essays

Feb 1, 1978

Obedience to Authority

“Government tends to impose its authority by validating or invalidating an activity.”

Nazis annihilated Jews because the Fuhrer commanded it. American soldiers, following their commanders’ orders, machine-gunned Vietnamese civilians. And aides to the president plotted burglaries and destroyed evidence to protect their boss’s position.

Their reasons were the same: obedience to authority.

Hannah Arendt pointed out the inherent problem when she described the trial of Adolf Eichmann: They [the judges] knew, of course, that it would have been very comforting to believe that Eichmann was a monster … The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.” Authority seems to command a devotion that morality can’t match.

Psychiatrist and libertarian Dr. Thomas Szasz; key Watergate figure John Dean III, former counsel to President Richard M. Nixon; social psychologist Stanley Milgram, author of Obedience to Authority; and Columbia University hypnosis expert Dr. Herbert Spiegel analyzed and tried to explain this unsettling phenomenon at a recent [October 29, 1977] conference on “Obedience to Authority,” in New York, sponsored by the Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center.

Just how pliable and submissive are most human beings in the hands of authority? Who are the individuals who resist this potent urge and what is their fate?

Szasz, the iconoclastic professor of psychiatry at the Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, New York, observed that the answer to the question of why some individuals resist “is age-old: the willingness to be alone … The only way you can be immune is if your heroes are people like Thoreau and Emerson.” Such independence often puts one at odds with society and leads to one’s being considered abnormal.

His own profession, psychiatry, has a major stake in maintaining authority and obedience thereto, he added. So their reaction to independence is to call it immaturity or insanity, and to treat it as such. “You’re not supposed to choose—you’re supposed to obey,” explained Szasz. “Who are the disobedients? There are two groups: children and madmen.” Such casual classifications remove human action from the realm of ethics, where he feels it belongs. “I’m suggesting there is such a thing as good and evil.”

Historically, obedience to authority was embedded in every political system—except the libertarian model. The earliest examples include religious groups, with authoritarianism commonly present. “Jesus was a little better than [Judaism],” said Szasz, “because he was the first to tell people, ‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto the Lord that which is the Lord’s. Follow your conscience.’ And you know what happened to him.”

Government tends to impose its authority by validating or invalidating an activity. “Validating is just as bad as invalidating because validation is usually at the expense of someone else,” Szasz observed. The libertarian approach, on the other hand, is simply to say, “It’s none of my business.” “There is only one political sin,” he declared, “and correspondingly only one political virtue. The one policital sin is independence. The only political virtue is saying what people want to hear. So what else is new?”

Two of the other participants on the panel took pains to disagree with Szasz. Spiegel had reported on how a person’s susceptibility to hypnosis correlates well with one’s susceptibility to coercion and persuasion. “I am enthusiastic about Szasz’s point about damn near demanding that people be responsible for themselves,” he allowed. But Spiegel declared that Szasz’s application of this principle to schizophrenics is “the utmost cruelty.” Expecting schizophrenics—whom the hypnotist claimed are biologically incapable of making choices—to do so is “like expecting you and I to fly in the air by flapping our arms. These people need compassion and protection.”

Milgram’s objection to Szasz was not so narrowly defined, but followed closely from his all-encompassing dictum that “the greatest lesson twentieth century social psychology has to offer is that it’s not the person which determines how he will act, but the situation in which he is placed.”

From this matter-over-mind pronouncement, it was but a small step to his chastisement of Szasz: “You can’t have a society without forms of authority,” he proclaimed. “That’s why a radical libertarian or anarchist society won’t succeed. I know of no society which encourages disobedience to its own rules.” This, of course, can but lead one to wonder how well he understand the only rules of a radical libertarian society: no force and no fraud.

 

Milgram’s theories were drawn from his famous studies at Yale in the 1960s in which volunteer subjects were told to by the experimenters inflict pain—through mild to severe electric shocks—on other volunteers. The subjects who were to give the shocks asked questions of the “students,” and gave increasingly strong shocks if the answers were wrong. The key to the experiment was that each “student” was really acting all along—no shocks were ever inflicted. Thus, without anyone being injured, Milgram and his associates could study how far people would go, in terms of (seemingly) hurting others, in their obedience to authority.

