Human behavior is an endlessly fascinating phenomenon. What makes us tick? Is it our genes and evolutionary heritage? That is the nativist tradition, the more-or-less deterministic approach. Though that side has Freud as its all-time most-famous standard bearer, there is also Noam Chomsky (in his early work as a linguist) and many a philosopher. The radical behavioristic wing of the young science is probably heralded by John Watson and B. F. Skinner. Watson famously noted that he could take any group of young children, and, given the time and resources, train them up to be anything in life he desired – from murderer to saint. Skinner wrote a book, Walden 2, about a society that was centered around operant conditioning. And this approach was very dark as well. Some people like to believe that free will is inextinguishable, and that personal choice and personal responsibility carry the day. Existentialism riding in on a white horse, as it were. Personologists have created some well-researched theories of personality development, and developmental psychologists have been theorizing and performing studies on various types of psychological, psychosocial, and moral human development. Social learning theory is a serious and well-regarded branch to the recently-very-mature science of human behavior. It’s all very interesting, and is based more or less on the individual. The belief (myth?) is that the American prizes self-determination, rationality, freedom, and autonomy more than they do following orders, just being a part of the crowd, or bowing to social pressure. In a word: obedience to authority.
Solomon Asch and Philip Zimbardo created interesting (the former) and stunning (the latter) examples of social influence, groupthink, and the power of the situation. Though ethically questionable (the latter), these studies mark the 1960s and 1970s as the heyday of social psychology’s contribution to the Hall of Fame when it comes to understanding human behavior. Though Asch’s studies were enlightening, they didn’t take on the fever-pitch that Zimbardo’s ground-breaking (earth-shattering?), 7-day hellscape did. What those who learn about the Stanford Prison Study tend to come away with is a mouth-agape feeling that human beings – Americans included – are absolutely susceptible to the phenomenon of obedience to authority.
Tied for the most shocking – literally! – experiment from this era of the Wild West of psychology must be Yale researcher Stanley Milgram’s look at the interesting phenomenon, obedience to authority. Here is a second take on the hallmark study. It has wowed the world and caused a flurry of studies. It has been roundly criticized for its questionable ethics. Its findings made newspapers from then until today.
The background is that Milgram was thinking in the late 1950s about Nazism – how was it that a fairly cultured people, the Germans, could do what they did in electing Hitler and being complicit in what was obviously a rank political system and an atrocious level of social decay. Americans were, surely, above that. Or were they? He sought to find out and boy were the results (ahem!) shocking…
Trying not to reinvent the wheel, allow me to quote UC Davis researcher Gregorio Billikopf Encinas as he discusses obedience to authority:
Why is it so many people obey when they feel coerced? Social psychologist Stanley Milgram researched the phenomenon of obedience to authority. He concluded people obey either out of fear or out of a desire to appear cooperative — even when acting against their own better judgment and desires. Milgram’s classic yet controversial experiment illustrates people’s reluctance to confront those who abuse power. It is my opinion that Milgram’s book should be required reading (see References below) for anyone in supervisory or management positions.
Milgram recruited subjects for his experiments from various walks in life. Respondents were told the experiment would study the effects of punishment on learning ability. They were offered a token cash award for participating. Although respondents thought they had an equal chance of playing the role of a student or of a teacher, the process was rigged so all respondents ended up playing the teacher. The learner was an actor working as a cohort of the experimenter.
“Teachers” were asked to administer increasingly severe electric shocks to the “learner” when questions were answered incorrectly. In reality, the only electric shocks delivered in the experiment were single 45-volt shock samples given to each teacher. This was done to give teachers a feeling for the jolts they thought they would be discharging.
Shock levels were labeled from 15 to 450 volts. Besides the numerical scale, verbal anchors added to the frightful appearance of the instrument. Beginning from the lower end, jolt levels were labeled: “slight shock,” “moderate shock,” “strong shock,” “very strong shock,” “intense shock,” and “extreme intensity shock.” The next two anchors were “Danger: Severe Shock,” and, past that, a simple but ghastly “XXX.”
In response to the supposed jolts, the “learner” (actor) would begin to grunt at 75 volts; complain at 120 volts; ask to be released at 150 volts; plead with increasing vigor, next; and let out agonized screams at 285 volts. Eventually, in desperation, the learner was to yell loudly and complain of heart pain.
At some point the actor would refuse to answer any more questions. Finally, at 330 volts the actor would be totally silent-that is, if any of the teacher participants got so far without rebelling first.
Teachers were instructed to treat silence as an incorrect answer and apply the next shock level to the student.
If at any point the innocent teacher hesitated to inflict the shocks, the experimenter would pressure him to proceed. Such demands would take the form of increasingly severe statements, such as “The experiment requires that you continue.”
What do you think was the average voltage given by teachers before they refused to administer further shocks? What percentage of teachers, if any, do you think went up to the maximum voltage of 450?
Results from the experiment. Some teachers refused to continue with the shocks early on, despite urging from the experimenter. This is the type of response Milgram expected as the norm. But Milgram was shocked to find those who questioned authority were in the minority. Sixty-five percent (65%) of the teachers were willing to progress to the maximum voltage level.
