Milgram's Theory of Obedience to Authority Term Paper

Download this Term Paper in word format (.doc)

Note: Sample below may appear distorted but all corresponding word document files contain proper formatting

Excerpt from Term Paper:

Stanley Milgram on Obedience

Legitimacy and Proximity: Social Influences that Determines and Generates Obedience in Stanley Milgram's Obedience Study (Behavioral Study of Obedience, 1963)

For many years, psychology, as one of the main branches of social science, has tried to discern and understand human behavior and its relation to the society through empirical observation and experimentation. Social scientists, under the philosophy, methods, and principles of psychology, tried to understand human mind, particularly an individual's mental state. Experimentation as a primary research method for determining human behavior is specifically utilized in Stanley Milgram's research on the nature of obedience among humans, popularly known as the "Behavioral Study of Obedience," also known as the Stanley Obedience Study.

Stanley Milgram is a psychologist in the 1960s, who popularized the issue of obedience to authority. This issue is applied in the context of social psychology, wherein Milgram's study was based on the historical event of the Holocaust, where he tried to determine what made people commit acts of violence, like the massacre of Jews during the Holocaust, identified as a form of "destructive obedience" (Santrock, 2000:562). Thus, through these examples in the history of human society, Milgram sought to explain how obedience is generated and developed within the individual. Milgram's published research, entitled, "Behavioral Study of Obedience" (1962) posits the idea that obedience is a social phenomenon that relies on the legitimacy and proximity of the leader (authority) and 'humane' character of the (authority/leader's) victim.

This paper discusses the significance of Stanley Milgram's Obedience Study in the context of social psychology under the behaviorist tradition. In this discussion, Milgram's study is analyzed in terms of its importance in studying the relationship between the individual and society, as well as critiques raised about the psychologist's research.

In order to better analyze Milgram's obedience study, specific details about the research must be noted. This study, conducted during the 1960s, was an experiment conducted in Yale University. The objective of the research was to determine at what conditions the subjects (units of analysis of the study) were more likely to develop destructive obedience. Thus, Milgram designed the experiment in such a way where the subjects under study were told to punish the victim (an accomplice) when s/he commits an error during the experiment. The activity that the subjects participate is a word-pair test, where errors committed by the victim/learner is correspondingly punished with electric shocks that increases in intensity as the victim increases his/her errors in the test. Through the experiment, Milgram concluded that "[m]ore people do what they are told to do as long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority" (Santrock, 2000:563).

Milgram's study has significant implications in the study of social psychology, especially since the experiment illustrates how obedience can be generated given that an individual perceives the authority as legitimate and close (or known) to the individual. In social psychology, psychologists study the social thinking, or perceived social reality or 'worldview' of the individual in the context of the society that s/he belongs. Social psychology, specifically in Milgram's obedience study, is studied under the behavioral perspective, human behavior is studied because of "environmental (external) determinants" (Santrock, 2000:8). Under the behavioral perspective, the obedience study has shown that authority is a social determinant that led to the development of destructive obedience within the individual, following orders despite the 'harm' inflicted to the victim.

This analysis is manifested in the infamous Jonestown massacre, where James Jones, leader of the cult People's Temple, led his members (with population of more than 900), to death as the members drank cyanide-laced drinks, in accordance to Jones' orders. This case in point shows how obedience developed within the cult's members as a result of Jones' influence as cult leader (legitimacy as authority) and closeness to his members (proximity). Dittmann (2003) analyzes the Jonestown massacre case as an example where people obey as a result of "mind control techniques," identified by the author as follows: spying on the cults members, making them look after among all the members' activities; self-incrimination; suicide drills; and distorting people's perceptions. Through these propaganda activities, Jones was able to assert control and inculcate within the members' psyche 'destructive obedience,' where they are forced to give every material wealth that they have and even commit suicide for the sake of their belief and 'faith' in Jones.

The obedience study of Milgram has parallelisms in the case of Jonestown massacre. One of the findings that Milgram included in his study is the following statement about the leader-learner relationship in his experiment: "[w]hile the demands of the experimenter carry the weight of scientific authority, the demands of the victim spring from his personal experience of pain and suffering... The victim cries out for relief from physical suffering caused by the subject's actions" (Milgram, 1962:100). The findings in his research reflect that a leader's authority and proximity to an individual or group, i.e., the victims, is not the sole basis for the development of destructive obedience. Destructive obedience also develops when the leader sees within the victim his/her 'propensity' to become a victim -- that is, when the leader sees the victim as 'deserving' of the punishment that s/he receives.

In effect, Milgram's position is best summed up through the following statement: destructive obedience is generated and developed if authority is legitimate, powerful, and there is proximity between the leader and the victim. Conversely, disobedience arises "when the authority figure was perceived to be legitimate and was not close by, and when the victim was made to seem more human" (Santrock, 2000:564).

Despite these generalizations from Milgram's experiment, discussions about the conduct of the psychologist's research and findings have been the subject of criticism when Milgram's research was published. The study's criticisms are primarily based on two issues: the first issue being that, Milgram's experiment was conducted without consideration to ethics, particularly to the subjects' welfare; and the second issue finally raises the fact that the obedience to authority theory cannot be applied in the Holocaust case because, as critics argued, the massacre of Jews during the WWII period was not due to Hitler's authority over the Nazi soldiers, but due to the prevalence of anti-Semitist ideology in Germany (Blass, 2000:131).

