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,…