Beyond Milgram: Obedience and Identity

In the early 1960s two apparently-unrelated events, separated by thousands of miles, took place that, in their own way, shocked the world.

The first, in early 1961, was the Jerusalem trial of Adolph Eichmann. He was accused – and subsequently convicted – of being one of the organisers of the Nazi Concentration Camps in which millions of innocent victims were sent to their deaths.

The second, a few months later, was a series of experiments carried out in and around Yale University, by Stanley Milgram.

What connects these two events is obedience and, more specifically, the idea of “blindly obeying” orders given by those in authority.

  • In Eichmann’s case “blind obedience” was manifested in his defence – both during and after the trial – that he was merely the agent of a higher, more-powerful, will. He was, he claimed, guilty of nothing more than being a loyal soldier; one who simply “obeyed the orders” he was given.
  • In the case of Milgram’s “Teachers”, “blind obedience” was apparently manifested in the willingness of two-thirds (66%) of his volunteers to deliver what they believed were lethal electric shocks to “Learners”. Were Milgram’s Teachers simply “obeying the orders” given to them by Milgram’s experimenters?

Agenetic state?

The conventional explanation for Milgram’s results is the notion of an “agentic state”; the idea that individuals, for whatever psycho-social reasons, come to see themselves as “agents” or instruments of a higher power or authority: in Eichmann’s case the authority structure of the German Nazi Party and, in the case of Milgram’s Teachers, the authority of the white-coated experimenter. In this explanation the argument is that “obedience to authority” is something that absolves the individual of responsibility for their choices and actions; the individual sees themselves as the “innocent agency” through which orders are given and carried-out. The culprit, in this scenario, is clearly those responsible for giving the orders.

In this respect it’s not difficult – given around two-thirds of Milgram’s Teachers dished-out lethal “electric shocks” to complete strangers – to see why the agentic state argument (an argument Milgram himself favoured) should seem so persuasive: if we don’t see “ordinary people” as somehow being blinded or cowed into unquestioning obedience by some form of monstrous authority the alternative is to see those same “ordinary people” as monsters themselves; people who are more than capable of inflicting great cruelty on innocent victims simply because they were told that is what they had to do…

Or Social Identity?

There are, however, good reasons for rejecting both of these scenarios.

The first is the fact one-third (33%) of Milgram’s Teachers did not obey orders; they refused, for whatever reasons, to deliver lethal electric shocks – and while this, in itself, doesn’t necessarily constitute a rejection of the agentic state explanation it does suggest that what was going on in Milgram’s laboratories was much more complex than conventional descriptions of the experiments might lead us to believe.

Secondly, if we look more-closely at the complete range of experiments Milgram carried-out the picture that emerges is somewhat different. In some of the experiments, for example, when the location was changed from prestigious Yale University to downtown Bridgeport, obedience levels fell. And when the experimenters argued or gave contradictory orders, levels of obedience didn’t simply fall, they completely disappeared.

The picture that emerges from these competing scenarios – and their wildly conflicting results – is a more complex one than the agentic state explanation allows. In particular it suggests “obedience” is not a simple one-way process – from experimenter through Teacher to Learner in Milgram’s case – but rather a reflexive process; a dialogue between Experimenter and Teacher based upon their common definition of a situation.

To put this another way, the evidence from all Milgram’s experiments suggests that “obedience”, even where it was most brutally expressed in the Teacher delivering lethal electric shocks, is not simply “to authority”; rather it is to an authority the Teacher:

  1. Recognised as legitimate: within the context of the situation the experimenter had the right to ask, for example, the Teacher “to continue” beyond the “safe limits” identified on the shock machine.
  2. Saw as pursuing legitimate aims (in this instance a scientific educational study) with which they broadly agreed and, most-crucially, actively identified. They felt, in other words, their participation in a legitimate scientific experiment would make a significant contribution to an understanding of how students learn.

The evidence to support the interpretation that “apparently unconditional obedience” is actually based on a crucial identification of the Teacher with the aims and objectives of the research in which they were participating is extensive when you look at all Milgram’s experiments:

• When an Experimenter ordered a Teacher to comply, they generally refused (since this breached the unwritten assumption that both were cooperating in a scientific enterprise).

• Where Experimenter instructions were contradictory or where two Experimenters argued over their instructions, Teacher obedience disappeared.

• Where the experimental setting (the prestigious Yale University) was congruent with the Teacher’s perception of “science”, obedience was high. Where it was not congruent (in downtown Bridgeport) obedience declined.

If you want to explore these ideas and arguments visually, our new film featuring Professors’ Alex Haslam and Steve Reicher is now available On-Demand (to buy / download or 7-day rental).

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