Why Do We Obey Authority | The Milgram Experiments


Let’s start with the obvious: bad things happen. When they do, it’s often in our best interest to have an open discussion about why they happened. But, some things are so bad that mainstream culture deems them unspeakable. These are the acts that you don’t even want to imagine doing. Maybe, you don’t believe your capable of doing them. These acts are what one might call evil. I wouldn’t be surprised if you thought that evil was only the product of psychopaths and sadists. But, unfortunately, this just isn’t so.

The world witnessed evil during WW2 and, more specifically, the Holocaust. When Adolf Eichmann - one of the main figures responsible for organizing the systematic killing of millions - was put on trial, he said that he was just following orders: this thought is frightening [2, 3, 4, 5]. This statement makes you rethink the idea of evil. It transforms evil from being the work of a small minority to a product of the vast majority. Perhaps, evil is what happens when people stop thinking for themselves and just obey the orders of others. If so, the capacity for evil lies within all of us. This is the context in which Stanley Milgram conducted his renowned experiment on obedience; it’s a chilling experiment that reminds us that with the ability for great good comes the ability for great evil [1, 5, 6]. 

The Milgram Experiment

To really understand the Milgram experiments, it helps to split it into two tests: the fake one and the real one. Let’s start with the fake one. 

The Fake Test

There are 3 participants: the experimenter, a teacher, and a learner. The subject that Milgram was studying was always given the role of teacher. The learner was an actor that was in on the experiment. The actual study was disguised as a fake study that was said to be testing the effects of punishment on learning. Specifically, they were testing the effects of administering electric shocks on a learner’s ability to memorize a list of word-pairs. For example, green-flower or couch-potato. The subject was tasked with teaching the learner this list. The subject would go through the list once and then read off one of the words in a pair. If the learner guessed the word correctly, the subject would move on to the next pair. However, if they guessed incorrectly, the subject was supposed to administer an electric shock. Shocks went up in 15V increments all the way up until 450V. There were also corresponding labels indicating the intensity of shocks ranging from slight shock to simply XXX [1, 6]. 

The Real Test

The real test underlying this fake one was to see how far subjects would be willing to go in administering shocks before they stopped. At the shock level of 300V, the subject would hear the learner pounding on the wall and begin refusing to answer. A second pound was heard at 315V. This test was designed to put the subject in a tug of war between obeying their own morals and obeying an authority figure.  If the subject began hesitating, the experimenter used 1 of 4 prods to get him to continue. They ranged in intensity from simple requests to orders [1, 6]. 

The Results

The results of the test were shocking: 65% of participants administered the maximum level of shocks. All participants obeyed until 300V [6]. 

Variations & Replicability

Various forms of Milgram’s experiment have been replicated several times and continue to produce similar results [7, 8, 9, 10, 11]. Although, modifying different conditions seems to produce varying levels of obedience. After going through a lot of the literature, the question isn’t do we obey, but when and why ? 

Interpreting the Experiment

I think the best place to start is with Milgram’s interpretation of the experiment. But, before you can understand it, you have to understand his view of obedience as a natural phenomenon. 

Obedience as a Natural Phenomenon

Obedience is as basic an element in the structure of social life as one can point to.
— Stanley Milgram

Milgram believed that humans evolved the capacity to organize into social hierarchies because it was a huge survival advantage. Instead of competing as individuals, we could work together as a powerful group. In order to create these hierarchies, humans must be capable of giving up control to an external source: this could be another person or an idea. If two independent people give up control to a third person, the third person can coordinate the entire group. For example, imagine a group of cars giving up control to the commands of a traffic cop. By giving up their personal autonomy, traffic can flow in a more coordinated fashion. However, if they all act on their own, traffic will flow less efficiently and accidents are more likely to happen. There are social hierarchies all around you. When you enter a hierarchy, Milgram believed that you’d undergo a critical shift in mindset from that of an autonomous individual to that of an agent [1]. 

The Agentic Shift

When you enter a hierarchy and become an agent, you no longer feel responsible for your actions but responsible to the one above you. This new mindset is known as the agentic state. To understand this state, it helps to separate it into a few components: the capacity for agency, why we become an agent, the features of an agent, and what keeps us from exiting the agentic state [1]. 

The Capacity for Agency

Milgram argues that the agentic state has been socialized in us through family, school, and work because these environments value obedience, reward us for it and punish us for disobedience [1]. 

Becoming an Agent

So, why would you choose to become an agent? Imagine that you’re taking part in this experiment. You walk into the room. What do you do? If you want to the experiment to run effectively, you need to cooperate with the group. Recall that one of the most effective ways to coordinate a group is to designate a leader. Someone has to be in charge, right? Since this is a new hierarchy that you’re entering into, you know that you’re not in charge. You assign that role to the experimenter because you perceive them to be a “legitimate authority”. You willingly enter this hierarchy because it has a guiding ideology that you believe in and would be willing to further: progress & science. Lastly, the experimenter makes demands of you that are appropriate for the hierarchy that you’re in. He makes demands with regards to the experiment and not unrelated things. He doesn’t tell you what you eat for dinner. All of these factors combined allow you to willingly accept the role of an agent [1]. 

