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A Brighter Look at Milgram's Obedience Study

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01/04/2011Michael Kitchens

If the legitimacy of the state arises from the people's consent, then the prospects for a free society largely depend on the psychological processes of the individual members of society. That is to say, if people's psychological processes are designed for a social order in which there exists an institution that uses force to acquire resources and that monopolizes protection and defense — to use Rothbard's description of the state — then the prospects of a free society stand little chance. If, however, people's psychological processes are designed best to maintain order through bottom-up techniques (e.g., by natural social order developing through a mutual and cultural acceptance of what is appropriate for coexistence in peace), then Rothbard's vision stands a very good chance.

A full analysis of the various psychological processes that might distinguish between these two possibilities would be much larger than can be accomplished here, but a narrow and important aspect of this analysis can be found in the degree to which people are prone to uncritically obey what they perceive as legitimate authority. Thus, the purpose of this essay is to examine the psychological power found in the tendency to uncritically obey authority as a means of developing and maintaining social order.

In doing so, I review social psychology's most prominent demonstration of obedience to authority — Milgram's obedience study, but I do so in the context of Milgram's body of work on obedience and in the still-larger context of social-influence techniques. To anticipate my conclusion, while some libertarians may see in Milgram's experiment a disheartening and unfavorable demonstration of people's desire for subservience, Milgram's experiment in context illustrates a relatively weak form of maintaining social order.

Milgram's Obedience Study

In 1963, Stanley Milgram published a paper in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, in which he described what has become one of the most well-known studies in psychology.1 For those who may not be familiar with the study, I'll briefly explain the procedure.

Milgram posted an ad in the local newspapers and solicited by mail to get volunteers for a study on learning and memory. Two people were involved in each session of the study. When they arrived, the experimenter — a local high-school teacher wearing a lab coat and acting as the experimenter — explained to the subjects that researchers know a good deal about how positive reinforcement improves learning, but they know very little about how punishment improves learning. This was — the subjects were told — to be the purpose of this study.

Each subject was then assigned to play the role of either "the teacher" or "the learner" in the study by drawing their roles from a hat. The learner was taken to a separate room, where he was strapped down in a chair and connected to electrodes. The teacher looked on, while the experimenter explained that "although the shocks can be extremely painful, they cause no permanent tissue damage."2

The teacher then was seated in another room in front of a shock generator. His job was to read a list of word pairs (e.g., "dog — whistle") and then, after reading the entire list, he'd say each of the first words (e.g., "dog") and then provide four options (e.g., "car, house, fur, or whistle"). The learner would respond by pressing one of the four switches corresponding to the four options given. This response would light up a box sitting on top of the shock generator, which indicated to the teacher in the other room which of the four options was chosen.

If the learner responded with the correct word (completing the word pair from the original list), the teacher would move on to the next word. If the learner was incorrect, he would receive a shock. The shocks began at a relatively mild 15 volts (marked as "slight shock" on the generator) and increased by 15-volt intervals all the way to 450 volts (marked as "XXX" on the generator).

Here's the twist, though: The victim was not actually shocked. The roles of teacher and learner were rigged. An actor hired by Milgram always played the role of the learner and apparent victim of the shocks, and the unsuspecting volunteer always played the role of the teacher and deliverer of the shocks. Milgram wanted to know whether people would administer what they believed to be deadly shocks to another person under the pressure of an authority figure.

Some of the teachers protested as the authority figure gave the orders to continue — which began with "please continue" or "please go on" and increased in severity to "you have no other choice, you must go on."3 Other subjects were stoic and methodical, not protesting even as the learner screamed from the other room, ostensibly from the painful shocks.

Overall, Milgram's disturbing results showed that 65 percent of the participants continued until the end, delivering the highest voltage shock. Furthermore, subsequent research4 and real-world accounts have demonstrated that these findings extend into everyday life.

Interpreting the Findings

Milgram asked groups of psychiatrists, college students, and middle-class adults to predict how far they would go in this study. None of them thought they would go all the way. Most people seemed to believe that they would go no further than 150 volts.5 Informal surveys in my own classes reveal the same thing. Few students believe they would go beyond the 150-volt mark. Very few ever admit that they would go all the way. So, people are typically unaware of how vulnerable they are to authority's power.6

The "power found in authority" is the typical way Milgram's findings are interpreted. Consider this cursory review of introductory and advanced social-psychology textbooks' discussion of this study, where you find statements like these:

An astonishingly large proportion of people will cause pain to other people in obedience to authority. The research may have important counterparts in the world outside of the experimental laboratory. For example, it is difficult to read about these studies without noticing some similarity between the behavior of the teachers in Milgram's experiment and the blind obedience expressed by Adolf Eichmann, who attributed his responsibility for the murder of millions of innocent civilians to the fact that he was a good bureaucrat merely obeying orders issued by his superiors in the Nazi regime.7

