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Psychology’s dark history of authority

After browsing around I realize that this subject has been posted about for years across psychology blogs. It’s an interesting subject, but old news is old news! So I will try to give you a bit of information that I’ve noticed most posters leave out. First, let us explain the study!

Today we are going to take a quick look at the darker side of psychological research. I am speaking of Dr. Milgram’s famous work -“Behavioral study of obedience.”

Between 1933 and 1945, the world was enduring the second world war, and the Nazi party was looking to exterminate an entire race of people. While it is probable that one man might be insane enough to attempt such a thing, how was it that an entire country followed through with it? Is it that the German people of that era were sadistic, or is there something powerful about the nature of authority?

A few years later, in 1963, Dr. Stanley Milgram published the work, “Behavioral study of Obedience,” in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology which attempted to answer some questions about the German people of World War II. He wanted to know how powerful authority really was. To accomplish this, he devised what seemed like a rather harmless study. At the time, he had no idea how powerful this effect would be, and how much it would impact the participants in the study.

The first study used 40 male participants living near the Yale campus between the ages of 20 and 50 years old, and each participant was compensated with five dollars for their participation (that’s big money in 1960 dollars!!!). The participant would come to the testing site (a room on the Yale campus), and meet another participant. This other participant was actually an actor. The experimenter would come in (wearing a lab coat), and introduce himself to the two participants. The experimenter would then inform them of the task.

He would basically explain that this was a study on punishment and learning. One of the participants would be the teacher, the other the learner. The teacher would test the learner, and when the learner made an error, the learner would receive a minor shock. Then if the learner made more errors, the shocks would increase in voltage.

The actor was always “randomly” assigned the role of the learner. That is, the experimenter made it seem like a matter of chance, but it was always just assigned. The teacher (the real participant) would sit in front of a large device with switches in front of it. The switches displayed the number of volts, and when the switch was pressed, you could hear a loud buzzing coming from a nearby room (which meant the shock was being delivered). This nearby room was the were the learner would seem to sit. The voltage was split into 8 section; light shock, moderate shock, strong shock,very strong shock, intense shock, extremely intense shock, danger severe shock, and XXX (haha!!).

So each time the learner made an error, the teacher would increase the shock by 15 volts, until he got to the very end. At which point, he would just keep using the 450 volt setting!

To make it even more dramatic, the actor would speak from a microphone from the other room. That is, they were not in the same room together, but spoke to each other through microphones. The actor would play pre-recorded messages which stated things like, “let me out, I have heart trouble, I can’t take it anymore,” and the actor would also shout “ouch” after each shock… until later! The actors message was clearly trying to convey that he was in danger. If the participant (the teacher) said, “Ok that’s it, I’m not going to shock him anymore,” the experimenter (in the lab coat) would say, “it is impartiality that you continue you,” or “you must go on.” Further, as the teacher reached nearly 300+ volts, the actor would stop responding (unconscious or dead, who knows?). Just imagine – you are delivering a POWERFUL shock to a man, and they are not even making a yelping sound. The image of a dead man getting shocked by the teacher is the only thing that comes to mind.

So here is the fun question psychology students love to ask after explaining this study – how many of these 40 participants went all the way to XXX shock? That is, how many of them essentially killed this fake person?

As we can see, 26 out of 40 people thought they had basically killed a man. Let’s just take a moment to point out how unethical that is. All of these people probably had some pretty good self esteem going into this, now they feel like they are some sort of sick tool used to kill a man in the name of science? That’s quite insane, however science was a bit different back then, wasn’t it? The experimenter had no idea this effect was going to be so powerful. They really didn’t think so many would go ALL the way. And a quick note about ethics in experimentation – the second a participant asks to quit, you cannot say “it’s important that you continue,” you must comply with their request to quit. Not only that, you must also give them whatever compensate you had promised them for their time. However, we do not judge this experiment by today’s standards, I just wanted to point out why it could not be done these days!

Moving on, we can see how the power of authority may have more explanatory power than a theory that all German people had been insane. Clearly it was the power of authority at work.