The Features of an Agent

Now that we have become an agent, what does this shift in mindset entail? When we are in the hierarchy we tend to value the word of our superiors more than our inferiors. Continuing our example, you’re not going to take advice from the learner on how to conduct the experiment. That’s because you see him at an equal or lower position on the hierarchy. We also reinterpret our actions with regards to the mission of the hierarchy -  for example, scientific progress. Keep in mind that we have willingly entered this hierarchy as an agent with a belief in its guiding mission. This leads to the most important feature of being an agent: we no longer feel responsible for our actions but responsible to carrying out the wishes of the one above us [1]. 

Binding Factors

However, once we’ve entered the agentic state, what keeps us there? If we hear the pounding and feel we are doing something morally wrong, why can’t we leave? Milgram’s first reason is consistency. To admit that our current action is wrong would mean that we have to admit that all of our actions leading up to this point were wrong. That is a very tough pill to swallow and most people would rather not do it.  

The second reason is that we feel an obligation to the experimenter. We already made a commitment to help him and we want to uphold it.

The third reason is that all participants entered and began this experiment under a specific situational definition: we acknowledged that the authority was legitimate, knew what he was doing, and deserved to be higher up in the hierarchy than us. Violating this, or any, socially agreed upon situational definition produces feelings of awkwardness and discomfort because we are disrupting the social order. 

Lastly, there are feelings of anxiety associated with disobeying an authority figure. We have been socialized to respect authority figures and anticipating that we may have to disobey and disrupt the social order makes us anxious [1]. 

Alternative Interpretations

However, alternative studies shine light on different aspects of Milgram’s studies.

Trusted Expert

Some studies suggest something along the lines of a trusted expert that motivates subjects to continue obeying. They believed that they could trust that the scientist knew more about the experiment than they did or that they could trust that a scientist would act responsibly. Based on an individuals life experience, these would be reasonable beliefs to hold. The experimenter had even told participants that the shocks were “painful but not dangerous”. So, the real reason they continued was because they didn’t believe that the learner was actually in any real danger [8, 9]. 

The Ideology

Other studies suggest that participants continued to obey because they believed that they were agents of a worthy ideology. Specifically, one study found that of the four prods that Milgram used, the one most resembling an order was the least effective and the one most resembling an appeal to science was the most effective. In this case, it would seem that subjects are actually motivated by the belief that their actions were for the benefit of science [10, 12]. 

In both alternative explanations, participants would believe that they were doing the right thing. Alternatively, some people believe that Milgram’s experiments were nothing but theatre and invalid as a scientific experiment. On the otherhand, many believe that Milgram did stumble upon something significant but there isn’t universal agreement over exactly what that is. 


We can’t make a jump from Milgram’s results to explaining the actions of those involved in the Holocaust. The experiment itself was conducted in a lab setting and so we have to be careful about interpreting those results with regards to real life. However, it does provide us with a lot of food for thought about how different situations can affect the actions we take. Milgram’s experiments serve as a critical reminder that a potential monster lies deep within each of us and it would be in our best interest to be mindful of that. But, let me know your thoughts. Why do you think we obey?



1. Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. 1974

2. “Milgram Experiment.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 10 Apr. 2018

3. “Adolf Eichmann.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Apr. 2018

4. Kershner, Isabel. “Pardon Plea by Adolf Eichmann, Nazi War Criminal, Is Made Public.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Jan. 2016

5. Benson, Nigel C, et al. The Psychology Book. DK Publishing, a Division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2017

6. Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371-378

7. Burger, J. M. (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today? American Psychologist, 64(1), 1-11.

8. Blass, T. (1999). The Milgram Paradigm after 35 years: Some things we now know about obedience to authority. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 29(5), 955-978 

9. Nissani, M. (1990). A cognitive reinterpretation of Stanley Milgram's observations on obedience to authority. American Psychologist, 45(12), 1384-1385

10. Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S. D. and Birney, M. E. (2014), Nothing by Mere Authority: Evidence that in an Experimental Analogue of the Milgram Paradigm Participants are Motivated not by Orders but by Appeals to Science. Journal of Social Issues, 70: 473-488.

11. Sheridan, C. L., & King, R. G. (1972). Obedience to authority with an authentic victim. Proceedings of the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, 7(Pt. 1), 165-166.

12. Haslam, S. Alexander, Reicher, Stephen D. and Birney, Megan E. (2016) Questioning authority: new perspectives on Milgram's 'obedience' research and its implications for intergroup relations. Current Opinion in Psychology, 11 6-9.