Participants demonstrated a range of negative emotions about continuing. Some pleaded with the learner, asking the actor to answer questions carefully. Others started to laugh nervously and act strangely in diverse ways. Some subjects appeared cold, hopeless, somber, or arrogant. Some thought they had killed the learner. Nevertheless, participants continued to obey, discharging the full shock to learners. One man who wanted to abandon the experiment was told the experiment must continue. Instead of challenging the decision of the experimenter, he proceeded, repeating to himself, “It’s got to go on, it’s got to go on.”
Milligram’s obedience to authority experiment included a number of variations. In one, the learner was not only visible but teachers were asked to force the learner’s hand to the shock plate so they could deliver the punishment. Less obedience was extracted from subjects in this case. In another variation, teachers were instructed to apply whatever voltage they desired to incorrect answers. Teachers averaged 83 volts, and only 2.5 percent of participants used the full 450 volts available. This shows most participants were good, average people, not evil individuals. They obeyed only under coercion.
In general, more submission was elicited from “teachers” when (1) the authority figure was in close proximity; (2) teachers felt they could pass on responsibility to others; and (3) experiments took place under the auspices of a respected organization.
Participants were debriefed after the experiment and showed much relief at finding they had not harmed the student. One cried from emotion when he saw the student alive, and explained that he thought he had killed him. But what was different about those who obeyed and those who rebelled? Milgram divided participants into three categories:
Obeyed but justified themselves. Some obedient participants gave up responsibility for their actions, blaming the experimenter. If anything had happened to the learner, they reasoned, it would have been the experimenter’s fault. Others had transferred the blame to the learner: “He was so stupid and stubborn he deserved to be shocked.”
Obeyed but blamed themselves. Others felt badly about what they had done and were quite harsh on themselves. Members of this group would, perhaps, be more likely to challenge authority if confronted with a similar situation in the future.
Rebelled. Finally, rebellious subjects questioned the authority of the experimenter and argued there was a greater ethical imperative calling for the protection of the learner over the needs of the experimenter. Some of these individuals felt they were accountable to a higher principle.
Why were those who challenged authority in the minority? So entrenched is obedience it may void personal codes of conduct.
Here is the birds-eye-view take on it from noted psychologist and philosopher, Daniel N. Robinson in his very interesting lecture on the subject as part of The Great Courses.
“If you take one of the traditions [in the history of psychology] to be deterministic in the materialistic sense (genetic determinism – brain mechanisms and the like) and the other tradition to be deterministic in the sense that a reinforcement history will determine future behavior in a variety of circumstances, then I would submit that perhaps the most challenging research and theoretical literature where such perspectives are concerned is the research and theory that focuses on the immediate social context as remarkably being able to overturn or overcome what would otherwise appear to be the learning experiences of a lifetime.”
“That is, something in the demand characteristics of the social situation that seems to have “trumping power” over what we would otherwise take to be fixed personality traits…, genetically-programmed instinctual patterns of behavior, [and] the sustained behavior arising from a lifetime of reinforcements….”
He is clear to categorize the strain of theory and research he is describing as contextual determinants of complex behavior. So, in sum, social psychology has produced some remarkable findings over the years in a wide array of contextual determinants of complex behavior. In addition to the one in question (obedience to authority), other notable categories of findings include: altruism, persuasion, prejudice, group influence, social beliefs and judgments, aggression, attraction and intimacy, conflict, peacemaking, and forensics. These are the many and enlightening subjects that social psychology has bequeathed to us. I took a class two semesters ago and it was well worth the effort. Few experiments raise as many ethical questions about human nature as did Milgram’s remarkable and notorious work on obedience to authority in post-World War II American adults.
It’s not good news, folks. I think there is some room for optimism (“the Millennials” and “Gen Z”) might indeed be more headstrong and self-determining (than perhaps they really ought to be!), but there is also a worrisome and salient movement in society to follow President Trump through hell and high water, and go wherever he might lead. When I sometimes hear him talk (lie?) he appears to be the quintessential demagogue – whipping up the crowd for his own, sometimes nefarious purposes. It is as though he is a Machiavellian, master manipulator of human emotions for the purpose of enacting his vision. Basically, the opposite of a philosopher-king. When I then see an attendee/follower/acolyte interviewed on camera, it smacks disturbingly of obedience to authority. I suppose there is some of that present in hard-core Bernie Sanders supporters. Of course, I feel that the evidence for Bernie’s character, intentions, and ideas are much more sound, liberal, and high-minded. It’s the difference between someone shouting at a “Healthcare for All!” rally and someone shouting at a “Kick Out Immigrants!” rally. I fervently hope that America is more liberal, rational, and good than it is exclusionary, hateful, and white supremacist.
If you would like to investigate further, enter a keyword into The Wisdom Archive and see what you find! There are 26,000 quotations on values, some of which certainly have to do with social psychology’s contribution to our understanding of human nature – obedience to authority as well as a principled altruism; individuality vs. group dynamics and determinism.