Obedience to authority: most of us would follow orders to do terrible things

Alarming findings by Prof Stanley Milgram of Yale University have since been confirmed in many studies

In 1961, Stanley Milgram (1933-1984), professor of social psychology at Yale University, carried out a landmark study to measure ordinary peoples' willingness to obey an authority who instructs them to take actions that conflict with their conscience. The results indicate that most of us would follow orders to do terrible things, just as the Nazis did; surely a poignant result for Milgram, a son of Jewish immigrants, to ponder.

Milgram recruited male participants for his study (20 to 50 years old) telling them the experiment would test the effects of punishment on learning behaviour and they would be paid $4.50 (€4) for one hour’s work. Unknown to these participants the experimenter had hired an accomplice who was an actor. When a participant arrived he would find the experimenter with another “participant” (the actor). The two participants were “randomly” allocated the roles of learner and teacher when the experimenter handed each a slip of paper. Unknown to the genuine participant, each slip said “teacher”. The actor accomplice always mentioned he had a weak heart.

The learner was strapped into a chair and an electrode taped to his wrist. He was told he was to learn a list of word pairs and that whenever he gave a wrong answer when quizzed, the teacher would give him an electric shock of increasing intensity with each wrong answer. The teacher watched this and then was taken to a separate room, from where he could hear but not see the learner, and seated before a shock generator, which had a line of shock switches ranging from 15 to 450 volts in 15-volt steps. Verbal signs describe the severity of each shock from “Slight” to “Danger – Severe Shock”.

The teacher read the list of word pairs to the learner and then read the first of each word pair and four possible answers. The learner made his choice by pressing a button. If the response was wrong, the teacher administered a shock, increasing the shock by 15 volts with each wrong answer. If the response was correct, the teacher went on to the next word pair.


The teacher believed he was delivering painful shocks, but no shocks were actually being delivered. A tape of pre-recorded responses to each shock level was connected to the shock-generator and started by the accomplice. After a few shock increases the actor started to bang on the wall and shout. He complained about his weak heart and beseeched the teacher to stop the experiment. As the voltage continued to increase, the shouting turned to screams until, finally, the highest voltage elicited no sound from the learner – just ominous silence.

At a shock level of 135 volts, many teachers asked the experimenter to stop and check on the learner. However, most teachers continued after the experimenter told them they would not be held responsible. Each time the teacher said he would like to stop, the experimenter gave successive verbal instructions – “please continue”, “the experiment requires you to continue”, “it is essential that you continue”, “continue, you have no choice”. The experiment was stopped if the teacher still wished to stop after receiving these four verbal instructions. Otherwise the experiment ended only after the top voltage of 450 volts was administered three times in succession. Sixty five per cent of teachers administered the 450-volt shock.

These results are very disturbing. Commenting on the experiment, Milgram said: “Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.”

All attempts to replicate Milgram's experiment have endorsed his results. The most recent experiment was carried out in Poland by Darius Dolinski and others from the faculty of psychology, SWPS University, Wraclaw. The motivation was to see how people who had lived under a Communist regime from the late 1940s until 1989, where strict obedience to authority was stressed, would perform in Milgram's experiment. Basically, the Polish results confirmed Milligram's results.

Dr William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC