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  • Parth Pruthi

Perils of Obedience

Would you kill someone if a figure vested with the authority asked you to?

Hopefully, most people will answer in the negative. But will they actually abide by their answers in situations that count? Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted a series of experiments to answer similar questions and the results were surprising, to say the least.

Milgram examined the justifications given by war criminals at the Nuremberg trials in the wake of the Second World War. A common justification that the accused gave was obedience i.e. they were just complying with the orders.

Milgram wanted to know whether Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, and millions under him were just obeying orders. His experiments were designed to observe how far the subjects were willing to go when someone in authority would ask them to do something which was in sharp variance to their personal conscience.

The Experiment

The experiment began in 1961, and the subjects were given $4 for participating. An interesting aspect of the experiment was that the participants were made to believe that the experiment was related to the study of memory and not obedience.

Each session of the experiment had three roles- the experimenter, teacher, and learner- where the experimenter was in charge of the session and would act as the authority figure, wearing a lab coat to signal authority. The role of the teacher was given to the actual participant and the learner was played by an actor who would pretend to be a participant.

Two rooms were used for the experiment, one where the learner(confederate) would sit on an electric chair and another room for the teacher(participant) and experimenter, where there was an electric shock generator with 30 different levels of shocks. The teacher was also given a mild shock to make him experience the shock that would supposedly be given to the learner during the experiment.

After arriving at the session, both the actual participant and the actor were briefed about the experiment and its aim to study the effects of punishment on an individual’s ability to memorize content and were asked to draw slips that would determine their respective roles. Both the slips had ‘teacher’ written on them, and the actor would always claim to be the learner which made sure that the actual participant was always the teacher. The teacher was given a list of word pairs that were to be taught to the learner. He would read the words with four options and the learner was required to choose the correct one. The teacher would shock the learner for every wrong answer with an increment of 15 volts each time, starting from 15 volts to 450 volts. However, the shocks were never really administered. The teacher was made to believe that they were real shocks as the shock generator was connected with a tape recorder with a pre-recorded voice of the learner. With increasing shock levels, the audio of the learner became more stressed, with instances of protests, banging the desk, calling for shutting down the experiment, and when higher voltages were administered, the audio went silent.

The teacher would often hesitate to continue with the experiment after realizing that the learner was in discomfort- in those instances, the experimenter would exercise his authority.

The experimenter would use the following prods to persuade the teacher not to halt the experiment.

  1. Please continue or Please go on.

  2. The experiment requires that you continue.

  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.

  4. You have no other choice; you must go on.

They were to be used in their respective order i.e. if the initial ones weren’t obeyed only then was the experimenter allowed to use the later ones.

Often, the participants asked about the extent of damage of the shocks and for those instances, the experimenter was required to use the following prod: “Although the shocks may be painful, there is no permanent tissue damage, so please go on.”

The experiment was an attempt to understand and assess how many people compromise their conscience, and to what extent, in situations of conflict between their conscience and the dictates of authority.


Now comes the part that even took the psychologists by surprise. Milgram asked his colleagues and forty psychiatrists to predict the results, with most believing that only 3.73% would continue the experiment by 300 Volts shock and 0.1% would administer the final 450 Volts shock. What did the experiment reveal? A staggering 65% of the subjects administered the 450 Volts shock and all of the participants administered 300 Volts shock. Moreover, this was when the participants had experienced the discomfort caused by the shocks beforehand. It is however important to note that subjects became extremely agitated, stressed, and angry at the experimenter, but nevertheless continued the experiment till the end.

This is what Milgram had to say about the results:

“The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation. Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”


Milgram explained the results with his theory that people have two states of behaviour when they are in social situations:

  1. Autonomous State: People take decisions, and feel responsible for the consequences.

  2. Agentic State: People act as agents of another individual’s will, they allow others to direct actions and pass on the responsibility of those actions.

Milgram also associated such high numbers to few situational factors like:

  • Physical presence of the authority figure increased compliance dramatically.

  • Since it was an experimental setup at Yale University, a trusted institution, subjects must have felt the experiment was completely safe.

  • Shocks were said to be painful but not dangerous.

He theorized that people are more obedient if the person giving orders is perceived as competent to direct other people’s behavior and people being ordered think that the authority will assume the responsibility for the consequences. When subjects were reminded that they were responsible for their actions, almost none of them were prepared to obey.

In other variations of the same experiment, some insightful observations were made.

When the experimenter was not physically present and was replaced between the session with an ordinary individual in normal clothing, the compliance fell to 20%.

When the experiment location was shifted from yale to other offices, obedience fell to 47.5%.

An important observation was also made in regards to conformity. In a variation of the experiment, when instead of a single teacher, three teachers were present, two were actors just like the student who would deliberately disobey and halt the experiment, the compliance fell to 10%.


The observations made in the Milgram experiment offer interesting insights about situations of conflict between obedience, personal conscience, and group conformity in some variations. How well do they apply to actual scenarios like the Holocaust and other human cruelties?

Before delving into the Holocaust and its causes, it is important to know how the experiments didn’t completely resemble it. In the experiment, the student and the teacher didn’t have any hatred for each other which was certainly not the case for the holocaust. Also, subjects in the study had some assurance in the experimental setup that the consequences were not too dangerous while Holocaust organizers were completely aware of the fact that the Jews deported to concentration camps won’t see the light of the day. Quite unlike the experiment, the Holocaust spanned years, which also exemplifies how it was accompanied by a dent in the morals of a whole population that wanted to wipe millions of Jews from the world and at the very least became indifferent to their dehumanization. The experiment is not an excellent way to understand the Holocaust, for it is far too simple to explain it completely, but the insights offered are undoubtedly useful. If humans can shock unknown people at command in an experiment conducted at a credible institution, how far can they go when factors like strong prejudices against groups of people, state-sponsored incentives, group conformity, harmful consequences for not obeying, and strict obedience to authority are at play? In most circumstances, these factors won’t act together in unity, but when they do, cruelties like Holocaust don’t appear to be a far-fetched scenario. If anything, the Holocaust is the single biggest example of what blind social conformity and obedience to authority can lead to.

To play devil’s advocate, obedience is not harmful in itself- it is ingrained in the way we are raised, we are taught to obey parents at home, teachers at school, management at the workplace, scriptures for religious proceedings, etc. In fact, in several instances, people in authority are actually in a better position to dictate things by virtue of experience and knowledge. However, it should be imperative for individuals to examine closely the reasons to obey authority and analyse how convincing and rational they are.

By Parth Pruthi


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