Milgram’s Experiment: Power of Obedience

Topics: Obedience

‘The individual no longer views himself as responsible for his own actions but defines himself as an instrument for carrying out the wishes of others’ says Stanley Milgram, an American social psychologist and scientist. Milgram is arguing against those that obey authority without question and are later tried for the crimes they committed under the leader. He is saying that those individuals are responsible still because they still committed the acts themselves. Brings the issue forward of obedience and what can happen if an authoritative leader gains control of the masses.

Obedience is a fundamental ideology that is necessary for the structure of humanity, however that does not conclude to abandon all code of conduct.

Obedience is the way of life. From a young age, they are told to listen and obey their parents or else they would face a punishment of some sort. Wesley’s theology dictates that the child’s “self-willed ways” must be replaced with an, “attitude of submission”.

Parents that do not follow his theology would be characterized as, “cruel” for not “redirecting” their child towards a life of “obedience” (367+). Wesley was a heavily religious individual that believed that obedience was a necessity to obey God. Fear stems from the fact that their child will not go to Heaven for being self-willed and disobeying God’s teachings. Driving the parents to act for their child to give them the best possible life. Another institution would be school. Most living in the United States would understand the impact school has on an individual’s mind.

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At school, students are told to obey their teacher and the administration because they hold the authority over them. Entering school, a student must follow a set of rules and guidelines. In Rebecca Raby’s novel School Rules: Obedience, Discipline, and Elusive Democracy, retold by Caroline Caron states that discipline is “something to master” and the way to “ensure learning” (76). Starting this sort of conditioning at a young age paves the way for an individual to become docile towards authority. Although there are some cases in which this does not apply to some individuals.

Obedience undermines ethics and morality when put under excruciating situations. Returning to Milgram’s experiment, brings to point of morality stating that, “Subjects have learned from childhood that it is a fundamental breach of moral conduct to hurt another person against his will” and yet the subjects performed the test (168-69). He says that “26 subjects” neglected these teachings and went through with the test. That’s 65% of the subjects who carried out the whole test through. Milgram was somewhat surprised how obedient individuals continued through the test even though they expressed emotional responses of guilt. The level of shocks varied from “Slight shock” of 15 volts all the way to “XXX” which was the last level consisting of 450 volts (167). According to the table on page 167 seems to show that the first subjects that stopped administering was at 300 volts, which seems to be the cut off point for some. Proving that individuals will desert their code of conduct if it means that they would not condemned.

Authority is the main factor of why people are obedient and why they would disregard their ethics to carry out orders of their leader. From his research, Stanley Milgram states that, “26 subjects abandon this tenet in following instructions of an authority,” who did not have any “special powers” to “enforce his command” (169). Milgram was surprised that people would abandon their “moral conduct” and hurt another individual when ordered to do so (168-69). Showing the power that authority has on a group. The subjects were cautious and uneasy about the ordeal, but the experimenter’s “firm” tone and the “prods” kept the subjects in line to continue. Simple phrases that were in no way commanding yet worked to push the subjects to continue. The fear of disobeying authority is most likely the driving factor. Milgram includes that, “from 1933 – 45 million of innocent persons were systematically slaughtered on command” (159) this slaughtering only transpired because an individual in authority ordered it. Disobeying would have most likely led to death. There were in fact anti-Hitler movements, but they were “exceedingly marginal” and had only a miniscule “number of people” (Grzyb and Doli?ski 123+). So, it is no wonder why “[o]bediance towards the leader remained the overwhelming universal and dominant mode” (123+). People tend to follow the masses and stay on the side in which they deem to be the “right side”. Leaders in power seem to be a factor that tends to influence people to commit acts in which they otherwise would not execute.

Obedience is a key trait that exist in society to maintain order, but sometimes being disobedient is necessary. Milgram’s study shows that obedience and morality seem to combat one another. These two ideologies seem to clash with each other when under different circumstances. Obedience is one way of maintaining control and balance in society, however in some cases it is better to disobey.

Works Cited

  1. Caron, Caroline. “Rebecca Raby, School Rules: Obedience, Discipline, and Elusive Democracy.” Canadian Journal of Sociology, vol. 39, no. 2, Spring 2014, pp. 303+. Academic OneFile.
  2. Derr, Colleen R. “The role of obedience in child faith formation: insights from the teachings and practices of John Wesley.” Christian Education Journal, vol. 1, no. 2, Fall 2014, pp. 367+. Academic OneFile.
  3. Grzyb, Tomasz, and Darius Doli?ski. “Perpetrator as a Potential Victim. Does Threatened Retaliation from the Victim Reduce Obedience Towards Authority?” Psychologica Beligica, vol. 57, no. 2, Summer 2017, pp. 123+, Academic OneFile.
  4. Milgram, Stanley. “Behavioral Study of Obedience.” Broadview Anthology of Expository Prose, edited by Laura Buzz, et al, 3rd edition, Broadview, 2016, pp. 159-69.
  5. Schauer, Frederick. “FREE SPEECH AND OBEDIENCE TO LAW.” Constitutional Commentary, Fall 201, pp. 661+. Academic OneFile.

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Milgram’s Experiment: Power of Obedience. (2022, Feb 04). Retrieved from

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