Obedience to Authority and its Discontents

With numbing regularity good people were seen to knuckle under to the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe. Men who are in everyday life responsible and decent were seduced by the trappings of authority, by the control of their perceptions, and by the uncritical acceptance of the experimenter’s definition of the situation into performing harsh acts. (Milgram, Obedience to Authority)

As indicated in the epigraph above, Stanley Milgram’s famous, and somewhat infamous, social psychology experiments concerning ‘obedience to authority’ reveal a sad and sorry human tendency. Indeed, Milgram was initially appalled, if also fascinated, by the frequency with which his subjects would obey the order to apparently inflict ever-increasing levels of electric shock to the ‘learners’ they were instructed to ‘teach’. The capacity to resist authority by taking personal responsibility for one’s actions and their effects was far more compromised than he had anticipated. Milgram’s research, conducted in the United States in the early 1960s, revealed that most people would obey an authority figure when instructed to administer severe electric shocks as punishment for a failure to learn; up to the 450-volt level on the imposing shock generator they were required to operate. This brute fact of routine obedience is the way the Milgram study is usually reported. What this obscures is the recurrent attempts by many of the research subjects to reclaim responsibility as the experiment’s awful scenario unfolded. By re-visiting the Milgram studies, this essay aims to catch and reflect upon the drama of subjectivities in process as they negotiate responsibility in often partial, fragile and still-born, but sometimes resolute ways; always under the shadow of the chilling, often deadening, call to obey.

Initially Milgram’s research was conceived as a comparative study that had as its ultimate aim an analysis of the German character. In contrast with some other Western societies in which a democratic ethos was deeply embedded, German ‘obedience to authority’, so demonically enacted in the Holocaust, remained a continuing concern that warranted close attention. These comparative ambitions collapsed, however, as the research in the United States, which was anticipated to reveal a wide-spread capacity to resist authority, actually revealed something far more disturbing. In addressing this shocking revelation—the willingness of most people to obey authority, even in extreme conditions—notions of taking and shifting responsibility and being and feeling responsible or not, shadow as counter-terms the notion of obedience to authority that Milgram’s study foregrounds.

Responsibility is a term that carries two related, but not mutually entailed, connotations. The first of these is self-regarding and concerns the preservation, protection or advancement of the self; caring for and taking responsibility for the self. The second is other-regarding and concerns acting responsibly in relation to others, especially those whose circumstances place them in need of the care and concern that flows from empathy and an understanding, usually implicit, of the shared vulnerability of human beings as both human animals and psychological and social subjects. Although we normally link these two connotations as if part and parcel of the one conceptualisation of responsibility, in fact they have diverged from each other under the conditions of late modernity. Contemporary democratic societies and the neoliberal economics which they promote, and on which they rely, presume that citizens are sovereign individualists who rationally calculate their own best interests and act accordingly. Anyone who fails that test of acting responsibly in one’s own interests becomes a problem who must be disciplined by the agencies of the welfare state, itself now in decline. Hence we find ourselves in a situation where being responsible for oneself is the sole mode of responsibility that is fully valorised by the state and its agencies, by business enterprises and by public institutions. Feeling empathy and taking responsibility for the plight of others is in decline as the new individualism takes hold. Richard Sennett has highlighted a similar divergence when noting that the culture of the new capitalism promotes shallow relationships involving ‘no long term’. Detachment from others and adherence to an instrumental logic on behalf of the self become the guiding virtues.

In parallel the preferred, if rather schizoid, self-understanding of the modern democracies involves a presumption that democratic modes of socialisation within the modern family and the broader society produce rational citizens who adhere to egalitarian principles and have cultivated a capacity to think and act independently. This notion became highly salient in the United States in the period following the defeat of Hitler’s Germany in the Second World War and in the ensuing cold war conflict with the Soviet Union and threat of communism. If obedience to authority was the hallmark characteristic of totalitarian regimes in both Germany and the Soviet Union, a strong individualism was to be expected in those societies that valued freedom and equality; especially the United States of America. Or so it was presumed.

It was this framing cultural assumption about the virtues of democratic societies that led Milgram to expect that his social psychology experiments on obedience to authority, conducted at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, would find a standard distribution of instances and degrees of obedience as against disobedience, rather than a clustering of responses at the obedience end of the distribution. The taking of personal responsibility would be evident in a good proportion of the individuals subjected to his ingenious experiment. He was soon to learn otherwise. Writing to Henry Riecken at the National Science Foundation, the funding body supporting his research, Milgram noted:

In a naive moment some time ago, I once wondered whether in all of the United States a vicious government could find enough moral imbeciles to meet the personnel requirements of a national system of death camps, of the sort that were maintained in Germany. I am now beginning to think that a full complement could be recruited in New Haven.

