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Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View

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Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority explores the individual’s decisions and responses to authoritative figures. The series of experiments measured the level of obedience towards authoritative figures such as an experimenter. The subjects were placed in different scenarios to control certain factors. Are we indiscriminate followers, who will obey anyone that is able to convince us that he or she has the right to command? In the experiment the subject sent electric shocks to the victim. The victim was presented with questions, and for each incorrect answer he or she would receive a shock from the subject; further more, with each incorrect answer the voltage increased. To ensure the correct procedure was continuously experimenter presided over the experiment. The experimenter encouraged the subject when he or she had doubts about administering the shocks. However the victim, played by an actor, made appropriate responses to the fake shocks such as screams and pleas for help. Several versions of the basic experiment were executed with different variables. The location and audibility of the victim differed. In Experiment 1, the victim was placed in a separate room where the subject would be able to hear the victim’s screams. In Experiment 2, the victim remained in a separate room, however there was voice feedback. The subject was able to clearly hear the victim. The victim was placed several feet away in the same room as the subject in Experiment 3. Experiment 4 required the subject to physically move the victim’s hand to receive the shock. The experiments revealed a decrease in obedience in the Experiments 3 and 4. The average maximum voltage the subjects were willing to administer also decreased in Experiments 3 and 4. (1) The proximity of the victim affected the subject’s inclination to shock the victim. The level of evidence of the victim’s distress seemed to correlate with the subject’s level of anxiety. When the victim is placed in the same room with the subject, there are visual, auditory, and more intrusive cues provided. In the first two experiments where the victim was placed in another room, the conditions were remote and there existed a separation between the actions and the consequences of administering the shocks. It was more difficult to establish the connection that the subject’s actions are causing the victim’s pain. The subject can directly correlate the victim’s distress to his actions. Therefore subject falls under the scrutiny of the victim, which may lead to feelings of guilt and shame, which may serve to inhibit the subject from continuing with the shocks. Since the subject and the victim are in the same room, an opportunity for collaborating against the experimenter becomes possible. This also increases the subject’s reluctance to harm the victim. Several other variables were examined. In Experiment 5, a new script was made for the victim. The victim would state that he had a heart condition, plead with the subject to discontinue, and refuse to respond to further questions. (2) Experiment 6 which consisted of parallel experiments were run with a stern looking experimenter and a soft looking victim and the other with an unaggressive experimenter and a hard looking victim. There was no overall difference in the number of obedient subjects and the mean maximum shock level. Experiment 7 revealed a huge decrease in obedience when the experimenter was not physically in the laboratory; the experimenter gave commands over the phone. (3) Experiment 8 explored whether or not the gender of the subject matters. The number of obedient subjects and the mean maximum shock level was very similar to the data from experiments with male subjects; however the subjects felt an increased level of conflict. (4) In Experiment 9 the victim signed a release that stated, “In participating in this experimental research of my own free will, I release Yale University and its employees from any legal claims arising from my participation.” Due to the victim’s supposed “heart condition”, the victim agreed to sign the release with the condition that the experiment would be halted when asked. This decreased the percent of obedient subjects (in response to the experimenter) by approximately 20%; however the mean maximum shock level remained approximately the same. (5) In Experiment 10, the experiments were done as if it were not sponsored by Yale University. Instead of a laboratory setting, the experiments were carried out in a run down building, with experimenters who did not show any credentials. This generated skepticism from the participants which decreased obedience. (6) The most surprising result of the survey is the reason behind the decreased percentage of obedience. There were several experiments that resulted in a decrease in obedience: Experiment 3, 4, 7, and 9. In Experiments 3 and 4 the subject disobeys because he feels he is being judged by the victim. The subjects do not stop because they decide to take action after realizing that it is inhumane to shock the victim; it is because they themselves feel uncomfortable. The lack of the experimenter’s presence in Experiment 7 relieves pressure from the subject. The experimenters have an expectation and the subjects’ purpose is to meet that expectation; therefore there is an unseen pressure to obey. The subjects found it easier to defect when they did not have to face the experimenter’s disappointment from not meeting the expectations set out in the experiment. In Experiment 9, the subjects have an excuse for their disobedience. The release was signed by the victim on the condition that the shocks will stop when the victim chooses. The release is used to place the disappointment of not meeting the expectations of the experiment on the victim rather than on themselves. It can be concluded that our actions are based the actions and reactions of those around us. Our individual choices do not seem to be very individual at all. There were the few that did question the experiment very early on and those that felt proud of doing their job as a participant in the experiment by administering the 450 volt shock. Answering to a “higher power” whether it is one’s boss or mentor, is a flaw in the societal structure; there is a social hierarchy that people learn from infancy. Parents are the authoritative figure for children. When a command is issued such as, “do not harm those smaller than you,” there are several different things that the child learns. The first command is exactly what the adult states; the second command is “listen to me”; and most importantly, the parent declares that he or she is always correct. Thus the final statement must hold true in the child’s mind for the child to obey the parent’s command. 1) Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. Harper and Row, Publishers, 1974. p35. 2) Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. Harper and Row, Publishers, 1974. p56. 3) Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. Harper and Row, Publishers, 1974. p59. 4) Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. Harper and Row, Publishers, 1974. p63. 5) Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. Harper and Row, Publishers, 1974. p65-66. 6) Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. Harper and Row, Publishers, 1974. p69.