Obedience to Authority


During the 1970s, neobehaviorists performed countless experiments on adults and children alike. Colleges jumped at the opportunity to test new theories.

In 1971, the Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated that normal people can easily turn into sadistic “guards” while reducing their “prisoners” to blind obedience. Scheduled to run two weeks, the study was halted on day six due to ethical concerns. According to Stanford News:

The arrestees were among about 70 young men, mostly college students eager to earn $15 a day for two weeks, who volunteered as subjects for an experiment on prison life that had been advertised in the Palo Alto Times. After interviews and a battery of psychological tests, the two dozen judged to be the most normal, average and healthy were selected to participate, assigned randomly either to be guards or prisoners. Those who would be prisoners were booked at a real jail, then blindfolded and driven to campus where they were led into a makeshift prison in the basement of Jordan Hall.

Those assigned to be guards were given uniforms and instructed that they were not to use violence but that their job was to maintain control of the prison.

[Psychology Professor Philip] Zimbardo’s primary reason for conducting the experiment was to focus on the power of roles, rules, symbols, group identity and situational validation of behavior that generally would repulse ordinary individuals. “I had been conducting research for some years on deindividuation, vandalism and dehumanization that illustrated the ease with which ordinary people could be led to engage in anti-social acts by putting them in situations where they felt anonymous, or they could perceive of others in ways that made them less than human, as enemies or objects,” Zimbardo told the Toronto symposium in the summer of 1996.1

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According to the Stanford Prison Experiment PrisonExp.org website:

There were three types of guards. First, there were tough but fair guards who followed prison rules. Second, there were “good guys” who did little favors for the prisoners and never punished them. And finally, about a third of the guards were hostile, arbitrary, and inventive in their forms of prisoner humiliation. These guards appeared to thoroughly enjoy the power they wielded, yet none of our preliminary personality tests were able to predict this behavior. The only link between personality and prison behavior was a finding that prisoners with a high degree of authoritarianism endured our authoritarian prison environment longer than did other prisoners.2

Prisoners coped with their feelings of frustration and powerlessness in a variety of ways. At first, some prisoners rebelled or fought with the guards. Four prisoners reacted by breaking down emotionally as a way to escape the situation. One prisoner developed a psychosomatic rash over his entire body when he learned that his parole request had been turned down. Others tried to cope by being good prisoners, doing everything the guards wanted them to do.… By the end of the study, the prisoners were disintegrated, both as a group and as individuals. There was no longer any group unity; just a bunch of isolated individuals hanging on, much like prisoners of war or hospitalized mental patients. The guards had won total control of the prison, and they commanded the blind obedience of each prisoner.3

[By the fifth night it became apparent the experiment had to be stopped. The experimenters had created] a situation in which prisoners were withdrawing and behaving in pathological ways, and in which some of the guards were behaving sadistically. Even the “good” guards felt helpless to intervene.4

Christina Maslach, a recent Stanford Ph.D. brought in to conduct interviews with the guards and prisoners, strongly objected when she saw our prisoners being marched on a toilet run, bags over their heads, legs chained together, hands on each other’s shoulders. Filled with outrage, she said, “It’s terrible what you are doing to these boys!” Out of 50 or more outsiders who had seen our prison, she was the only one who ever questioned its morality. Once she countered the power of the situation, however, it became clear that the study should be ended.5

The Simpsons electroschock

In 1974, Stanley Milgram published his infamous Obedience to Authority study. Neil Postman writes in Technopoly:

In this notorious study, Milgram sought to entice people to give electric shocks to “innocent victims” who were in fact conspirators in the experiment and did not actually receive the shocks. Nonetheless, most of Milgram’s subjects believed that the victims were receiving the shocks, and many of them under psychological pressure, gave shocks that, had they been real, might have killed the victims.6

Muskingum University notes:

People who are doing a job as instructed by an administrative figure are following the instructions of that administrative outlook and not the outlook of a moral code. The feelings of duty and personal emotion are clearly separated. Responsibility shifts in the mind of the subordinate from himself/herself to the authority figure. There is a well defined purpose behind the actions or goals of the authority, and the subordinate is depended upon to help and meet those goals.7

According to a short biography of Milgram compiled by Michael Goret et al:

In most versions of this experiment two individuals would arrive at a testing center simultaneously. Here they would meet an instructer [sic] who appeared to be conducting the experiment. This instructor superficially appeared as an authority figure by displaying the necessary crudentials [sic] as a professor such as a white lab coat and clip board. [sic] The two “subjects”were then taken to a room where one was strapped in a chair to prevent movement and an electrode was placed on their arm. Next, the other individual who was called the “teacher” was taken to an adjoining room where he/she was instructed to read a list of two word pairs. He/She would then ask the “learner” to read them back. If the “learner” got the answer correct, they would then move on to the next set of words in the series. However, if the answer was wrong the “teacher” was informed by the instructor that they were required to administer shock to the “learner”. These shocks first started at 15 volts and increased to 450 volts for each incorrect response. This occured [sic] in 15 volt increments. The “teacher” was never cohersed [sic] into doing so they were simply told by the instructer [sic] that the experiement [sic] required them to continue. This in fact is what made this study so intiguing; [sic] the “teacher” could have discontinued the experiment at any time but you will soon see that the majority continued to shock. The “teacher” was fully under the assumption that he/she was administering discipline to the “learner” however, they were never really doing so. The “learner” was actually a confederate,a student or actor, who were never actually harmed.…

Today the field of psychology would deem this study highly unethical because of the great deal of stress layed [sic] upon the subjects, however it is quite evident that this research yielded some extremely important findings. The theory that only the most severe monsters on the sadistic fringe of society would submit to such cruelty is disclaimed. Findings indicated that, “two-thirds of this studies participants fell into the category of ‘obedient’ subjects. These participants represented ordinary people drawn from the working, managerial, and professional classes” (Obedience to Authority). Ultimately 65% of all of the “teachers” punished the “learners” to the maximum 450 volts.8

Harvey Mindess describes a book by renowned behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner in his collection of Makers of Psychology:.

A Utopian novel set in contemporary America, Walden Two is the story of a visit by a small group of academics to an extraordinary community run along strictly behaviorist lines. They are variously impressed and repelled by what they see. The community was founded by a man named Frazier, a former psychologist turned reformer, whose belief in operant conditioning knows no bounds. He shows Walden Two to his visitors…keeping up a running commentary on its virtues, at first in a fairly objective manner, but eventually with all the fervor of a zealot.

At the beginning of their visit, for instance, he takes the group out for a walk. “This is our lawn,” he says. “But we consume it. Indirectly, of course — through our sheep. And the advantage is that it doesn’t consume us.… We soon found that the sheep kept to the enclosure and quite clear of the fence, which didn’t need to be electrified. So we substituted a piece of string, which is easier to move around.… [The lambs] stray,” Frazier conceded, “but they cause no trouble and soon learn to keep with the flock.”… The curious thing is that most of these sheep have never been shocked by the fence. Most of them were born after we took the wire away. It has become a tradition among our sheep never to approach string. The lambs acquire it from their elders, whose judgment they never question. It’s fortunate that sheep don’t talk,” said [one of Frazier’s visitors]. “One of them would be sure to ask ‘Why?’ The Philosophical Lambkin” (Walden Two, pp. 15-16).…

The incident seems innocuous enough, but the reader soon learns that it is a prototype for the rest of the story. Not only the animals but also the people at Walden Two have been conditioned to be of service to the community and to carry out their appointed duties without complaint and without question. The resultant peacefulness and efficiency of the place becomes captivation to some of the visitors, but it disturbs others,…who continually raise[] the issue of human beings being deprived of their freedom of choice.9

Jerome H. Skolnick and Jame J. Fyfe describe socialization among police officers in Above the Law:

Social scientists have studied police in every part of the United States, in Europe and in Asia. The fundamental culture of policing is everywhere similar, which is understandable since everywhere the same features of the police role – danger, authority, and the mandate to use coercive force – are everywhere present. The combination generates and supports norms of internal solidarity, or brotherhood. Most police feel comfortable, and socialize mainly, with other cops, a feature of police culture noted by observers of police from the 1960s to the 1990s. Every cop has a story about a social occasion where an inebriated guest would make a joking or half-joking remark that deprecated police or set them apart. Most cops prefer to attend parties with other police, where drinking and carousing can occur without fear of civilian affront or knowledge. Cops don’t trust other people &ndash which is practically everybody who is not a cop. “They know the public generally resents their authority,” Mark Baker says, “and is fickle in its support of police policy and individual police officers. Older officers teach younger ones that it is best to avoid civilians.” 10


1 “The Stanford Prison Experiment: Still powerful after all these years,” Stanford News Service, at http://www.stanford.edu/dept/news/pr/97/970108prisonexp.html (retrieved: 7 January 2011).

2 Standford Prison Experiment, slide show, PrisonExp.org, at http://prisonexp.org/psychology/33 (retrieved: 7 January 2011).

3 Ibidem, at http://prisonexp.org/psychology/35 (retrieved: 7 January 2011).

4 Ibidem, at http://prisonexp.org/psychology/37 (retrieved: 7 January 2011).

5 Ibidem, at http://prisonexp.org/psychology/38 (retrieved: 7 January 2011).

6 Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1993), p. 151.

7 Compiled by Heather Miller (May 1997), Stanley Milgram (1933-1984), http://www.muskingum.edu/~psych/psycweb/history/milgram.htm (retrieved: 7 January 2011).

8 Compiled by Michael Goret, Amanda Zega, Lorraine Voss, Gillian Fawcett-Hammalian, Stanley Milgram (1933-1984), at http://mikeg531.tripod.com/MikeG531.htm (retrieved: 7 January 2011).

9 Harvey Mindess, Makers of Psychology: The Personal Factor (New York: Human Sciences Press, Inc., 1988), pp. 99, 100.

10 Jerome H. Skolnick and James J. Fyfe, Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1993), p. 92; See also Mark Baker, Cops: Their Lives in Their Own Words (New York: Fawcett, 1985), p. 211.

See also

“Stanford Prison Experiment,” Wikipedia.org, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_Prison_Experiment (retrieved: 9 June 2008).

“Obedience to Authority Study,” Wikipedia.org, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obedience_to_Authority_Study (retrieved: 9 June 2008).

“Nanny 911,” Wikipedia.org, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanny_911 (retrieved: 9 June 2008).

Kevin Crosby, “B.F. Skinner,” SkewsMe.com, at http://www.skewsme.com/skinner.html (retrieved: 16 November 2012).

Kevin Crosby, “Pharmachological Lobotomy,” SkewsMe.com, at http://www.skewsme.com/ritalin.html (retrieved: 9 June 2008).

Related videos

“Stanford Prison Experiment (Documentary),” hidayahmahaleh video at YouTube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkmQZjZSjk4 (retrieved: 5 January 2011). (Watch it here)

“Obey,” Studiocanoe video at vimeo.com, http://vimeo.com/59002146 (retrieved: 13 March 2014). (Show video)

“The Board of Education Official Trailer #1 (2012) HD Movie,” movieclipsTRAILERS video at YouTube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vt4v7KsFi8 (retrieved: 13 August 2012). (Watch it here)

“The Wave,” David McCarthy video at YouTube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ICng-KRxXJ8 (retrieved: 1 July 2013). (Watch it here)

“Brown eyes and blue eyes Racism experiment (Children Session) – Jane Elliott,” LudwingMedia video at YouTube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeK759FF84s (retrieved: 28 June 2013). (Watch it here)

“The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil – Philip G. Zimbardo,” infiniteinfiniteinfi video at YouTube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9xpsVlY3QQc (retrieved: 14 March 2016). (Show video)

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