So what are the additional things I wanted to point out for you today? I’m sure you noticed the words in bold in my description of the study. I wanted to point out some very important factors that that influence how much someone will obey. It turns out that being on the Yale campus and dressing like a scientist (with the lab coat) actually created an interaction effect. If you have people do this study in a normal building, or if they take the test with a proctor wearing casual clothing, the participants comply less and less often. The image is such a powerful thing in how we come to follow authority. The environment and the speaker’s presentation both play powerful roles in how we behave. Further, dehumanization occurs easily when the actor and the participant are separated. Since they can only hear each other, not see each other, it made doing these acts even easier.

Finally a few comments on cognitive dissonance – how are we able to do such awful things just because we are being told to do so? We feel dissonance for committing these awful acts, so we have two actions to take to reduce this dissonance. First – dehumanization of the target. If we convince ourselves that the other person is unimportant, we are able to not feel guilt for it. Second – authority. When we fall back on an authority figures we allow ourselves to assume that the authority figures are the experts and they are liable for my actions. While this is a relatively immature way to think, it is how we handle the situation. Dissonance reduction in this manner led these 26 people to commit these actions.

This  leads me to my next post – Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Study. This is the next biggest study in social psychology, and after that we shall move away from “controlling” people and move towards “persuading” people!!!



  1. Yannick says:

    A few quick things – just on a financial note, $5 in 1960 is roughly worth $38 in today’s money. Nothing of importance, but being a banker, I have to point it out.

    Secondly – there was a great article somewhere a few weeks ago that I read about the interaction between someone’s style of dress and their own work habits. Basically, it said that people who wear lab coats actually do work harder than those who wear casual clothing. It meant that the typical Casual Friday wear – on the basis of clothing difference alone – led people to work less stringently than normal, because of how much it changed the atmosphere of their workplace. Based on your mentioning of the experimenter’s wardrobe, it seems pretty interesting that we associated so strongly on this exterior, and honestly, shallow method of determining someone’s importance, and therefore, authority. You mentioned to me in person that it takes several years for a child to realize that not all adults are trustworthy, and that relying on an expert in a field rather than just some random person is a difficult skill. I have to believe that similar trait continues, hence why we care so much about how someone dresses in order to determine their authority on a subject.

    A question on guilt – how do we measure guilt in order to objectively determine that these subjects felt less guilt in theoretically murdering a human because they had been told to do so? It seems a rather subjective area. Is there a specific physiological response in the brain to guilt – a chemical that is released or a part of the brain that activates?

    I wonder, personally, if that minimization of guilt is why the armed forces have such a strict hierarchy – and why those at the lower end can do atrocious things without really realizing what they are doing. Vietnam springs to mind… as well as the soldier, recently, who murdered 15 (or however many) Afghans. Obviously stress plays a huge role – but does the lack of taking ownership over your actions play the larger role?

    • Thanks for the great points you mentioned.

      In my next post, I am going to be talking a lot more about appearance and behavior. The Stanford Prison Study showed the dressing people up like guards and inmates made them behave in line with their expectations of those people, even though all these participants were just students. In short, casual Fridays are bad for productivity. If I was more knowledgeable in Industrial/Organizational psychology we could talk about why employee morale is more important than taking a few hits to productivity now and then. Alas, I will have to read up on that!

      As for guilt, I am really talking about the initial dissonance we experience when we do something we feel is wrong. It turns out it may be possible to observe this directly by use fMRI techniques. The conflict monitor activates when we experience dissonance. If someone commits an awful act and experiences no dissonance, which is observed by no or minor conflict monitor activation, we can definitely say that there was no “guilt” that was experienced by this person – if we define guilt as an expression of dissonance at least.

      I think the strictness of the hierarchy is in place to ensure orders get carried out more than other reasons. However, the nature of such strict control is that you do not feel as much dissonance when you are ordered to do something, compared to having to come to the decision on your own. If my commanding officer told me to do something wicked, I may feel awful for having done it, but my dissonance is reduced because I had no choice. This does not REMOVE the guilt, it simply lessens it. At least, that is my take on it.

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