Milgram had quickly learned that most subjects of his experiment obeyed instructions to administer increasingly higher voltage electric shocks, up to the highest register of 450 volts. This is the aspect of his research that has entered the public imagination. It is well-captured in the title of a recent intellectual biography The Man Who Shocked The World. The shock lay in the fact that Milgram had experimentally demonstrated the ‘banality of evil’, derived from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, as a disturbing yet common feature of humanity. It is for this reason that Milgram’s mentor, Gordon W. Allport, termed the obedience to authority research ‘the Eichman Experiment’.

Unlike Solomon Asch’s experiments with conformity, measured merely by agreement or disagreement about the length of a line, Milgram conceived an experimental design that was dramatic and non-trivial. As he explained in an interview from 1980:

One of the criticisms that had been made of (Asch’s) experiments is that they lack a surface significance, because, after all, an experiment with people making judgements of lines has a manifestly trivial content. So the question I asked myself is: how can this be made a more humanly significant experiment?

It seemed to me that if, instead of having a group exerting pressure on the judgements about lines, the group could somehow induce something more significant from the person, then that might be a step in giving greater face significance to the behaviour …

The experimental mise-en-scène that Milgram developed consists of a laboratory setting, with a large and complex shock generator mounted on the table in front of which the true subject of the experiment sits. The characters in this scene are a scientist or ‘experimenter’ dressed in a lab coat, a ‘teacher’, who is the actual and singular subject of the experiment, and a ‘learner’ who is actually a confederate of the experimenter, but is regarded by the teacher as another subject of the experiment. This illusion was achieved by a contrived drawing of lots to decide who would be teacher and who would be learner. Thereafter, the true subject of the experiment is given a sample shock of 45 volts—‘it’s only fair’—and instructed on how to proceed with the teaching and to administer ever-increasing shocks with each new mistake by the ‘learner’.

Alan Elms, who was Milgram’s research assistant, recalls the initial amazement at what he and Milgram were observing:

It was only when those first participants arrived at Linsly-Chittenden Hall that Milgram and I, as we watched from behind the big two-way mirrors in the Social Interaction Lab, began to realize that something truly unusual was going on—something quite different from the usual low-key social psychology experiment. Before that summer ended I watched approximately 100 participants, run one at a time, as they moved higher and higher up the sequence of switches on the shock generator … Milgram and I were astonished at both the intense emotional involvement displayed by most participants and their high levels of obedience to the experimenter’s commands.

There can be no doubt that this was shocking and confounded most people’s expectations about human behaviour in such circumstances. To underline this—to reveal the gap between cultural expectations and actual behaviour—Milgram described the experimental scenario to a few groups at Yale and then asked them to estimate what proportion of subjects would proceed to administer the strongest shock of 450 volts. A group of Yale College Seniors estimated that 1.2 per cent of the ‘teachers’ would go to the 450 volt mark. In fact approximately two-thirds of the subjects administered 450 volts to the hapless learners sitting, sometimes screaming and sometimes deadly silent, in the adjacent room. That these final year undergraduate students were so radically mistaken highlighted the vast gap between cherished illusions and observed behaviour. Moreover it wasn’t only undergraduates who shared these illusions. Every group Milgram spoke to was similarly mistaken in their estimates. Most mistaken of all was a group of apparent experts: the medically trained psychiatric residents at Yale–New Haven Hospital. They were ‘wrong by a factor of 500’, a fact Milgram, the social psychologist, took delicious delight in contemplating and reporting. Of course had those psychiatric residents relied on their knowledge of the psychoanalytic tradition, starting from Freud’s own work on group or mass psychology, they would not have been so surprised by Milgram’s findings. They would also, however, have looked more closely at the resistances as well as the observances of obedience to authority. As I will argue below, it is in this tension between obeying authority, and taking personal responsibility and acting responsibly towards others that the fuller significance of the ‘obedience to authority’ study lies—even when the attempt to reclaim responsibility falters or fails.

