It’s been fifty four years since Stanley Milgram made history with his experiment on obedience to authority. His results are in every psychology course, political science theory, and argument about war. I, myself, have taught the experiment’s hypothesis and results for years.
It turns out, there is an essential piece most of us are missing when we talk about this study.
In 1961, Stanley Milgram chose hundreds people to ostensibly be participants in an experiment on learning techniques. In reality, he was searching for information on obedience. After World War II, social psychologists were hellbent on figuring out how ordinary citizens participated in the mass killings of Jews; Milgram believed part of this phenomenon was as a result of being given orders by an authority figure, allowing people to rationalize their behavior and continue to kill their fellow citizens. Milgram asked ‘teachers’ to administer shocks to ‘students’ (who were confederates not being shocked), with scientists in the room prodding them to continue if they wavered.
In Milgram’s most famous instance of this study, almost 65% of people continued shocking a subject past lethal levels, past screams of pain, past no response, as a scientist stood at their shoulder and reminded them the experiment required they continue.
It totally is, but not for the reason you think.*
I’ve always understood this study to be an exercise in taking orders. Milgram had four scripted responses for his ‘scientists’ to use to prod subjects into continuing to shock learners:
- Please continue.
- The experiment requires you continue.
- It is absolutely essential you continue.
- You have no choice but to continue; you must go on.
The first three are suggestions; strong prods, very persuasive, but not an order, not “you have to do this.” When scientists used the fourth prod, people stopped administering shocks.
Turns out, we’re not really great at following orders. People who heard the fourth prod started disobeying, stating they absolutely do have a choice, and it’s not to keep doing this, dammit!
Those of you knowledgeable with how psychology works, or close to a difficult teenager, will not be surprised by this finding. We are not fond of feeling we’re not in charge of our own lives; the instinct can be to do the opposite of whatever you’re told. Therefore, giving orders becomes more effective when they are strong suggestions; processes like denial of responsibility, confirmation bias, and rationalization can all start whirring away to make people believe following orders is their own choice.
If this sounds familiar, dear reader, it’s because it’s the same principle underlying one of the most effective psychological treatments ever practiced – motivational interviewing, which was codified in 1991, is based on the idea that confrontation is not helpful in changing behavior. On the contrary – when people are confronted and they’re not ready to change, they tend to dig in their heels and negative behaviors become more entrenched.
The takeaway is not that we’re mindless automatons, waiting for our masters to tell us what to do; the truth is far more insidious. We are suggestible. If we can make ourselves believe we’re doing bad things for a good reason, or a reason that’s consistent with our own self-concept, or if we can push the responsibility for our actions on someone or something outside of ourselves, we can be persuaded to continue.
And that should terrify every contrarian.
*(Radiolab just did a segment on this, which can be heard here)