Monday, November 1, 2010

The Milgram Experiment: Blind obedience to Authority

Andrew D Atkin:

The Milgram experiment is a famous psychology experiment. It brought attention to common responsiveness to authority, and to how a normal person can torture and even kill someone when a perceived authority tells them to do so.

I believe that the essence of what the Milgram experiment shows us basically relates to the dynamic of displaced responsibility, which itself mostly comes from a blind (as it often is) faith in authority.

We assume that the authority knows best, so we can (and do) do their "dirty work" and with only the faith that it's for a higher and ultimately justified good.

VIDEO of the Milgram experiment.

.....Some "Milgram in action":


A couple of weeks ago I was watching a documentary on the Discovery Channel about Blast Fishing. This is where people from third-world countries use cheap explosives to blast-out an area of coral reef, because it offers a cheap and fast way to catch a few fish (the fish just float to the surface dead, after the blast). The problem with it is that it totally destroys the coral eco-system from over a wide area of the blast, which in turn takes hundreds of years to recover.

A man was interviewed who performed blast-fishing (which is illegal, for the record) and was asked how he justified his actions. He emphatically stated that he was doing nothing against his religion - he said that he did not steel, lie or kill.

I think this is a good example of the Milgram effect. The man had effectively displaced moral responsibility for his actions onto his religion. As long as it was ok according to his religion, he could be "happily blind" (morally) to whatever else he was doing. This is similar to what I have written about before, where I describe the mentality of.. "All I have to do is follow the 10 commandments and Jesus will clean up the mess", which religion can create I believe.

It boils down to the same dynamic: displacing responsibility onto a [perceived] higher authority, and going "conveniently" blind to what is real.

The Group:

I would say "the group" is the strongest functional authority for most of us, and the strongest authority that we displace responsibility to. Countless people eat meat, for example, without feeling the need to give even a second thought as to whether or not it is morally acceptable*, and for no other reason than everyone else is doing it.

Of course you could catalogue a library's worth of historic "mob" behaviours of questionable morality.

*I am not saying it's either good or bad to eat meat here, only that the morality of it is often not even tested.


Another famous experiment: The Asch experiment:

It following video (very short) makes quite a statement of the power of the group over the individual.

The Asch experiment reminds me of one of my old sayings..."If everybody thinks what everybody else thinks, and only because everybody else thinks it, then who exactly is doing the thinking?"


The Military:

The military gives us an obvious and striking example of the Milgram dynamic, because the military is completely dependant on the direct displacement of responsibility from subordinates to above.

Shouldn't military personnel be checking intensively to make sure their boss's are doing the right thing? Isn't that the least you can do if you going to go around killing people in someone else's name? Alas, I doubt enormously that it would be encouraged. Indeed, the hyper-patriotic mentality (of which is heavily indoctrinated into military personnel) works directly to dis-encourage it.

It's unfortunate, but the military is and always has been dependant on blind obedience to function. The obvious cost is that ultimate power doesn't have to answer to itself, leaving the door open for Tyrants.

Note: Apparently compulsion schooling as we know it today was a direct import from early Germany. It was, as I understand, originally (and specifically) designed to produce good (obedient) military personnel.
You can see how virtually every child that grows up gets the overwhelming message from school--and usually parents too--that obedience is inherently equitable to virtue.


In my view we all need to learn about the Milgram experiment, so we can understand how dangerous we can be. The Milgram experiment shows us how people who aren't really "bad" can still much too easily do bad. Fronting-up to the Milgram dynamic could do a lot to help us not let it get the better of us.

We can see that we need to actively hold our authorities to account. Displacing responsibility on the basis of a mere faith in authority is immoral, because it can and does lead to immoral actions of which did not otherwise need to occur.

Finally, I will point out that an authority that does not like to be questioned or challenged is the worst kind of authority, because that is an authority that wants you to behave like the people in the Milgram experiment. Of course we should never accept this.


  1. This is a great subject. Much more could be explored. We are best off when we all think for ourselves and think independently and have strong convictions based on careful thought. I find many so called Christians do little careful thinking. They prefer quick simple pat easy answers that defer any strain of the brain.

    We are always told and conditioned in school to fit in and not stand out. In truth, we should all be willing to stand up and out when we believe we are right. I wish more had responded to this very excellent topic. Good job!

  2. I see this Asch dynamic and Milgram dynamic in leftist politics, especially among the young users of internet discussion forums. The two dynamics are what got Obama elected president

    1. I know this is old, but this is so wrong that I can't just let such a misleading comment sit there. Milgram dynamics cause induviduals to do stuff that may or may not be wrong, just because a (percieved) authority tells them to do it. While parents, religious leaders, teachers and so on, may tell voters to vote for either Obama or Romney, I see no reason why that would happen more often in favor of Obama. I do not believe it to be logical, likely, or in any way possible to prove either.

      Asch dynamics, however, will have a bigger chance of effecting peoples choices, but as the vote is anonymous, it will be much more likely that induviduals votes for the right choice (in their minds) and then tells a group that they voted differently. Also in this case, I see no reason why this would favor Obama more than Romney, even if it happened.

      On a personal level, I find that quite a bit of Republicans (voters) use these kinds of false statements to spread hate and misinformation, more so than I have seen Democrats do.

      Now I will leave you, and everyone reading this with a rethorical question. Even democrats in the US are more rightist than most European countries, and republicans would be considered a right-wing party in Europe. How do you guys think the Asch dynamics play a role in keeping Americans right-wing, compared to most countries?

    2. Well anonymous, in New Zealand people for vote Left or Right primary on the back of outright ignorance.

      The "left" voters have been s**t on in this country by the very parties that claim to represent them. Economics-101 must come before anything. I think America, as a culture, has more respect for economic fundamentals, and understands the capacity of free markets operating in a context of high competition. Maybe the "left" have more understanding of the importance of being "right" in America?