The Passionate Struggle between Obedience and Responsibility

In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego Freud developed his account of conformity to a shared ideal or ideology and the accompanying submission to authority, principally through deploying the concepts of identification and regression. He recognised that situational factors can produce a dramatic undoing of an already established psychic structure. This drama is presented as a battle in which a capacity for responsibility and autonomy is threatened by a tendency, in certain settings, to identify with a dominant or domineering leader or ideology. This amounts to an invasion of the mind snatchers, we might say. Through a displacement of an already instituted psychic structure the individual’s super-ego (or ego-ideal) and ego are shunted aside and forcefully replaced, through identification, by psychic attributes of other individuals or institutions. The net effect is a marked reorganisation of psychic qualities and tendencies and a radical diminution in capacities for individual responsibility. This is the moment of a group mentality and submission to authority.

In his account of ideology as interpellation and misrecognition Louis Althusser implicitly invoked and generalised Freud’s account of the group mentality, with the added dimension of a misrecognition that tricks conforming and obedient subjects into regarding themselves as entirely individual; as responsible agents who have chosen to accept the law of culture and the instituted symbolic order. We turn to the law to be recognised as responsible subjects and, in that movement, subject ourselves to its demands, without recognising this trick of ideology that we have helped play upon ourselves in order to appear to ourselves as responsible agents. Judith Butler reworks this account of the abject subject by emphasising that we can and must turn again and, thereby, turn against that initial series of interpellations or identifications through which our somewhat organised subjectivity was established. The drama of this second ‘turning against’ is fraught with tension. It amounts to a dicing with psychic death, as we repress those emotional attachments that we had previously clung to, identified with and relied upon in order to survive and thrive. This passionate dialectic between submission to authority and resistance to that submission constitutes the fuller story of the obedience to authority experiments, a story that is obscured by the usual way in which the study is reported. This fuller story only emerges when the statistical results reported by the social psychologists are complemented and disrupted by a case study approach that focuses on the process as each subject endures the demand to obey and submits to, or struggles with, this assault on his or her capacity for responsibility.

In The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Erich Fromm, who had pioneered research on authoritarianism while a member of the Frankfurt School, noted two less commonly observed features of Milgram’s research. First, he observes that although all forty subjects in the original research group obeyed up to the 300-volt level, thereafter fourteen of the forty, or 35 per cent, eventually disobeyed by discontinuing the experiment. Second, Fromm, like Elms quoted above, emphasises a feature of the experiment in process; namely that most subjects experienced intense emotions and anxiety, even if they continued to obey up until the ultimate 450-volt level. Milgram had initially presumed a wide distribution of capacities to take personal responsibility for one’s actions. Hence he presumed that ‘a subject would simply break off or continue as his conscience dictated’. Yet most subjects or ‘teachers’ continued to administer shocks after strong protests from the ‘learner’, the poor recipient of the electric shocks. Crucially, rather than simply breaking off or continuing according to conscience, the vast majority of subjects experienced great tension and distress. Fromm concludes his discussion by arguing that

the most important finding of Milgram’s study is the strength of the reactions against the cruel behaviour. To be sure, 65 per cent of the subjects could be ‘conditioned’ to behave cruelly, but a reaction of indignation or horror against this sadistic behaviour was clearly present in most of them.

Milgram’s subjects found themselves in a situation akin to the one Freud had explored in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. So powerful were the experimental conditions that their psyches were being reorganised in the here and now of the experiment in process. It is here, in the process of the experiment as it unfolds, that the tension of responsibility becomes evident and the case-like features of the research begin to open out. Confronted by powerful (the scientist-experimenter) and weak (the abject learner) interpellations and processes of identification (with the authority, with the abject), most subjects perform a passionate struggle between responsibility and obedience. They turn and turn again as the experimenter’s demand to inflict more punishment is obeyed or disobeyed. To highlight this, so troubled was he by the situation he found himself in, one subject during the experiment proposed that he should swap places with the abject learner. Trapped by his acceptance that he must submit to the authority of the experimenter, he was prepared, nevertheless, to take responsibility for his own cooperation by exposing himself to the effects of his decision. A more common response was literally to turn towards the experimenter in a mute, but sometimes also voiced, plea for reassurance that the subject, as teacher, should continue to administer ever more intense shocks despite cries and demands from the learner to be released (‘Let me out of here!’) or the dread silence that followed mistakes by the learner near the top of the 450-volt scale. When analysed with attention to the ways in which individuals negotiated the experimental conditions, the case study aspects of the research take on the fuller dimensions of a struggle between obedience to authority and the taking or surrendering of individual responsibility. To catch this struggle, close attention to the unfolding process is required—and a statistical analysis can only take you so far.