The first issue deals with Milgram's failure to comply with ethical guidelines that were needed for the proper conduct of the research. Many psychologists argued that the nature of the obedience study's experiment is crucial, since it affects the behavior of the subjects, mainly because the subjects become emotionally strained due to pressure given them as they inflict physical harm to the 'victims' in the experiment. Thus, one important guideline that Milgram failed to comply with during the course of his study is to fully disclose the nature of the research that he is conducting. According to Thompson (1996), experiments of similar nature with Milgram's shall follow the "full-disclosure standard," which requires researchers/scientists "to disclose all information bearing one subject's decision to participate in the research. This standard... requires disclosure of all known risks and benefits" of the study for the subject (40).

The full-disclosure standard and Law of Informed Consent are both measures that ensure the exemption of the researcher from any liabilities that may arise from any "injuries suffered by subjects as a result of the research" (Thompson, 1996:40). It is indeed a strong argument that the obedience study should have been conducted with consideration to the subjects' welfare, since the situation set-up in the experiment affects the emotional stability of an individual. However, it can be noted that providing the subjects with full disclosure of the experiment's objective(s) may result to subject bias, radically altering, even distorting data collection and analysis of Milgram's research. The effectiveness and validity of Milgram's study is a result of data obtained illustrating 'natural' reactions to natural situations, since "[t]he subject perceives that the victim has voluntarily submitted to the authority system of the experimenter. He is not an unwilling captive impressed for involuntary service..." (Milgram, 1962:99). With this disclaimer, Milgram was able to conduct the study's experiment without any worry over the 'harm' that may be inflicted to the subject (since the 'victim' is actually not harmed in the process of the experiment).

The second issue, and perhaps the more relevant issue nowadays, is the findings that Milgram generated from the experiment. Milgram's findings regard legitimacy of authority and willingness of individuals/groups to be subjected to authority as the primary determinants that causes destructive obedience. Critics of Milgram's finding refute this generalization, asserting that Nazi soldiers (who committed the massacre of Jews) were not simply following orders from Adolf Hitler (their leader), but are actually influenced by the ideology, "eliminationist anti-Semitism." This ideology is described, applied in the Jew-German dichotomy setting, is illustrated in the case where "Germans routinely took initiative in killing Jews, both by customarily carrying out their orders with dedication and inventiveness and, frequently, by taking it upon themselves to kill Jews even when they had no orders to do so..." (Blass,…[continue]

Cite This Term Paper:

"Milgram's Theory Of Obedience To Authority" (2004, February 07) Retrieved October 25, 2016, from

"Milgram's Theory Of Obedience To Authority" 07 February 2004. Web.25 October. 2016. <>

"Milgram's Theory Of Obedience To Authority", 07 February 2004, Accessed.25 October. 2016,

Other Documents Pertaining To This Topic

  • Milgram s Obedience Study MILGRAM S1 Obedience Study Conducted

    Milgram's Obedience Study Milgram's1 obedience study conducted in 1961 and 1962 examined the response of individuals to outright commands. The experiment conducted at Yale University has become one of the most controversial experiments ever conducted. The experiment revealed the tremendous amount of pain that human beings were capable of placing on other human beings when commanded to do so by an authority figure. Milgram conducted a total of 20 experiments involving 1000

  • Obedience in Milgram s Experiments

    Milgram Obedience, Morality and the Scientific Process in Milgram During the period between 1963 and 1974, social psychologist, professor and theorist Stanley Milgram published a landmark series of findings regarding the nature of morality, authority and obedience. Compelled by the recently revealed atrocities of the Holocaust, Milgram was driven to better understand the kinds of institutional forces that could make ostensibly ordinary men and women commit acts of such heinous proportions as

  • Obedience to Authority

    Sociology Obedience, Authority, & Responsibility There are indeed, problems with obedience, as the reading's title proclaims. One problem with obedience is that if there is more than one person cohabitating in the same area, some form of obedience is necessary. Thus, on a grander scale, it is more apparent that obedience is mandatory for societies to exist and function. Another problem with obedience is how those who obey are often predisposed to

  • My Lai Massacre the Milgram Experiment Philip

    My Lai Massacre The Milgram Experiment, Philip Zimbardo, and Understanding the My Lai Massacre In the twentieth century the United States military was engaged in numerous wars and the U.S. government depicted these wars as forces of good, freedom, and morality (Americans) fighting against forces of evil, tyranny, and barbarism (America's enemies). The realities of American military behavior in these wars, however, did not always justify such a simplistic characterization. American troops

  • Respect for Authority Linguistically the English Word

    Respect for Authority Linguistically, the English word "authority" is derived from the Latin auctoritas, which means advice, opinion, influence, or command. The word has a number of contextual meanings -- in politics and government it usually means power "the ability to influence," and somewhat of a claim to legitimacy; in psychology it means power over the individual; in political philosophy it means balancing freedom of action with the greater good; and

  • Impact of Social Influence

    Social influence is the way in which one or more people alter the attitudes or the behavior of others the mere presence of others can change our behavior, as illustrated by the results from studies in which research participants perform some task either alone or in the presence of others. Typically, people in groups perform better (social facilitation), but sometimes their performance is worse in a group or with an

  • Conformity and Obedience Beyond Conscious Awareness Influences

    Conformity and Obedience BEYOND CONSCIOUS AWARENESS Influences of Conformity and Obedience The Concepts of Conformity and Obedience Compared Obedience is a form of social influence in which a person of authority makes a direct command to someone to perform something (McLeod, 2007). It involves changing one's behavior according to the commands of authority (Brehm, Kassin & Fein, 1999 as qtd in Southerly, 2012). Conformity is another form of social influence brought about by social

Read Full Term Paper
Copyright 2016 . All Rights Reserved