Obedience to Authority by Stanley Milgram
-01- It is that much of what we do we do rather blindly and out of deep habit that conforms to custom. We often cease to be attentive of what we are up to—like the proverbial fish, the last to discover water.
-02- [Milgram] had each of his graduate students ask seated subway riders on a car in transit if they would give up their seat to him (or her). About a quarter to a third did so, asking no questions, just acceding to a request: If somebody requests something reasonable, he (or she) must have some reason for doing so. But an interesting side note: When the request succeeded, one felt a compelling need to make it seem :reasonable” by acting fatigued or somehow incapacitated. Even in a crowded urban setting, we somehow try to do what is comme il faut: Comply with requests if possible, but let he who makes the request make it seem reasonable after the fact. Milgram also had his students explore the puzzling phenomenom of the “familiar stranger,” the person, say, who also takes the 8:16 commuter train into the city from Bedford Hills that you do, though you don’t know nor have ever addressed a word to each other. If you happen to need a light for your cigarette, or information about train announcements before you got to the station, you do not ask the familiar stranger but a “real” stranger.
-03- Conservative philosophers argue that the very fabric of society is threatened by disobedience, and even when the act prescribed by an authority is an evil one, it is better to carry out the act than to wrench at the structure of authority. Hobbes stated further that an act so executed is in no sense the responsibility of the person who carries it out but only of the authority that orders it. But humanists argue for the primacy of individual conscience in such matters, insisting that the moral judgments of the individual must override authority when the two are in conflict.
-04- The essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions.
-05- …nothing is bleaker than the sight of a person striving yet not fully able to control his own behaviour in a situation of consequence to him.
-06- Moral factors can be shunted aside with relative ease by a calculated restructuring of the informational and social field.
-07- First, there is a set of “binding factors” that lock the subject into the situation. They include such factors a politeness on his part, his desire to uphold his initial promise of aid to the experimenter, and the awkwardness of withdrawal. Second, a number of adjustments in the subjects thinking occur that undermine his resolve to break with the authority.
-08- One such mechanism is the tendency of the individual to become so absorbed in the narrow technical aspects of the task that he loses sight of its broader consequences.
-09- The most common adjustment of thought in the obedient subject is for him to see himself as not responsible for his own actions. He divests himself of responsibility by attributing all initiative to the experimenter, a legitimate authority.
-10- Although a person acting under authority performs actions that seem to violate standards of conscience, it would not be true to say that he loses his moral sense. Instead, it acquires a radically different focus. He does not respond with a moral sentiment to the actions he performs. Rather, his moral concern now shifts to a consideration of his well he is living up to the expectations that the authority has of him.
-11- Another psychological force at work in this situation may be termed “counteranthropomorphism”.
-12- Some people treat systems of human origin as if they existed above and beyond any human agent, beyond the control of whim or human feeling. The human element behind agencies and institutions is denied. Thus, when the experimenter says, “The experiment requires that you continue,” the subject feels this to be an imperative that goes beyond any merely human command.
-13- Similarly, most subjects in the experiment see their behaviour in a larger context that is benevolent and useful to society.
-14- At least one essential feature of the situation in Germany was not studied here—namely, the intense devaluation of the victim prior to action against him.
-15- Once having acted against the victim, these subjects found it necessary to view him as an unworthy individual, whose punishment was made inevitable by his own deficiencies of intellect and character.
-16- It is psychologically easy to ignore responsibility when one is only an intermediate link in a chain of evil action but is far from the final consequences of the action.
-17- We may learn not to harm others simply by not harming them in everyday life.
-18- One must always question the relationship of obedience to a person’s sense of the context in which he is operating.
-19- [Regarding a German woman’s coolness during the experiment and refusal to carry on:] The woman’s straightforward, courteous behaviour in the experiment, lack of tension, and a total control of her own action seems to make disobedience a simple and rational deed. Her behaviour is the very embodiment of what I had initially envisioned would be true for almost all subjects.