Transcripts of some individual iterations of the experiment are available in the book Obedience to Authority—although they are only segments. Rod Dickinson’s The Milgram Re-enactment, 2002 is an artwork in which several full individual iterations of the experiment were performed at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow. These performances were based on transcripts of the individual interactions and set in an ‘exact facsimile’ of the Social Interaction Lab and with an exact replica of the electro-shock equipment. Fortunately three iterations were filmed and I can assure the reader that watching the film is harrowing—not unlike viewing Beckett’s Endgame, but without the relief of any wit or humour, or even a momentary achievement of shared significance. These transcripts and enactments add the complexity of the case-in-process to the rigour of Milgram’s elegant and dramatic research design. The assault on the cultural and individual narcissism of the leading liberal-democratic societies in an age of individualisation remains, but now complicated by the passionate struggle against, as well as the frequently troubled collusion with authority.

In what follows I will illustrate the double-sidedness of the obedience to authority study by looking closely at the ambivalence and resistances that often accompanied obedience. First of all, I consider the true exception. Gretchen Brandt, aged thirty-two at the time of the experiment, had grown up in Germany during the period of the Nazi regime and had migrated to the United States in 1956 and taken a position as a medical technician at the Yale Medical School. Throughout the process of the experiment she remained calm and self-possessed. On the first few occasions when the learner complained about being administered a shock Gretchen calmly turned to the experimenter and asked if she should continue. Receiving the standard response that the experiment must be continued, she complied. At the 210-volt level, however, she turned to the experimenter again and ‘firmly’ remarked, ‘Well, I’m sorry, I don’t think we should continue’. Thereafter, despite further instructions that ‘it is absolutely essential that we continue’ and the like, Gretchen refused, and stated that the ‘learner’, who had previously complained of a heart condition, should be the final arbiter of whether the experiment was to be continued. As she said:

I like you to ask him. We came here of our free will. If he wants to continue I’ll go ahead. He told you he had a heart condition. I’m sorry. I don’t want to be responsible for anything happening to him. I wouldn’t like it for me either.

Implicitly invoking the golden rule about doing to others only what you would have them do to you, Gretchen took responsibility for her actions and terminated the experiment. In the debriefing interview that followed she stated that she was ‘in no way tense or nervous’, and that believing that ‘the last shock she administered to the learner was extremely painful’ she ‘did not want to be responsible for any harm to him’. Milgram comments that Gretchen’s ‘straightforward, courteous behavior … lack of tension, and total control of her own action seems to make disobedience a simple and rational deed’. Tellingly he adds that her ‘behavior is the very embodiment of what I had initially envisioned would be true for almost all subjects’.

In almost all cases, however, whether obedient or ‘disobedient’, the subjects were anything but cool, calm or collected. And perhaps even Gretchen was more passionate than Milgram fully recognised. Her understated comment in response to a question about the possible influence of having grown up in Nazi Germany suggests as much. ‘Perhaps we have seen too much pain’.

Heightened emotion was far more common than Gretchen’s self-restraint. For instance, Elinor Rosenblum, a housewife and volunteer working with juvenile delinquents and the local Girl Scout organisation proceeded to administer 450 volts under instruction, while protesting all the way. At 270 volts she emphasised the correct answer from among the group of four words from which the learner was required to select the correct one, by accentuating her pronunciation of that word. She also beseeched the experimenter. ‘Must I go on? Oh I’m worried about him. Are we going all the way up there [pointing to the higher end of the generator]? Can’t we stop? I’m shaking. I’m shaking? Do I have to go up there?’ Despite these anxieties, Elinor proceeded to the bitter end. When informed in the debriefing that the learner was actually an actor who received no shocks, that it was all artifice, Elinor responded: ‘You’re an actor, boy. You’re marvellous … I’m exhausted. I didn’t want to go on with it. You don’t know what I went through here. A person like me hurting you, my God. I didn’t want to do it to you. Forgive me, please. I can’t get over this’.

Jan Rensaleer, an industrial engineer, was one of the subjects who terminated the experiment early on. When the learner complained and demanded ‘let me out of here’ at the 150-volt level, Jan turned to the experimenter and asked: ‘What do I do now?’ He was told to continue. From then on, however, he glanced at the experimenter more and more frequently until, at the 255-volt level, he pushed his chair back, stood and explained that he couldn’t continue. In the ensuing discussion the experimenter repeated the standard set of lines, culminating in ‘It is absolutely essential that you continue’ and ‘You have no other choice’. Jan responded:

I do have a choice (Incredulous and indignant:) Why don’t I have a choice? I came here on my own free will. I thought I could help in a research project. But if I have to hurt somebody to do that, or if I was in his place, too, I wouldn’t stay there. I can’t continue. I’m very sorry. I think I’ve gone too far already, probably.

