Obedience and Authority – Milgram’s Shocking Research


What is Obedience?

Obedience is a form of social influence in which one person orders one or more others to do something, and they do so. Thus, this indicates a relation between obedience and authority.

APAbehavior in compliance with a direct command, often one issued by a person in a position of authority. For example, a child who cleans his or her room when told to do so by a parent and a soldier who follows the orders of a superior officer.

Obedience occurs when you are told to do something (authority), whereas conformity happens through social pressure (the norms of the majority). Obedience involves a hierarchy of power/status.

Milgram’s Experiment on Obedience and Authority

Humans show surprisingly obedient tendencies in the presence of legitimate authority figures. Demonstrated by the Milgram Experiment in the 1960s. This experiment was carried out by Stanley Milgram to study obedience.

Moreover, discover how the Nazis managed to get ordinary people to take part in the mass murders of the  Holocaust. The experiment showed that obedience to authority was the norm, not the exception

The Experiment

In an effort to gain insights into the nature of such events, Milgram designed an ingenious laboratory simulation. The experimenter informed participants in the study (all males) that they were taking part in an investigation of the effects of punishment on learning.

One person in each pair of participants would serve as a “learner” and would try to perform a simple task involving memory. The other participant, the “teacher,” would question the learner, and would punish errors by the learner.

This punishment would be given through electric shock. Further, these shocks would be delivered by the means of a device that contained 30 numbered switches ranging from “15 volts” through 450 volts.

During the session, the learner (following prearranged instructions) made many errors. Thus, participants soon found themselves facing a dilemma: Should they continue punishing this person with what seemed to be increasingly painful shocks? Or should they refuse?

If they hesitated, the experimenter pressured them to continue with a graded series “prods”: “Please continue”; “The experiment requires that you continue”; “It is absolutely essential that you continue”; and “You have no other choice, you must go on.”

Since participants were all volunteers and were paid in advance, you might predict that most would quickly refuse the experimenter’s orders. In fact, the reality was, fully 65 percent showed total obedience. In addition, they proceeded through the entire series to the final 450-volt level. Many participants, of course, protested and asked that the session be ended. However, when ordered to proceed, however, a majority yielded to the experimenter’s influence and continued to obey.

Conclusion of Experiment

What this experiment suggests is that people have strong tendency to obey authority. It is not just because we fear sanctions or punishments. We seem to obey anybody who wears even simplest trappings of authority. (In this case, white lab coat).

Factors that increase obedience

Milgram found that subjects were more likely to obey in some circumstances than others. Obedience was highest when:

  •  Commands were given by an authority figure rather than another volunteer
  •  The experiments were done at a prestigious institution
  •  The authority figure was present in the room with the subject
  • The learner was in another room
  •  The subject did not see other subjects disobeying commands

In everyday situations, people obey orders because they want to get rewards. In addition, they want to avoid the negative consequences of disobeying. And because they believe an authority is legitimate.

Destructive Obedience

Destructive Obedience as defined by APA is –

” Compliance with the direct or indirect orders of a social, military, or moral authority that results in negative outcomes, such as injury to innocent victims, harm to the community, or the loss of confidence in social institutions. Example of destructive obedience includes soldiers obeying orders to attack civilians.”

Why it Occurs?

As we saw, obedience occurs when an authority commands something and we feel obliged to follow it. Maybe because there is conditioning to follow authority.

In more extreme situations, people obey even when required to violate their own values or commit crimes. Researchers think several factors cause people to carry obedience to extremes.

People justify their behavior by –

  • Assigning responsibility to the authority rather than themselves.
  • People define the behavior that’s expected of them as routine.
  • They don’t want to be rude or offend the authority.
  • Individuals obey easy commands first and then feel compelled to obey more and more difficult commands.

This process is entrapment, and it illustrates the foot-in-the-door phenomenon.

How to resist effects of destructive obedience?

We have considered some of the factors responsible for the strong tendency to obey sources of authority.

Now, we turn to a related question: How to resist this type of social influence?

Several strategies may be helpful in this respect.

  • First – Reminding individuals that they are responsible for producing any harm, not the authorities. Under these conditions, there have been sharp reductions in the tendency to obey.
  • Second, individuals can be provided with a clear indication that beyond some point, total submission to destructive commands is inappropriate.
  • Third, individuals may find it easier to resist influence from authority figures if they question the expertise and motives of these figures.
  • Finally, simply knowing about the power of authority figures to command blind obedience may be helpful in itself.


  • Baron, R. A. and Byrne, D. (1997). Social Psychology, 8th edition. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon
  • egyankosh.ac.in

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