It's clear that authorities have a potent impact on the choices and actions of others.8

Of course, the most dramatic research evidence for the power of legitimate authority comes from the famous Milgram experiment in which 65% of the subjects were willing to deliver continued, intense, and dangerous levels of electric shock to a kicking, screeching, pleading other subject simply because an authority figure — in this case a scientist — directed them to do so.9

Many scholars point to another of Milgram's experiments as empirical evidence that participants were obeying orders because they believed they were being delivered by a legitimate authority figure.10 In this variation of Milgram's "baseline" experiment (i.e., the one described earlier), the learner and the experimenter switch scripts. The experimenter tells the participant playing the role of the teacher/shock administrator to discontinue the study, but the learner/victim asks to continue. None of the teacher participants in this variation continued, suggesting that their obedience occurs under conditions of perceived authority: they complied with the lab-coat-wearing-experimenter rather than the learner, who was equal to themselves.11

Milgram's explanation of his findings extends to the societal structure as a whole. He suggests that his findings illustrate a shift from the individual to the collective in situations with an authority figure; in particular, he suggests that authority is part of the natural social order, such that people willingly surrender their will in favor of the authority figure. Milgram writes,

The inhibitory mechanisms which are vital when the individual element functions by itself become secondary to the need to cede control to the coordinating component.12

In short, the primary explanation of Milgram's results focuses on the powerful force that obedience to authority exerts on behavior. Moreover, some people extend these findings to the larger social structure. If doing so is accurate, the implications for libertarian theory are important, and the prospects for building a libertarian society are slight.

Implications of Milgram's Obedience Research for Libertarians

For libertarians, these findings may suggest that people want to obey and be subservient. They suggest that a free society is unlikely, as people will be more prone to follow orders than to resist.

It is hard to deny this conclusion. Consider that most people approve of the invasive TSA screening. On the day before Thanksgiving, people were expected to "opt out" of the radiation-emitting scanners that take naked pictures for a TSA agent's private viewing in a remote location. The point was to clog the lines at the security checkpoint because the alternative, "grope-and-feel pat downs," take longer to perform. This protest was hardly noticed, though. This is hardly the start of people telling the state "enough is enough." An easy parallel can be drawn between Milgram's study and that of the obedient passengers lining up to be either gawked at or groped.

The problem with this interpretation is that it fails to consider Milgram's study in the larger context. Seen properly, the study probably says little about the "psyche" of social order; rather, it offers a good explanation for particular situational accounts of obedience. For instance, it explains that people will be more willing to be "felt up" if one's assailant is wearing a state-issued blue uniform rather than ordinary jeans and a t-shirt. The limits of extending Milgram's work to make societal implications can be seen by comparing Milgram's illustration of top-down obedience to authority with the more libertarian approach of bottom-up social order.

Obedience: A Top-Down Process

When one focuses on the 65 percent of people who administered the highest level of shock under orders to do so, one sees the power of authority or the weakness of the individual will. What one fails to see, though, are the limitations and weaknesses in that authority. First, not everyone obeyed. Thomas Blass, who is a Milgram expert and biographer, finds that many personality traits are strong predictors of uncritical obedience to authority. In particular, the pattern of these findings suggests that some people are more prone to individual control and others are more prone to external control.13 Thus, at the very least, one must refrain from making generalizations about a universal psyche of subservience, because only some people are particularly prone to uncritical obedience to authority. As real-world evidence of this, it may be that the opt-out day was unsuccessful because many fliers completely opted out of the awful choice between being gawked at or groped; instead, they resisted by choosing an alternative mode of travel.


In addition to the powerful individual differences in obedience to authority, obedience is also very limited situationally. Milgram's famous obedience study was actually one of 18 studies he reported.14 Across these studies, what one finds is that obedience was contingent on a number of elements. One primary element that Milgram found necessary was the physical presence of an authority figure. In one variation of the experiment, Milgram had his experimenter "phone in" the orders for the teacher to administer the shocks. Obedience dropped dramatically in this situation.

Milgram observed many participants in this variation tell the experimenter that they were following orders by giving increasing levels of shock, but who instead continued to deliver the mildest shock to the learner. Only when the experimenter returned did these participants follow orders.15 Thus, only in the direct presence of the authority figure do you find that most people will obey malevolent orders. Overall, what we find is that authority is a relatively weak way to establish and maintain social order.

Social Norms: A Bottom-Up Process

Social psychologists classify obedience to authority as one of many techniques that influence social behavior (or said differently, foster and maintain social order). These techniques vary in the degree of social pressure, from low levels (e.g., people imitate others) to high levels (e.g., people obey authorities).16 While obedience has the greatest degree of pressure, intimidation, and potential for force, it seems to work in very limited situations. By contrast, social norms require very little or no direct pressure or threat of force, but they nonetheless exert a powerful influence over our behavior.

