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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Why People Obey - A Discussion on Studies of Obedience to Authority

It is known from common sense that people intend to obey authority, but Milgram’s research shocked the world by demonstrating how far people could go.  The tendency to obey is much stronger than one could imagine.  People are easily led or pushed to obey authority even in ways opposing to their moral standards.  As Blass (2009) stated, “it does not take evil or aberrant persons to carry out actions that are reprehensible and cruel” (p. 40), which implied that it was the situation rather than an individual’s personality that caused the cruel behavior.

Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment is compatible with Milgram’s obedience experiment because findings from both demonstrated the power of authority could influence people’s attitudes and the situation could cause people’s abnormal behaviors in contrary to their personalities.  As shown in the Stanford prison experiment, the participants in the position of authority with institutional support became atrocious and those in the powerless position as prisoners became passively obedient and depressed.

Milgram’s obedience experiments are widely cited in psychological studies for understanding the dark side of human nature, such as atrocities, massacres, and genocide, especially the behavior of Holocaust perpetrators.  Milgram frequently “drew inferences from his studies to account for the behavior of people who went along with the Holocaust” (Burger, 2009, p. 10).  Although many scholars supported Milgram’s view, some recent studies questioned the relevance of Milgram’s obedience studies to the understanding of the Holocaust.  Mastroianni (2002) argued that such relevance was not validated in science and was “not derived from a careful and systematic comparison of the behavior of Milgram’s subjects and Holocaust perpetrators” (p. 170).


Blass, T. (2009). From New Haven to Santa Clara: A historical perspective on the Milgram obedience experiments. American Psychologist, 64(1), 37-45. doi:10.1037/a0014434

Burger, J. M. (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today?. American Psychologist, 64(1), 1-11. doi:10.1037/a0010932

Mastroianni, G. R. (2002). Milgram and the Holocaust: A reexamination. Journal Of Theoretical And Philosophical Psychology, 22(2), 158-173. doi:10.1037/h0091220

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