In the 1960s Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram famously carried out a series of experiments that forever changed our perceptions of morality and free will. The subjects-or "teachers"-were instructed to administer electroshocks to a human "learner," with the shocks becoming progressively more powerful and painful. Controversial but now strongly vindicated by the scientific community, these experiments attempted to determine to what extent people will obey orders from authority figures regardless of consequences. Obedience to Authority is Milgram's fascinating and troubling chronicle of his classic study and a vivid and persuasive explanation of his conclusions.
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About the Author
Stanley Milgram taught social psychology at Yale University and Harvard University before becoming a Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His honors and awards include a Ford Foundation fellowship, an -American Association for the Advancement of Science sociopsychological prize, and a Guggenheim fellowship. He died in 1984 at the age of fifty-one.
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The Dilema of Obedience
Obedience is as basic an element in the structure of social life as one can point to. Some system of authority is a requirement of all communal living, and it is only the man dwelling in isolation who is not forced to respond, through defiance or submission, to the commands of others. Obedience, as a determinant of behavior is of particular relevance to our time. It has been reliably established that from 1933 to 1945 millions of innocent people were systematically slaughtered on command. Gas chambers were built, death camps were guarded, daily quotas of corpses were produced with the same efficiency as the manufacture of appliances. These inhumane policies may have originated in the mind of a single person, but they could only have been carried out on a massive scale if a very large number of people obeyed orders.
Obedience is the psychological mechanism that links individual action to political purpose. It is the dispositional cement that binds men to systems of authority. Facts of recent history and observation in daily life suggest that for many people obedience may be a deeply ingrained behavior tendency, indeed, a prepotent impulse overriding training in ethics, sympathy, and moral conduct. C. P. Snow (1961) points to its importance when he writes:
When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion. If you doubt that, read William Sbirer's 'Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.' The German Officer Corps were brought up in the most rigorous code of obedience . . . in the name ofobedience they were party to, and assisted in, the most wicked large scale actions in the history of the world. (p. 24)
The Nazi extermination of European Jews is the most extremeinstance of abhorrent immoral acts carried out by thousands ofpeople in the name of obedience. Yet in lesser degree this type ofthing is constantly recurring: ordinary citizens are ordered todestroy other people, and they do so because they consider ittheir duty to obey orders. Thus, obedience to authority, longpraised as a virtue, takes on a new aspect when it serves amalevolent cause; far from appearing as a virtue, it is transformedinto a heinous sin. Or is it?
The moral question of whether one should obey when commands conflict with conscience was argued by Plato, dramatized in Antigone, and treated to philosophic analysis in every historical epoch Conservative philosophers argue that the very fabric of society is threatened by disobedience, and even when the act prescribed by an authority is an evil one, it is better to carry out the act than to wrench at the structure of authority. Hobbes stated further that an act so executed is in no sense the responsibility of the person who carries it out but only of the authority that orders it. But humanists argue for the primacy of individual conscience in such matters, insisting that the moral judgments of the individual must override authority when the two are in conflict.
The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import, but an empirically grounded scientist eventually comes to the point where he wishes to move from abstract discourse to the careful observation of concrete instances. In order to take a close look at the act of obeying, I set up a simple experiment at Yale University. Eventually, the experiment was toinvolve more than a thousand participants and would be repeated at several universities, but at the beginning, the conception was simple. A person comes to a psychological laboratory and is told to carry out a series of acts that come increasingly into conflict with conscience. The main question is how far the participant will comply with the experimenter's instructions before refusing to carry out the actions required of him.
But the reader needs to know a little more detail about the experiment. Two people come to a psychology laboratory to take part in a study of memory and learning. One of them is designated as a "teacher" and the other a "learner." The experimenter explains that the study is concerned with the effects of punishment on learning. The learner is conducted into a room, seated in a chair, his arms strapped to prevent excessive movement, and an electrode attached to his wrist. He is told that he is to learn a list of word pairs; whenever he makes an error, be will receive electric shocks of increasing intensity.
The real focus of the experiment is the teacher. After watching the learner being strapped into place, he is taken into the main experimental room and seated before an impressive shock generator. Its main feature is a horizontal line of thirty switches, ranging from 15 volts to 450 volts, in 15-volt increments. There are also verbal designations which range from Slight SHOCK to DangerSevere SHOCK. The teacher is told that he is to administer the learning test to the man in the other room. When the learner responds correctly, the teacher moves on to the next item; when the other man gives an incorrect answer, the teacher is to give him an electric shock. He is to start at the lowest shock level ( 15 volts) and to increase the level each time the man makes an error, going through 30 volts, 45 volts, and so on.
The "teacher" is a genuinely naive subject who has come to the laboratory to participate in an experiment. The learner, or victim, is an actor who actually receives no shock at all. The point of the experiment is to see how far a person will proceed in a concrete and measurable situation in which he is ordered to inflict increasing pain on a protesting victim.
Table of Contents
Foreword to the Harper Perennial Modern Thought Edition xi
1 The Dilemma of Obedience 1
2 Method of Inquiry 13
3 Expected Behavior 27
4 Closeness of the Victim 32
5 Individuals Confront Authority 44
6 Further Variations and Controls 55
7 Individuals Confront Authority II 73
8 Role Permutations 89
9 Group Effects 113
10 Why Obedience?-An Analysis 123
11 The Process of Obedience: Applying the Analysis to the Experiment 135
12 Strain and Disobedience 153
13 An Alternative Theory: Is Aggression the Key? 165
14 Problems of Method 169
15 Epilogue 179
Appendix I Problems of Ethics in Research 193
Appendix II Patterns Among Individuals 203
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is one of the most famous series of social psychology experiments ever. This book should be read by everyone for cultural literacy.
The author details the famous experiment done at Yale in the 1970s where subjects were requested to give increasing levels of shock to "victims" to test how obedient people would be in complying with orders that clearly violated certain moral norms. The interest in the topic arose out of the Nazi trials in which Nazi officers and soldiers asserted they were just following orders. The findings of the study were shocking at that time, with the researchers discovering that most people would willingly comply with an authority figure even in the event of a screaming victim that was evidently in great pain. The interviews with some of the subjects were almost bloodcurdling, demonstrating how far some people will go to obey, and the ways in which they will justify obedience with clearly immoral orders. The author further extends his data to some of the horrors that at the time were in the news from the Vietnam War, such as the My Lai massacre. A new introduction applied this study to the situation at Abu Ghraib, but it could also be appled to events as diverse as 9/11, Guyana, Heaven's Gate, and the Manson Family, for just a few. The author writes in lucid, easy to understand prose, doesn't lard the text down with unwieldy statistics (these are placed in handy tables so you can reference them as desired, and have them more complete than just a bland discussion), and he explains the concepts very thorougly, so it should be very easy to follow the experimental design and results for anyone of a reading level of high school or beyond. It does tend a bit toward bland in the writing, and some of the commentary is dated, such as references to the extremely different work paths of men and women which leaves women almost totally in a home environment, but the overall conclusions are still relevant, and can perhaps be understood a bit better than before with some of the new knowledge in neuroscience and psychology. Overall, highly recommended, especially for people who seem to have trouble understanding that people do things which are inhumane and ugly.