Milgram, now a professor at the City University of New York, told the conference that his fellow professionals, in questionnaires, had predicted that only one of 1000 subjects would continue to give “shocks” all the way up to the maximum—indicated as 450 volts (bearing the warning, “XXX,” one step above the label, “Danger: Severe Shock”), even though the “students” were told never to ask the subjects to stop.

“There is only one political sin,” Szasz declared, “and that is independence. The one political virtue is saying what people want to hear.”

In fact, virtually all subjects went to the end of the line. Even when the conditions were changed, so that the “students” began to protest strongly at 150 volts, fully 60 percent delivered the maximum shock. “It was a very harsh and somewhat disillusioning sight to see normal people from the general population” act this way against the defenseless learner, “who was screaming bloody murder,” he remembered. It was not what he had expected.

But another variation on the experiment showed that agression or sadism was not the reason that subjects acceeded to the orders of the experimenters in charge. In this instance, the subjects were allowed to choose the level of shock, rather than upping it each time. Here, the average shock was below the point at which protests were heard. And in the other variations, cooperation was not smooth: The subjects protested (although they continued) and many tried to emphasize the correct answer to the “student”—so they would not have to deliver another shock.

“Many of these subjects, while they thought it incumbent upon them to dissent, allowed dissent to be overrriden by authority,” observed Milgram. “In some cases, it allowed these people to see themselves as a very moral person, very sensitive to values”.

Milgram proposed three causes for this overwhelming tendency towards obedience: preconditioning, the “agentic state,” and “binding factors.” In the first case, childhood, school, and job teach respect for hierarchy, he said; thus, the accoutrements of authority in the experiment (here, a white lab coat) and the absence of a conflicting claim gave legitimacy to authority. The second factor arises from the subjects’ agreement to take part in the experiment: the individuals saw themselves simply as “agents” of the experimenter—they were “just following orders” (without hearing any disquieting echoes of Nuremberg). The “binding factors,” Milgram explained, follow from the implicit contractual agreement the subjects felt committed to by coming to the laboratory in the first place.

 

John Dean presented himself as a case study in such obedience—combined with a healthy dose of “blind ambition.” As he epigramatized it, “To get along, you go along.” His first White House assignment was to sue an obscure magazine that had satirized Spiro Agnew. When Dean counseled Nixon against such a move, the president decided to order an IRS audit. Dean thought that was a poor idea as well; but an associate cautioned him, “John, I guarantee you, if you don’t do what the president wants you to do, he’ll find someone who will.” As Dean recalled, “I walked back to my office, thinking how much I liked my new job and my new title, counsel to the president, at age 31.” He arranged the audit.

He “got off” on having Nixon call him frequently and being on first-name terms with Mitchell, Haldeman and others—for a while. Eventually, however, the time came when “I would walk into my office and think maybe it would be better to be in jail than to keep coming into the White House each day.” Moreover, he realized “I couldn’t continue my marriage the way it was going, because I’d come home every night and get drunk, and all I’d want to do was go to sleep so I could get up and start the next day. I knew my social drinking habits had changed when I started buying gallons instead of fifths so I wouldn’t see the bottles going so quickly.”

So, finally, he got out. But Spiegel had a harsh footnote to Dean’s recitation. “Dean wasn’t conned by Nixon,” Spiegel contended. “He knew Nixon was a crook. But he went along because he could get something out of it.” Moreover, “if you notice, with all his candor, he still has some kind of amnesia” about the importance of his ambition and the fact that he didn’t speak up until he had become a patsy for the president and his closest associates. Especially revealing was the fact that Dean gave the Watergate prosecutors minute details about everything that had occurred—including what people wore at various meetings—except money. “I could never remember amounts of money,” Dean recalled. “But I know what happened—I ducked it. I ducked it with a great big repression. I’d pass the figures along on the phone and I’d forget it as soon as possible.”

As Szasz mused later, “If you want to get out,” to resist authority, “you can’t be a good party person. Mr. Dean showed this very well.”


Gloria Sturzenacker is a graduate student in journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism.