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Oct 1, 1975

Milgram, “Obedience to Authority”

“There is no way, in a short review, to communicate the appalling quality of the spectacle the experiments unfold.”

If this book does make you think long and hard about the world in which you live, about the people you know, and—most particularly and perhaps painfully—about yourself, then I know of no book that will do so. It has had that effect on me. I first read Obedience to Authority almost a year ago; it has been in my thoughts many times since then and has caused me endlessly to buttonhole friends and acquaintances, urging them to read it. I am glad to have the opportunity to bring this profoundly important work to the attention of readers of Libertarian Review.

The thesis of Obedience to Authority is simply stated. “Ordinary people,” explains Stanley Milgram (professor of psychology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York), “simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. However, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

Does this seem like a description of Nazi Germany? It is a description of a cross-section of over a thousand Americans—men and women, aged 20 to 50, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish, from all educational levels and a wide range of occupations and professions—who took part in a series of laboratory experiments first conducted by Milgram at Yale University and then repeated in other parts of the country.

Very briefly, each subject of the experiment was told (falsely) that he was participating in a scientific study of the effects of punishment on learning. A white-coated scientist in a laboratory requested the subject to administer a series of progressively stronger electric shocks to a third person, the “learner” (who was strapped into a wired chair), each time the learner failed correctly to answer one of a list of simple questions. The subject was told that the learner, like himself, was a volunteer. This was not the case; the learner knew the actual nature of the experiment, and in fact received no shocks at all. An overwhelming majority of the subjects, in the absence of force, in opposition to their moral principles, despite feelings of intense internal conflict and doubt, and despite the pleas, screams and apparent acute suffering of the learner, continued to adminster the shocks until the scientist-authority told them to stop. The psychological power of the authority-figure was far stronger than the power of their own moral values.

There is no way, in a short review, to communicate the appalling quality of the spectacle the experiments unfold, the spectacle of predominantly decent people motivated, not by feelings of agression or hostility, but by their inability to resist the commands of an authority, to systematically torture what they believed to be helpless victims.

Milgram gives a number of fascinating and valuable explanations both of the causes and the psychological mechanics which make such behavior possible, explanations drawn in large part from his subsequent interviews with his subjects. The most significant mechanism involved, in my view, and the most common, is the subjects’ self-creation of an “agentic state.” That is, the subjects ceased, as the experiment progressed, to see themselves as responsible for the actions they were taking; they attributed the initiative and the responsibility to the authority, viewing themselves as only his passive agents. It was the authority who defined the moral meaning of their actions. What caused disobedience in the minority who refused to continue administering the shocks? The conviction that they were autonomous entities, who could not and would not abrogate moral self-responsibility. A “residue of selfhood,” states Milgram, allowed the minority to keep their personal values alive.

Milgram’s summation of the meaning of his work is chilling. His results, he writes, “raise the possibility that human nature, or—more specifically—the kind of character produced in American democratic society, cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority. A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act, and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.”

The first step in averting. the catastrophic potential implied by Milgram’s findings is to understand it. I urge you to read Obedience to AuthorityReviewed by Barbara Branden / Psychology / $10, hardback / $3.45, paper