Obedience to Authority

obedience-to-authorityTitle: Obedience to Authority

Author: Stanley Milgram

ISBN: 9781905177325

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After the Second World War, and the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, the world struggled to find an explanation for the behaviour of apparently ‘normal’ people who had participated (or were complicit) in the cruelty, torture an genocide that undoubtedly took place.

Many theories were proposed – notably that German culture was responsible for creating an ‘authoritarian personality’ which led to people to obey orders without question.

Stanley Milgram stepped in to this debate with a controversial experiment. His results were astonishing, and required a complete reappraisal of  what we thought we know about human behaviour.

The Set-up

Milgram had a convincing (dummy) electric shock machine built, covered in switches and warning signs and complete with sound effects. The switches apparently delivered a range of shocks, beginning at very low voltages, and working gradually up to a lethal 450 Volts. In fact the machine was totally harmless.

Next,  Milgram hired an actor, who was commissioned to pretend to have been shocked. He was to initially flinch from the low voltages and, as the shocks  increased,  to start to cry out in pain. As the voltage neared a ‘dangerous’ level started to beg for mercy, and claim to suffer from a heart condition.

Anyone who was not in on the experiment, had every reason to believe that, if the machine was connected to a person,  that is was capable of hurting and eventually killing them.

The final step was to advertise for ordinary people to participate in an experiment (for a small fee) to ‘investigate the effect of punishment on learning’.

The Experiment

Participants were sat in front of  the ‘electric shock machine’. The actor sat just across the desk,  connected to it. The participant was then required to read from a list of questions.

  • If the actor gave the right answer, he moved on to the next question.
  • If the actor gave the wrong answer, the participant was required to throw one of the switches, and give him a ‘shock’
  • The ‘shock’ was increased by one step for every wrong answer.

Since the actor was a stooge for the experimenters, he always gave enough wrong answers for the ‘voltage’ to eventually reach a lethal level of 450V.

As you might expect, participants started to object. When they did, a man in a white coat entered the room. He replied to any concerns with one of a number of stock phrases. This was the point of the experiment – to see  how ordinary Americans would respond to orders from an ‘authority figure’.

The Result

Bearing in mind that the ‘authority figure’ was only a university scientist with little real power (unlike, for example a police officer)  everyone expected that the overwhelming majority would continue to refuse to deliver ‘dangerous’ shocks. They would surely not go on to lethal levels, reasoning that ‘orders are orders‘ and the University was responsible for the consequences of their actions, not them.

The results are at the bottom of the page. Before you look, it’s worth guessing for yourself what percentage of participants obeyed instructions to go all the way up to a ‘lethal’ 450V.





The book offers an explanation for this extraordinary result. It’s not simple, but it teaches an invaluable lesson. How good people can be gradually be manipulated into doing evil things, and accepting those things as normal – and how to avoid being manipulated yourself.

Essential reading.