Obedience to Authority
Sometimes people do harmful or unethical things because they are following the orders of an authority figure.
When this occurs, there is a natural tendency to blame the character of the individuals involved and to ignore the powerful situational forces at play. Usually authorities are fair and serve as role models. Problems arise when seemingly just authority begins to act unjustly. Typically, in most nations there is no training in families or schools to distinguish between just and unjust authorities.
Obedience to an Unjust Authority
Stanley Milgram’s groundbreaking experiment, conducted in 1963, offers a chilling example of misguided obedience in action. Milgram wanted to know whether average Americans would be susceptible to the same situational forces that the Nazis were, and if so, could they be convinced to participate in similarly reprehensible acts. Believing they were involved in a study on learning and helping others to improve their memory, participants were told that they would play the role of the “teacher” to help their “learner” learn by immediately punishing errors.
This authority was given a laboratory coat as an external symbol of power. He sat in front of an impressive, shock-generating machine with a series of 30 switches with labels ranging from “Mild Shock” to “Danger Severe Shock.” Participants were told to flip a switch with each mistake the “learner” (actually an actor-confederate) made in memorizing a series of word pairs. At a prearranged point, the “learner” begins to complain of the painful shocks and reminds the experimenter of his heart condition. The experimenter orders the participants to continue the experiment each time they express doubt, telling them that “the experiment requires that you continue.” When a teacher complained about who would be responsible if something happened to the learner, the experimenter reassured him that he would assume full responsibility– thus diffusing and displacing the participant’s responsibility for his direct actions of seemingly harming the learner.
The results of this experiment stunned both Milgram and most psychologists. Sixty five percent (65%) of the participants administered the maximum level of shock (450 volts) despite the evident distress shown by the learner, and every participant administered a shock above the level they personally felt was ethical.
Obedience Outside the Lab
The results of the Milgram study showed that participants would comply with the unethical orders of an apparent authority figure who was physically present in the room. However, recent events have demonstrated that the tendency to obey is much more deeply ingrained in us, and that even orders given by a stranger on the telephone can cause us to violate our personal sense of ethics and cause grievous harm to another person.
Other Examples of Obedience in Action
Each of the following videos provides an additional example of our natural tendency to obey authority, or virtually anyone who has the trappings or appearance of an authority figure.
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 207-217.Milgram, S. (2009). Obedience to authority: An experimental view (3rd Ed.). New York: Harper Perennial. Foreword by P.G. Zimbardo.
For more information about “Candid Camera” and to learn about the collection of “Candid Camera” videos for both educational and home-viewing, visit Candid Camera. (Footage used here by permission from Candid Camera, Inc.)