Situationist contributer Philip Zimbardo has authored the preface to a new edition of social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s pathbreaking and now-classic book Obedience to Authority. This is the first of a two-part series derived from that preface. In this post, Zimbardo describes the inculcation of obedience and Milgram’s role as a research pioneer. In Part II, Zimbardo answers challenges to Milgram’s work and locates its legacy.
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What is common about two of the most profound narratives in Western culture—Lucifer’s descent into Hell and Adam and Eve’s loss of Paradise—is the lesson of the dreadful consequences of one’s failure to obey authority. . . [T]hey are designed, as all parables are, to send a powerful message to all those who hear and read them: Obey authority at all costs! The consequences of disobedience to authority are formidable and damnable. Once created, these myths and parables get passed along by subsequent authorities, now parents, teachers, bosses, politicians, and dictators, among others, who want their word to be followed without dissent or challenge.
Thus, as school children, in virtually all traditional educational settings, the rules of law that we learned and lived were: Stay in your seat until permission is granted by the teacher to stand and leave it; do not talk unless given permission by the teacher to do so after having raised your hand to seek that recognition, and do not challenge the word of the teacher or complain. So deeply ingrained are these rules of conduct that even as we age and mature they generalize across many settings as permanent placards of our respect for authority. However, not all authority is just, fair, moral, and legal, and we are never given any explicit training in recognizing that critical difference between just and unjust authority. The just one deserves respect and some obedience, maybe even without much questioning, while the unjust variety should arouse suspicion and distress, ultimately triggering acts of challenge, defiance, and revolution.
Stanley Milgram’s series of experiments on obedience to authority, so clearly and fully presented in this new edition of his work, represents some of the most significant investigations in all the social sciences of the central dynamics of this aspect of human nature. His work was the first to bring into the controlled setting of an experimental laboratory an investigation into the nature of obedience to authority. In a sense, he is following in the tradition of Kurt Lewin, although he is not generally considered to be in the Lewinian tradition, as Leon Festinger, Stanley Schachter, Lee Ross, and Richard Nisbett are, for example. Yet to study phenomena that have significance in their real world existence within the constraints and controls of a laboratory setting is at the essence of one of Lewin’s dictums of the way social psychology should proceed.
This exploration of obedience was initially motivated by Milgram’s reflections on the ease with which the German people obeyed Nazi authority in discriminating against Jews and, eventually, in allowing Hitler’s Final Solution to be enacted during the Holocaust. As a young Jewish man, he wondered if the Holocaust could be recreated in his own country, despite the many differences in those cultures and historical epochs. Though many said it could never happen in the United States, Milgram doubted whether we should be so sure. Believing in the goodness of people does not diminish the fact that ordinary, even once good people, just following orders, have committed much evil in the world.
British author C. P. Snow reminds us that more crimes against humanity have been committed in the name of obedience than disobedience. Milgram’s mentor, Solomon Asch, had earlier demonstrated the power of groups to sway the judgments of intelligent college students regarding false conceptions of visual reality. But that influence was indirect, creating a discrepancy between the group norm and the individual’s perception of the same stimulus event.
Conformity to the group’s false norm was the resolution to that discrepancy, with participants behaving in ways that would lead to group acceptance rather than rejection. Milgram wanted to discover the direct and immediate impact of one powerful individual’s commands to another person to behave in ways that challenged his or her conscience and morality. He designed his research paradigm to pit our general beliefs about what people would do in such a situation against what they actually did when immersed in that crucible of human nature.
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We’ll post Part II of this series later this week. You can review a sizeable collection of Situationist posts discussing the work of Stanley Milgram here.