Obeying and Resisting Malevolent Orders

Stanley Milgram's famous experiment highlights the powerful human tendency to obey authority.


Would you obey orders to hurt an innocent individual-even when the authority issuing them has no coercive means to enforce his or her commands? On the basis of one of the 20th century's most important and controversial pieces of research, chances are that you would. In the early 1960s, Yale social psychologist Stanley Milgram, PhD, conducted an experiment whose purpose was supposedly to study the effects of punishment on learning. The experimenter told the subject that his job was to teach a learner in an adjacent room to memorize a list of word-pairs, and every time the learner made an error, the teacher-subject was to punish the learner by giving him increasingly severe shocks by pressing levers on a shock machine. There were 30 levers whose shock values ranged from a low of 15 volts to the maximum of 450 volts. (In actuality, no electric shock was involved. The "learner" was an actor who only pretended receiving them, but the subject did not know this.) Despite the learner's increasingly pitiful screams and pleas to stop, a majority of subjects (over 60%) obeyed the experimenter's commands to continue and ended up giving the maximum "shock" of 450 volts.


We did not need Milgram's research to inform us that people have a propensity to obey authority; what it did enlighten us about is the surprising strength of that tendency-that many people are willing to obey destructive orders that conflict with their moral principles and commit acts which they would not carry out on their own initiative. Once people have accepted the right of an authority to direct our actions, Milgram argued, we relinquish responsibility to him or her and allow that person to define for us what is right or wrong.

Practical Application

Milgram's discovery about the unexpectedly powerful human tendency to obey authorities can be applied to real life in several different ways. First, it provides a reference point for certain phenomena that, on the face of it, strain our understanding-thereby, making them more plausible. Clearly, the implications of Milgram's research have been greatest for understanding of the Holocaust. For example, a historian, describing the behavior of a Nazi mobile unit roaming the Polish countryside that killed 38,000 Jews in cold blood at the bidding of their commander, concluded that "many of Milgram's insights find graphic confirmation in the behavior and testimony of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101."

Second, in his obedience studies, Milgram obtained a rare kind of result-one that people can apply to themselves to change their behavior, or at least to gain greater insight into themselves. Countless people who have learned about the obedience research have been better able to stand up against arbitrary or unjust authority.

Third, the obedience experiments have been widely used in various domains to create broader organizational changes in large segments of society. Some textbooks on business ethics have used those experiments to warn students about the unethical demands that might be made on them by their bosses in the business world. Also, several Supreme Court briefs, as well as over 180 law reviews have referenced them. A frequent argument contained in these sources is that laws requiring police officers to obtain voluntary consent to conduct searches are essentially toothless. Drawing on Milgram's findings, they argue that, given our extreme readiness to obey authority, a person is not very likely to question a police officer's right to search him or his house when he is requested to. Perhaps the most consequential use of the obedience studies by the legal profession was during a South African trial in the late 1980s of 13 defendants accused of murder during mob actions. Expert testimony that obedience to authority and other social-psychological processes were extenuating circumstances, resulted in 9 of the 13 defendants' being spared the death penalty.

A fourth, and final, application of Milgram's research is that it suggests specific preventive actions people can take to resist unwanted pressures from authorities:

  • Question the authority's legitimacy. We often give too wide a berth to people who project a commanding presence, either by their demeanor or by their mode of dress and follow their orders even in contexts irrelevant to their authority. For example, one study found that wearing a fireman's uniform significantly increased a person's persuasive powers to get a passerby to give change to another person so he could feed a parking meter.

  • When instructed to carry out an act you find abhorrent, even by a legitimate authority, stop and ask yourself: "Is this something I would do on my own initiative?" The answer may well be "No," because, according to Milgram, moral considerations play a role in acts carried out under one's own steam, but not when they emanate from an authority's commands.

  • Don't even start to comply with commands you feel even slightly uneasy about. Acquiescence to the commands of an authority that are only mildly objectionable is often, as in Milgram's experiments, the beginning of a step-by-step, escalating process of entrapment. The farther one moves along the continuum of increasingly destructive acts, the harder it is to extract oneself from the commanding authority's grip, because to do so is to confront the fact that the earlier acts of compliance were wrong.

  • If you are part of a group that has been commanded to carry out immoral actions, find an ally in the group who shares your perceptions and is willing to join you in opposing the objectionable commands. It is tremendously difficult to be a lone dissenter, not only because of the strong human need to belong, but also because-via the process of pluralistic ignorance-the compliance of others makes the action seem acceptable and leads you to question your own negative judgment. In one of Milgram's conditions the na├»ve subject was one of a 3-person teaching team. The other two were actually confederates who-one after another-refused to continue shocking the victim. Their defiance had a liberating influence on the subjects, so that only 10% of them ended up giving the maximum shock.

Cited Research

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol. 67, pp. 371-78.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York: Harper & Row.

Blass, T (2004). The man who shocked the world: The life and legacy of Stanley Milgram. New York: Basic Books.

American Psychological Association, May 25, 2004


Additional Sources

Barrio, A. J. (1997). Rethinking Schneckloth v. Bustamonte: Incorporating obedience theory into the Supreme Court's conception of voluntary consent. University of Illinois Law Review, 1997, pp. 225-251.

Browning, C. (1992). Ordinary men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the final solution in Poland. New York: Harper/Collins.

Bushman, B. J. (1984). Perceived symbols of authority and their influence on compliance. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Vol. 14, pp. 501-508.

Colman, A. M. (1991). Crowd psychology in South African murder trials. American Psychologist, Vol. 46, pp. 1071-1079.

Ferrell, O. C. & Gardiner, G. (1991). In pursuit of ethics: Tough choices in the world of work. Springfield, IL: Smith Collins.

Gray, S. (2004, March 30). Bizarre hoaxes on restaurants trigger lawsuits. The Wall Street Journal, pp. B1-B2.

Modigliani, A. & Rochat, F. (1995). The role of interaction sequences and the timing of resistance in shaping obedience and defiance to authority. Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 51 (3), pp. 107-123.

Poirier, S. & Garlepy, Y. (1996). Compensation in Canada for resolving drug-related problems. Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association, Vol. 36, pp. 117-122.

The Stanley Milgram Web site.