In the debriefing interview Jan was asked who was responsible for shocking the learner against his will. ‘I would put it on myself entirely’ was his response and he added that ‘I should have stopped the first time he complained’ and ‘I did want to stop at that time’. He continued: ‘One of the things I think is very cowardly is to try to shove the responsibility onto someone else’.

Unlike Jan most subjects weren’t able to resist authority by taking personal responsibility for their actions. This was not the case under all experimental conditions, however. In one of the experimental variations (Experiment 7), after giving the initial instructions in the laboratory the experimenter left and gave further instructions by telephone. ‘Obedience dropped sharply [by a factor of three] when the experimenter was physically removed from the laboratory’, Milgram notes. Just as interesting was a tactic some subjects used to surreptitiously disobey when circumstances, such as instruction by telephone, led them to believe they could do so unobserved. When possible most subjects administered low-level shocks while telling the experimenter that they were obeying instructions and increasing the shock level with each mistake by the learner. A related tendency across all experimental conditions, as with Elinor Rosenblum, was for many teachers to place special emphasis on the correct matching word in order to cue the learner and avoid the situation where they would be required to administer an even higher voltage shock. For many their own level of distress echoed the (apparent) distress of the learner. A less compassionate response was to hurry up as the shock levels increased, so as to get it over with more quickly.

These various forms of avoidance when possible, like the heightened emotional states experienced by most experimental subjects, point to the fact that

fraught and passionate struggles between obedience and responsibility are evident throughout Milgram’s study. He does a good job of presenting this tension in his case-like vignettes. Yet the study has typically been received as confirming the pervasiveness of Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’, an interpretation fostered by Milgram’s own rendition. This is clear from the conclusion registered in the epigraph above and in many similar statements made by Milgram and others. As I have argued, the brute fact of obedience is only part of the story, although clearly a highly significant one. It delivers a profound blow to personal and cultural presumptions about individual capacities for responsibility.

Such disenchantment can be of great value as a necessary correction to the many destructive illusions of the contemporary period, but not if presented as a one-dimensional brute fact that serves as a source of perverse pleasure in the craven abjectness of the human condition. In contrast I have stressed the multi-dimensionality of Milgram’s findings.  The potential for a generalised doubting of authority and taking on of personal responsibility is evident not only in the rather heroic resistance of individuals like Gretchen and Jan, but also, and more generally, in those fitful, often desperate, turnings to the experimenter by subjects like Elinor, who constitute the majority of research subjects. In their passionate pleas to stop now, their trepidation in the face of increasing shock levels, their minor collusions with the hapless learner and in their wilful avoidances when unobserved, these obedient ones hold out the hope of acting differently, even if it is a potentiality they cannot themselves seize and act upon. For while about one-third of Milgram’s subjects enacted an ethic of responsibility by refusing to continue, many more at least sensed and registered its call, even as they painfully submitted to the deadening demand of authority, presenting itself in its modern guise as champion of science, education and progress.

John Cash is an honorary Fellow in Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. His recent publications include “Sovereignty in Crisis” in Unconscious Dominions (Duke, 2011) and “Sublime Intensity” in Force, Movement, Intensity (MUP, 2011).


Althusser, Louis, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays,Monthly Review Press, New York, 1971.

Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Penguin, London, 1977.

Blass, Thomas, The Man Who Shocked The World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram, Basic Books, New York, 2009.

Butler, Judith, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1997.

Elms, Alan, ‘Obedience Lite’ in American Psychologist, Volume 64:1, January 2009, pp. 32-6.

Freud, Sigmund, ‘Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego’ in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 18, trans. James Strachey, Hogarth Press, London, 1953-75.

Fromm, Erich, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1973.

Milgram, Stanley, Obedience to Authority: an experimental view, Tavistock, London, 1974.

Milgram, Stanley, The Individual in a Social World: Essays and Experiments, (ed. Thomas Blass) Pinter & Martin, London, 2010.

Sennett, Richard, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, Norton, New York, 1998.

* This article is from the book Responsibility edited by Ghassan Hage and Robyn Eckersley to be published 15 June 2012 (MUP). Available as an ebook and print on demand edition.

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