Ward et al.

Milgram's Obedience to Authority

Reading Questions

Stanley Milgram has done one of the classic experiments in social psychology. His analysis of obedience is universally known among academia and widely known among laypeople. There are other classic social experiments (Asch's conformity studies, Darley & Latane's helping studies, etc.) but this one gets more press. It also is squarely in the middle of one of the important branches of social psychology: social influence. The other main branch of social psychology, social perception, is about how we think about each other. It is often called social cognition and borrows heavily from cognitive psychology. But social influence is the homegrown portion of social psychology.

During the heyday of the behaviorist agenda, social psychologists, partly because of the nature of the thing they studied, ignored the behaviorist warning to stay away from cognition. WW II was going strong and the US population was mobilized for the war effort. Many bright, energetic intellectuals had immigrated from war torn Europe, and were pressed into service in support of the war effort. This infusion of European ideas was another inoculation of social psychology against behaviorism. Thus WW II became the impetus behind the flowering of social psychology in the 1940s and 1950s. Research on group interaction, attitude change and persuasion, political ideology, conformity, and social perception all were a part of this flowering.

Stanley Milgram was in graduate school at Harvard during these heady days. He moved to Yale after getting his degree in 1960 and embarked on the series of studies reported in Obedience to Authority. Milgram wanted to know how social influence could be so powerful as to create the kind of behavior one saw among concentration camp guards. His approach was to set up an experiment that used social pressure to influence people to behave in a way that they clearly thought caused harm to others (though no harm was, in fact, done). He then manipulated the conditions of the experiments to see what dimensions made obedience either increase or decrease. This book is a more popular telling of the series of experiments he performed (the scientific reports were published earlier).

The argument of the book

In chapter 1, Milgram introduces the reader to why the issue of obedience is important to study, gives a short description of his study, and compares his conclusions to those Hannah Arendt made about the Nazi Adolf Eichmann. His conclusion in that chapter is that a dilemma faces anyone who enters into an agreement to be part of a system. When the system requires them to do something with which they disagree, they must either be loyal to their moral standards or loyal to the system. And remember that loyalty is a moral standard too. In chapter 2 Milgram gives a straightforward explanation of the set up of the baseline study. In chapter 3 he asks many psychological professionals what they think a person would do in the study, and finds agreement that there would be little obedience. In chapter 4 he describes the basic series of experiments in which the closeness of the "victim" was manipulated. In chapter 5 he gives us some detailed information about how particular people behaved in this stressful situation, and the reasons they gave for their behavior. These first 5 chapters (and the final theory chapters) are the heart of the book. Chapters 6, 8, and 9 are additional variations on the study. Chapter 7 contains more interviews with subjects. Read through these quickly.

Chapters 10 through 12 contain Milgram's attempt to explain why obedience to authority has such a strong hold on our behavior. You can see here that he is interested in both cognition and emotion. These basic building blocks of social psychological theory are shaped into a theory about the agentic state, the psychological state the obedient subject is in when he or she is obeying authority.

Remember as you read this book that Milgram is not trying to say that two thirds of us would kill our mothers if ordered to by a person in a white lab coat. He is more interested in establishing a situation in which obedience occurs so he can then manipulate the situation to see what raises and lowers obedience. This is a classic experimental approach. One last word of advice. This is really easy reading after some of the other stuff. Don't let it deceive you. Milgram's model of the agentic state is complex and hard to understand. Spend time trying.