Milgram’s research on authority questionable

Back in the day, I studied social science at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. One of the often cited experiments when teaching psychology to students, was that of Stanley Milgram.  He, in 1963, asked, will people do anything if ordered to do so? Could normally pleasant people be influenced into committing atrocities, such as those in concentration camps? His conclusion was that:

“…ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being.  Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from the way we are brought up”.

This was quite shocking, suggesting that any of us could carry out terrible acts, perhaps particularly in wartime, simply because we were told to do so. Check out video footage of the experiment here.

Now, new analysis suggests that all wasn’t quite as it seemed. In what is remarkably the first in-depth analysis of the interviews from the studies, it seems:

… most of Milgram’s participants showed scepticism that anyone had been seriously harmed at all.

So, far from obedience to authority, we have a flawed experiment because the ‘engaged followship’ theory was not quite as simple as it sounded. Like so much 1960s research, it was perhaps not subjected to the rigorous peer review so necessary today, but it is always sad to realise I spent years teaching students material that was later shown to be ‘not quite right’

To read the full study, here’s the link. Normalizing trust: Participants’ immediately post-hoc explanations of behaviour in Milgram’s ‘obedience’ experiments – Hollander, M.M., Turowetz, J. (2017).




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