there are many) remains the idea that when we transfer responsibility to an authority figure, we are more likely to obey immoral directives.
Many of us are taught from an early age to follow authority. This remains true on an individual level as well as a cultural level. As school children, we are taught to ask permission to use the bathroom, to speak, and to get up from out seats. On writing about Milgram’s experiment, psychologist Phillip Zimbardo, who remains known in his own right as the director of the Stanford Prison Experiment, writes: “. . . [o]rdinary adults were reduced to mindless obedient school children who do not know how to exit from the most unpleasant situation until teacher gives them permission to do so.”
As Americans, we value freedom and autonomy, but on an individual level, we are expected to listen to authority and conform. Although many of us many not be in situations where we are asked to administer shocks to another individual, we may be in positions at our jobs where are decisions to obey can cause harm. In large corporations, where many of us are directly removed from where large decisions are being made, is saying “I was just doing my job” any different than what Milgram’s study participants had rationalized?
Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York: Harper & Row.