Social norms are rules and standards that are understood by members of a group, and that guide and/or constrain social behavior without the force of laws. These norms emerge out of interaction with others; they may or may not be stated explicitly, and any sanctions for deviating from them come from social networks, not the legal system.17

That is, a social norm is a bottom-up movement, whereas obedience is a top-down influence. Intuition might suggest that threats of force are the most effective way to control social action, but as we see from the variations in Milgram's studies, they are not. Meanwhile, social norms influence people without the actual presence of a particular member of society — an authority figure, for example — and their impact can be long term.

Studies show that subtle reminders about what is expected or approved behavior can influence people,18 and that the conforming behavior may continue even without the presence of an authority or cue.19 Much more could be said — and perhaps needs to be said — about this, but the essential element is that uncritical obedience requires specific situations (and often the right people). That is not the case with social norms, which endure without the intimidating force of authority.


Important and worthy libertarian commentaries on Milgram's obedience study have suggested that Milgram's work is a powerful demonstration of a dark conclusion — people are willingly and uncritically subservient to the state. Indeed, it is true that Milgram's work explains situational accounts of obedience, but subservience to authority appears quite weak when it is seen in the greater context of Milgram's programmatic study of obedience and the larger body of work on social influence.

This should be of no surprise to libertarians of Rothbard and Mises's tradition. Their work, along with a wealth of other scholarly work and observations of our current economic situation, reveals the inefficiency of top-down order. This analysis, then, serves to illustrate the same point from another level — the individual, psychological level.What we find is that bottom-up, social-norm processes are more efficient means of maintaining social order than is obedience to authority.

  • 1. Milgram, S. (1963). "Behavioral study of obedience." Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology., 67, pp. 371–378.
  • 2. Ibid., p. 373.
  • 3. Ibid., p. 374.
  • 4. Hofling, C.K., Brotzman, E., Dalrymple, S., Graves N., & Pierce, C.M. (1966). "An Experimental Study of Nurse-Physician Relationships." Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 143, pp. 171–180. In this study, nurses were found to be willing to administer a dangerous level of drug if a person whom they believed to be a doctor called in the orders.
  • 5. Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority. Harper-Collins Publishers: New York.
  • 6. More recent research finds that people are more accurate at estimating the outcome of the study than is typically thought (and as I describe). It is also important to note that rates of obedience are remarkably similar across time. That is to say, the outcome of Milgrma's study is not unique to this particular time or sample. This information can be found in Blass, T. (1999). "The Milgram Paradigm after 35 Years: Some Things We Know about Obedience to Authority." Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 29, pp. 955–978.
  • 7. Aronson, E. (2008). The Social Animal (10th edition). Worth Publishers: New York (quote from p. 44).
  • 8. Kendrick, D.T., Neuberg, S.L., & Cialdini, R.B. (2010). Social Psychology: Goals in Interaction (5th ed.). Pearson: Boston (quote from p. 192).
  • 9. Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2010). "Social Influence." In R.F. Baumeister & E.J. Finkel (Eds.,) Advanced Social Psychology: The State of the Science (pp. 385–417) (quote from p. 404).
  • 10. See ibid, p. 405; Kendrick et al. (2010), p. 190.
  • 11. Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority. Harper-Collins Publishers: New York. (Experiment 12, pp. 90–92).
  • 12. Ibid, p. 129.
  • 13. Blass, T. (1991). Understanding Behavior in the Milgram Obedience Experiment: The Role of the Personality, Situation, and their Interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, pp. 398–410.
  • 14. These are described in his book Obedience to Authority.
  • 15. This is a comparison of Milgram's Experiment 5, in which the authority sat next to the teacher and Experiment 7, where the experimenter left to give his orders by telephone. This is described in Milgram's Obedience to Authority, pp. 59–62.
  • 16. Brown, J.D. (2006). Social Psychology. McGraw-Hill: Boston. See p. 275 for a discussion of this continuum.
  • 17. Caialdini, R.B., & Trost, M.R. (1998). "Social Influence: Social Norms, Conformity, and Compliance." Handbook of Social Psychology (Vol. 2; 4th ed, pp. 151–192). McGraw-Hill: Boston, MA. The quotation comes from p. 152.
  • 18. Cialdini, R.B., Reno, R.R., & Kallgren, C.A. (1973). "A Normative Focus Theory of Normative Conduct: Recycling the Concept of Norms to Reduce Littering in Public Places." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, pp. 1015–1026.
  • 19. Schultz, P.W., Nolan, J.M., Cialdini, R.B., Goldstein, N.J., & Griskevicius (2007). The Constructive, Destructive, and Reconstructive Power of Social Norms. Psychological Science, 18, pp. 429–434.
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