Stanley Milgram: the essence of obedience

Stanley Milgram is one of the most cited psychologists today. His work is always talked about when injustice occurs in the world. Because he tried to answer: why did people follow Hitler?

Milgram was born to Jewish parents in New York in 1933. World War 2 had a big impact on his psyche. He constantly wondered what if he were born in Europe 10 years earlier? His Bar Mitzvah speech was about the plight of European Jews during the World War.

He was obsessed wanting to understand how so many people could be evil. How did they obey orders they should not have obeyed?

The famous Milgram experiment

So when Milgram had finished his PhD and was an assistant professor, he devised an experiment: a subject walks into a lab thinking he is going to take part in an experiment about memory. He is assigned the role of a teacher and he has to teach word associations to a student. 

The teaching method however is crazy: they are supposed to administer increasingly higher electric shocks when the student makes a mistake. When the student cries out in pain and demands to be let go, the experimenter wearing a lab coat asks the subject teacher to continue on – that the student is not in as much pain. 

The findings? 65% of people continued administering electric shocks to the highest of levels. 450 volts!

The twist of course was that the students were actors and were not feeling shocks. But the teaching subjects didn’t know that. And yet they had acquiesced to give electric shocks to someone that they thought were lethal.

Milgram concluded that people obey authority. “The essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer sees himself as responsible for his actions.”

Do people obey authority all the time?

When psychologist Alex Haslam tried to re-examine the research, he wasn’t convinced. Especially because a few other replication attempts showed mixed results as well.

Data showed a curious fact: if people had to stop, they would stop before 150 volts. But after 150 volts, they continued all the way to 450 volts.

So Haslam looked closer into the equipment Milgram had used. Milgram had used electric shock machines that had 30 settings: they incremented by 15 volts.

So Haslam dived in deeper. What Haslam found is that when the experimenters gave a strong direct order to the teacher, they were not obeyed. Especially when they were told: “you have no other choice… you must continue” – they were disobeyed!

Teachers concluded that this wasn’t true, and so nobody continued giving shocks after that.

Unlike Milgram, Haslam concluded that people don’t blindly obey authority. Its just that people don’t want to be wrong. If you’ve already given a shock of 180 volts, why would you stop at 195? Stopping now would be an admission that they were wrong.

Milgram himself could not stop coming to the conclusion that he always believed from a very young age: that people do evil things because of authority. He created an experiment whose conclusion he was already sure of. Concluding anything else meant his thought process since the last 15 years was wrong.

People don’t want to be wrong

People don’t want to be wrong. And they will do any despicable thing just to not be wrong in their own eyes. 

Robert Cialdini talks about a famous experiment done by Jon Freedman and Scott Fraser. When they asked folks in a neighbourhood to place an ugly big sign in their yards supporting safe driving, only 17% agreed. 

But if the homeowners were first asked to place a small insignificant sign in their window, and a week or 2 later were asked to place the big ugly sign in their yards, 76% agreed!

Cialdini called it the foot-in-the-door technique. People want to be consistent. They don’t want to feel like their past decisions were wrong.

This however is a surefire way to escalate evil. That’s how good people end up following Hitler, because when he asked for a small sacrifice, they gave in.

Remember: it’s ok to be wrong. Don’t escalate fault.

Awareness is the antidote. If you are aware then you will be able to avoid the foot-in-the-door persuasion.

Psychologist Yaacov Trope did research at NYU that showed how distance helps people make better decisions. By simply asking adults to take a step back and imagine the situation from a general perspective, they became more objective. Distance in mind allows us to resist our brain’s impulse.

Psychological distance forces quiet reflection. And that is the key. Quiet reflection.

Action Summary:

  • It’s ok to be wrong. Don’t escalate fault. Don’t obey because you had obeyed in the past.
  • People don’t obey authority. They obey when they don’t want to feel they were wrong in the past. Being aware about this helps you break out of the chain.
  • To be objective, create distance before taking a decision. Just take a pause, a step back in your own mind.