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Obedience to Authority by Stanley Milgram

Obedience to Authority (1974)

by Stanley Milgram

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681621,588 (4.27)11
THE INSPIRATION FOR THE MAJOR MOTION PICTURE THE EXPERIMENTER "The classic account of the human tendency to follow orders, no matter who they hurt or what their consequences."  -- Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World In the 1960s Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram famously carried out a series of experiments that forever changed our perceptions of morality and free will. The subjects--or "teachers"--were instructed to administer electroshocks to a human "learner," with the shocks becoming progressively more powerful and painful. Controversial but now strongly vindicated by the scientific community, these experiments attempted to determine to what extent people will obey orders from authority figures regardless of consequences. "Milgram's experiments on obedience have made us more aware of the dangers of uncritically accepting authority," wrote Peter Singer in the New York Times Book Review. Featuring a new introduction from Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, Obedience to Authority is Milgram's fascinating and troubling chronicle of his classic study and a vivid and persuasive explanation of his conclusions.… (more)
  1. 20
    The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo (PickledOnion42)
    PickledOnion42: Two of the most famous experiments in social psychology – Milgram's Obedience Experiement and Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment – both cast light on the negative aspect of human behaviour from two different perspectives. Taken together these two works show how human atrocities can happen anywhere.… (more)

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i loved reading this book even though it was research for a paper in my sociology because of its lessons it had to teach. The lessons are scary but necessary to confront in any time of how far the human species can go and truly feel with all their heart "their just following orders" ( )
  Danie_Jorgenson | Sep 16, 2013 |


I like to tell people that my first religious experience was seeing the music video for Peter Gabriel's song Shock the Monkey. This experience, coupled with some subsequent churchgoing misadventures in my adolescence, is why I always have to suppress the desire to throw poop whenever I pass a church.

Hardly scientific, but it gets my point across: I don't do well with authority.

Stanley Milgram is a pioneer in social psychology. Why? Because he convinced people -- good, churchgoing people -- to shock other people, or at least led these people to believe that they shocked other people. They didn't, of course. We Americans aren't Nazis, after all.

Or, given the right conditions, are we?

Milgram, a Jew, came to his experiment by way of the holocaust. He didn't buy into the popular refrain that "it couldn’t happen here" (the pronoun "it" is substituted euphemistically for "holocaust" -- how much of social psychology, or any psychology, is linguistic?). And my suspicion is that this effort to undermine the conceit of American exceptionalism is what many (but not all) people objected to in his experiments. Sure, Milgram describes his test subjects as almost Dickensian caricatures: a welder has a "rough hewn face that conveys a conspicuous lack of alertness"; a social worker looks "older than his years because of his bald pate and serious demeanor"; a forty-year-old housewife is regarded as resembling "Shirley Booth in the film Come Back, Little Sheba"; and, most jarring, a black man, "born in South Carolina," upon hearing the first protests of his victim, "turns toward the experimentor, looks sadly at him, then continues."

What did you expect, Dr. Milgram? He's black and he was born in South Carolina. Of course he's sad and of course he's going to do what the white guy who is giving him a check says. Is THAT what they call science at Yale?

And how many of the graduate students working under Milgram felt uncomfortable with the study but stayed on because of the authority he exercised over them? One mustn't anger one's thesis advisor, lest one's career never get off the ground, right? And how many of the people that answered his misleading advertisement for test subjects did so for financial reasons? Milgram could have made do with Hannah Arendt's account of the concentration camp guard who answered the question about why he participated in the wholesale slaughter of innocent human beings with, "I had five years of unemployment behind me. They could do anything they wanted with me."

But then again, that is to rely on "those people" to make his case. America felt (and, sadly, still feels) itself exempt from history and needed (needs) a kick in the ass.

The data that are the result of these experiments is that kick. Americans, it turns out, are not the exception to the rule when it comes to doing what they're told by those in authority. They shock people to unconsciousness -- UNCONSCIOUSNESS -- even after repeated and agonized protests from the victim because someone they recognize as an authority figure told them to.

Abraham Lincoln’s "last best hope of earth" America? Meet Stanley Milgram's universal condemnation of the humanity with which it is comprised.

A valid concern with these experiments is that they damage the subjects by compelling them to participate in something they believe is harming another human being. I am simpatico, but then this is no worse than the things I’ve seen on, say, Scare Tactics. And how many among us are ever given such a chance to learn something about ourselves? Shouldn't you be grateful that you understand how the German everyman ended up doing what he did? And that you could do the same? Or would you rather remain blind to the fact and comfortable in your arrogance?

I told you a half-truth earlier in this review. Peter Gabriel and churches aren't the only reason I have a problem with authority. Another, more true, reason is my father and a lifetime of interaction with him.

My Dad is an anarchist.

Not the wild-eyed, bomb-throwing subversive of Haymarket Square fictions. Not the rogue pamphleteer a VW van tire away from prison. Not the post-punk, too-cool-for-the-room, bandanaed scourge of Seattle infamy.


None of these stereotypes can do the man justice.

I've roamed San Francisco's bookstores, read Bakunin and voted for Nader, but I've never seen or heard tell of a greater enemy of the status quo than my Dad.

You see, Dad was drafted by the United States Army. And Uncle Sam knows the ingredients of a fine killing machine when it sees them: Dad was born with a rifle in his hands, comes from stout Tennessee woodsman stock and stands about 6'2".

Too bad for Uncle Sam, Dad knows a raw deal when he sees it.

They tried to break him down and build him back up the Army way, but Dad liked the man he'd become and wasn't having any of it. He disobeyed orders and regularly went missing. Still, somehow they saw fit to graduate him from basic training and sent him to Advanced Infantry Training (A.I.T.) despite his stubbornness. He fidgeted through it, raking up sharpshooter medals and instructor ire in the process (he led a group of conspirators which employed the unorthodox method of capturing an enemy officer and two underlings during war games by checkmating the opponents' fake guns and tactical surprise with a few ham-handed blows and some selective cursing).

What I would argue is a flair for improvisational leadership, thinking outside the box, the Army saw as insolence.

Dad's leash was shortened and he was denied transfers to cushier jobs that he was qualified for. He saw two years of rolling around in Washington mud ahead of him and it pissed him off.

Then one day, during routine inspection, his commanding officer, a lieutenant he had threatened with violence after this same officer had supervised the punishment which many felt resulted in the death of one of my father's squad mates, spilled the contents of Dad's foot locker about the barracks and proceeded to berate him for sloppiness. As the lieutenant bent-over to grab a piece of perceived contraband to emphasize his point, the man to whom I owe half of my genetic make-up kicked him in the ass.

Not just kicked. He broke the guy's tail bone.

Dad was subsequently court-martialed and relegated to trash man duties under military police supervision. He didn't mind. He had three squares a day and slept in a dry bed. When he didn't display any ambition to get out of his latest predicament, they unceremoniously threw him out of the Army.

Years later, through an amnesty program under the Carter Administration, he was able to shed the stigma of a Dishonorable Discharge. Yet his anarchic legacy lives on in a posterior that owes its rheumatism to the business end of a foot of a man who wouldn't kowtow to authority. ( )
  KidSisyphus | Apr 5, 2013 |
One of the most famous experiments in psychology, Milgram's obedience study continues to disturb psychologists and laymen alike today just as much as when the results were first revealed. And it's not too hard to see why: it shows, albeit indirectly, that inside each of us there exists a potential Auschwitz officer – a callous, cruel, apparently evil creature simply following orders from above. Unsurprisingly, even though decades have since passed, we have still not really come to terms with the implications.

Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View is therefore just as relevant now as it was in 1974 when first published, if not more so. Taken together with The Lucifer Effect (Zimbardo's account of his Stanford Prison Experiment) this work goes some way in explaining the repugnant side of human nature. It is therefore not only still relevant but, I think, an immensely important work and essential reading for all concerned with the wellbeing of both society and the individual. It is quite a short work (at around 200 pages in my edition), very well organised, and lucidly written for a general audience, so there really should be no reason not to.
1 vote PickledOnion42 | Feb 5, 2013 |
The author details the famous experiment done at Yale in the 1970s where subjects were requested to give increasing levels of shock to "victims" to test how obedient people would be in complying with orders that clearly violated certain moral norms. The interest in the topic arose out of the Nazi trials in which Nazi officers and soldiers asserted they were just following orders. The findings of the study were shocking at that time, with the researchers discovering that most people would willingly comply with an authority figure even in the event of a screaming victim that was evidently in great pain. The interviews with some of the subjects were almost bloodcurdling, demonstrating how far some people will go to obey, and the ways in which they will justify obedience with clearly immoral orders. The author further extends his data to some of the horrors that at the time were in the news from the Vietnam War, such as the My Lai massacre. A new introduction applied this study to the situation at Abu Ghraib, but it could also be appled to events as diverse as 9/11, Guyana, Heaven's Gate, and the Manson Family, for just a few. The author writes in lucid, easy to understand prose, doesn't lard the text down with unwieldy statistics (these are placed in handy tables so you can reference them as desired, and have them more complete than just a bland discussion), and he explains the concepts very thorougly, so it should be very easy to follow the experimental design and results for anyone of a reading level of high school or beyond. It does tend a bit toward bland in the writing, and some of the commentary is dated, such as references to the extremely different work paths of men and women which leaves women almost totally in a home environment, but the overall conclusions are still relevant, and can perhaps be understood a bit better than before with some of the new knowledge in neuroscience and psychology. Overall, highly recommended, especially for people who seem to have trouble understanding that people do things which are inhumane and ugly. ( )
1 vote Devil_llama | May 28, 2012 |
This experiment, where it is tested if people are willing to give painful shocks to others if told to do so by an authority, is rightly famous. The book fills it out nicely, giving many variants of the experiment. ( )
1 vote wester | Jan 2, 2010 |
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To my mother and the memory of my father
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Obedience is as basic an element in the structure of social life as one can point to.
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