Only Following Orders

Are we as free-thinking as we assume?

Possibly the most famous ever study in social psychology was published 50 years ago by Stanley Milgram (1933 – 1984) in which he claimed to demonstrate that ordinary people would perform extraordinary acts of torture in blind obedience to instructions from authority. This work offered a profound insight into human psychology and was also very topical at the time. However, Gina Perry, an Australian psychologist, seriously questions the validity of Milgram’s published findings in her book – Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments (Scribe Publications, 2012).

Nazi atrocities

To this day, the world remains deeply perplexed and disturbed by the Nazi atrocities perpetrated during World War II, but in 1963 when Milgram’s study was published only 20 years had elapsed since the actual atrocities and the question was a particularly hot topic. How could ordinary people do the awful deeds perpetrated in the Nazi concentration camps? The stock answer offered by Nazis put on trial after the war was – “We were only following orders”. Indeed, even Adolf Eichmann, coordinator of the Holocaust, pleaded along these lines at his trial in Jerusalem in 1961.

Milgram set out to see if ordinary people will follow orders from authoritative figures to cause severe pain and trauma to innocent others. In 1961 he recruited participants in a study at Yale, supposedly on the effects of punishment on learning. A participant was assigned to the role of a ‘teacher’ and a fellow volunteer was assigned to the role of a ‘learner’. However, unknown to the teachers, the learners were actually Milgram’s accomplices. Each learner was audible but not visible to the teacher. The learner’s task was to memorise and recite lists of word-pairs and the teacher was instructed to deliver an electric shock, using a realistic looking machine, whenever the learner made a mistake. The shock voltage was to be increased on each successive error and the labels of shock level on the machine where: Slight Shock, Danger-Severe Shock and XXX. 

The learners screamed when they received the shocks and begged to have to punishment stopped.  Authoritative officials wearing white coats urged the teachers to continue the punishment anyway in the interests of the experiment. They assured the teachers that the shocks were not dangerous. Some participant learners cited heart problems to the teachers to no avail and went silent after further shocks, seemingly shocked either to death or to unconsciousness.

Milgram reported that 65% of the participants continued the shocks regardless of the screaming, begging and silences. He described the typical teacher subject as one who “divests himself of responsibility” and “becomes an agent of an external authority”. In other words, two thirds of us are potential Nazis.


However, the situation wasn’t nearly as clear cut as Milgram reported. Gina Perry has studied the original experimental data and interviewed still-living subjects. She concludes that the slavish obedience reported by Milgram was not what he actually observed. There were 24 variations in Milgram’s study involving 780 people. Only one variation, involving 40 people achieved 65% compliance and this was the variation that was reported. Perry reports – “By examining the records of the experiments held at Yale, I found that in over half of the 24 variations, 60% of the people disobeyed the instructions of the authority and refused to continue”. Also, she discovered that between 25% and 50% of the subjects suspected that the experiment was a hoax.

Perry also discovered that one of the variations studied by Milgram was where the teacher and learner knew each other. In this variation the teachers were all reluctant to shock the learners and, in all cases these teachers refused to go very far down the line of inflicting more severe shocks on the learners.

Milgram’s results, as he reported them, paint an extremely depressing picture of humanity – up to two-thirds of people are prepared to torture other innocent people to the point of death out of blind obedience to authority. However, Perry’s investigations show that things are not quite that grim – a more accurate summary of Milgram’s results would be that less than half the subjects complied more than half the time and one quarter to half of those who complied doubted they were hurting anybody. The fact that Perry has shown that a significant fraction actually did show resolve to resist unreasonable authority means that probably many more could also have done so. If the teachers had reflected a little more on the situation the results would have been very different.

But the results are still disturbing. Even taking Perry’s caveats into account, a significant fraction of people are still prepared to torture other innocent people out of blind obedience to authority. And we must remember that, in this instance, unlike in the real life Nazi event, the teachers had not been preconditioned to hate their victims.


But, even though the results are disturbing, are they that surprising on reflection? How many of us in our everyday lives are prepared to oppose authority, whether that authority appears in the guise of senior management, a prestigious professional, public opinion, or even political correctness? On many issues there is a silent majority that holds a certain position on an issue but is reluctant to speak out and a vocal minority that holds a different position but has influence out of all proportion to its numbers because it is prepared to vigorously campaign for its agenda. Milgram’s experiment simply illustrates one possible dramatic consequence of a general human tendency, a consequence that can arise under special extreme circumstances.

What lesson can be learned from all this? Perry’s work shows that many more people are prepared to resist instruction from malign authority than reported by Milgram. This natural tendency could surely be improved on. We need to train our children to be more independent-minded and to develop their capacity to empathise with others. Practicing Christian principles would be a good start.

William Reville is an Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at UCC.