Milgram’s experience: the danger of obedience to authority

Can a human being commit the most heinous crimes against humanity by simple obedience to authority? This is a question many scholars have asked themselves throughout the 20th century, especially after witnessing massive crimes against humanity such as the Third Reich extermination camps or wars between economic powers. Borderline circumstances in which violence and death are viewed with indifference by a significant portion of the population.

In fact, there have been a handful of researchers who have gone further and tried to find the psychological keys that explain why, under certain circumstances, we humans are able to transgress our moral values.

Stanley Milgram: an American psychologist

Stanley Milgram was a psychologist at Yale University and in 1961 conducted a series of experiments designed to measure a participant’s willingness to obey the orders of an authority, even when such orders may cause conflict with their value system and their consciousness.

How fully aware are we of the consequences of our actions when we make the difficult decision to obey authority? What complex mechanisms are involved in acts of obedience that go against our ethics?

Preparing for the Milgram experiment

Milgram recruit a total of 40 participants by mail and by advertisement in the newspaper in which they were invited to be part of an experiment on “memory and learning” so in addition, for the simple fact of participating, they would receive a figure of four dollars (equivalent to about 28 present) assuring him that they would keep the payment “no matter what happens after his arrival”.

They were told that three people were needed for the experiment: the researcher (who wore a white robe and acted as an authority), the teacher, and the student. The volunteers were always given the role of teacher by a fake draw, while the role of pupil would always be given to an accomplice of Milgram. The teacher and the pupil would be assigned to different but common rooms, the teacher always observed with the pupil (who was in fact always the accomplice) was tied to a chair to “avoid involuntary movements” and electrodes were placed, while the master was assigned to the other room in front of an electric shock generator with about thirty switches that regulated the intensity of the discharge in increments of 15 volts, ranging from 15 to 450 volts and which, depending on the researcher, would provide the specified download to the student.

Milgram too sand be sure to place labels indicating the intensity of the download (moderate, strong, danger: severe download and XXX). The reality was that this generator was bogus because it provided no shock to the student and only produced sound when the switches were pressed.

The mechanics of experience

The subject or the recruited teacher has been tasked with teaching word pairs to the apprentice and that in case of error, the student was to be punished by applying an electric shock, which would be 15 times more powerful after each mistake.

Obviously, the student never received any downloads. However, to give realism to the situation facing the participant, after pressing the switch, a previously recorded sound was activated with wailing and screaming which, with each switch, increased and became more plaintive. If the teacher refused or called the researcher (who was next to him in the same room), he responded with a predefined and somewhat convincing response: “please continue”, “please continue”, “experience needs It is absolutely essential that you continue “,” you have no other choice, you must continue “. And in the event that the subject asked who was responsible if something happened to the student, the experimenter simply replied that he was responsible.


For most of the experience, many subjects showed signs of tension and anxiety when they heard the screams in the next room which were apparently caused by electric shocks. Three subjects had “long and uncontrollable attacks” and while most subjects felt uncomfortable doing so, all forty subjects obeyed up to 300 volts while 25 of the 40 subjects continued to apply pressure. discharges to the maximum level of 450 volts.

This reveals that 65% of subjects made it to the end, although in some recordings the subject complained of having heart problems. The experiment was concluded by the experimenter after three discharges of 450 volts.

Conclusions drawn by Stanley Milgram

The conclusions of Milgram’s experiment can be summarized in the following points:

A) When the subject obeys the dictates of authority, his consciousness ceases to function and an abdication of responsibility occurs.

B) The subjects are more obedient, the less they have contacted the victim and the more they are physically away from the victim.

C) The subjects with authoritarian personality are more obedient than the non-authoritarian ones (classified as such, after an evaluation of fascist tendencies).

D) The closer you are to authority, the greater your obedience.

I) The greater the academic training, the less intimidating authority produces, so that there is a decrease in obedience.

F) People who have received military-type instruction or with severe discipline are more likely to obey.

G) Young men and women obey equally.

H) The subject always tends to justify his inexplicable acts.

Criminological relevance of the experiment

After World War II, post-war criminals (including Adolf Eichmann) were tried for the Jewish Holocaust. The defense of Eichmann and the Germans when they testified for crimes against humanity was that they were simply referring to the fulfillment and tracking of orders, Which then led Milgram to ask himself the following questions: Were the Nazis really wicked and soulless or was it a group phenomenon that could happen to anyone under the same conditions? Could it be that Eichmann and his millions of Holocaust accomplices were only following the orders of Hitler and Himmler?

Obedience to authority, a principle that would explain institutionalized violence

The principle of obedience to authority it has been defended in our civilizations as one of the pillars on which society is supported. In general, it is obedience to authority that allows the protection of the subject, but heightened obedience can be a double-edged sword when speech saved from “only obey orders” exempt from responsibility and disguise. of the duty of sadistic impulses.

Prior to the experiment, some experts hypothesized that only 1% to 3% of individuals would activate the 450-volt switch (and that these subjects would also experience some pathology, psychopathy, or sadistic impulses). it was excluded that one of the volunteers had a pathology, As well as aggression was dismissed as motivation after a series of various examinations to the volunteers. Given the data, Milgram postulated two theories in an attempt to explain the phenomena.

First theory: conformity to the group

The first based on the work of Asch compliance, Point out that a subject who does not have the capacity or knowledge to make decisions, (especially in the face of a crisis) will transfer decisions to the group.

Second theory: reification

The second, more widely accepted theory is known as reification, And refers to the fact that the essence of obedience is that the person is seen only as an instrument for the fulfillment of the wishes of the other person and is therefore not considered responsible for their actions. Thus happened this “Transformation” of self-perception, all the essential characteristics of obedience occur.

An experience that meant a before and after in social psychology

Milgram’s experiment represents one of the most interesting social psychology experiments in criminology regarding demonstrate the fragility of human values ​​in the face of blind obedience to authority.

Their results showed that ordinary people, faced with the order of a figure without authority, are capable of acting cruelly. In this way, criminology has come to understand how certain criminals who have committed savage genocides and terrorist attacks have developed a very high level of obedience to what they consider to be an authority.

Bibliographical references:

  • Milgram, S. (2002), “Obedience to authority” Editorial Desclée de Brouwer.

Leave a Comment