-20- It is not what subjects do but for whom they are doing it that counts.
-21- …actions flows from the higher end of a social hierarchy to the lower, that is, the subject is responsive to signals from a level above his own, but indifferent to those below it. Once the signal emanating from the higher level was “contaminated,” the coherence of the hierarchical system was destroyed, along with its efficacy in regulating behaviour.
-22- Authority systems must be based on people arranged in a hierarchy. Thus the critical question in determining control is, Who is over whom? How much over is far less important than the visible presence of a ranked ordering.
-23- Because conformity is a response to pressures that are implicit, the subject interprets his own behaviour as voluntary. He cannot pinpoint a legitimate reason for yielding to his peers, so he denies that he has done so, not only to the experimenter but to himself as well. In obedience the opposite is true. The situation is publicly defined as one devoid of voluntarism, for there is an explicit command that he is expected to obey. The subject falls back on this public definition of the situation as the full explanation of his action.
-24- …every failure of authority to exact compliance to its commands weakens the perceived power of the authority.
-25- It is typical of modern bureaucracy, even when it is designed for destructive purposes, that most people involved in its organisation do not directly carry out any destructive actions. They shuffle papers or load ammunition or perform some other act which, though it contributes to the final destructive effect, is remote from it in the eyes and mind of the functionary.
-26- Any competent manager of a destructive bureaucratic system can arrange his personnel so that only the most callous and obtuse are directly involved in violence. The greater part of the personnel can consist of men and women who, by virtue of their distance from the actual acts of brutality, will feel little strain in their performance of supportive functions. They will feel doubly absolved from responsibility. First,legitimate authority has given full warrant for their actions. Second, they have not themselves committed brutal acts. –Isis Group
-27- System coherence is attached when all parts of the system are functioning in harmony and not at cross-purposes.
-28- In order to derive the benefit of hierarchical control, the mechanism which ordinarily regulates individual impulses is suppressed and ceded to the higher-level component.
-29- …conscience, which regulates impulsive aggressive action, is per force diminished at the point of entering a hierarchical structure.
-30- The person entering an authority system no longer views himself as acting out of his own purposes but rather comes to see himself as an agent for executing the wishes of another person.
-31- The agentic state, by which I mean the condition a person is in where he sees himself as an agent for carrying out another person’s wishes. This term will be used in opposition to that of autonomy—that is, when a person sees himself as acting on his own.
-32- From a subjective standpoint, a person is in a state of agency when he defines himself in a social situation in a manner that renders him open to regulation by a person of higher status. In this condition 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.
An element of free choice determines whether the person defines himself in this way or not, but given the presence of certain critical releasers, the propensity to do so it exceedingly strong, and the shift is not freely reversible.
-33- First, under what conditions will a person move from an autonomous to an agentic state? (antecedent conditions). Second, once the shift has occurred, what behavioural and psychological properties of the person are altered? (consequences). And, third, what keeps a person in the agentic state (binding factors).
-34- The demand for obedience remains the only consistent element across a variety of specific commands, and this tends to acquire a prepotent strength relative to any particular moral content.
-35- The psychological consequence of voluntary entry is that it creates a sense of commitment and obligation which will subsequently play a part in binding the subject to his role.
-36- …wherever possible, society tries to create a sense of voluntary entry into its various institutions.
-37- Ideological justification is vital in obtaining willing obedience, for it permits the person to see his behaviour as serving a desirable end. Only when viewed in this light, is compliance easily exacted.
-38- Moved into the agentic state, the person becomes something different from his former self, with new properties not easily traced to his usual personality.
The entire set of activities carried out by the subject comes to be pervaded by his relationship to the experimenter; the subject typically wishes to perform competently and to make a good appearance before this central figure.
-39- Authority tends to be seen as something larger than the individual. The individual often views authority as an impersonal force, whose dictates transcend mere human wish or desire. Those in authority acquire, for some, a suprahuman character.
-40- For many subjects, the learner becomes simply an unpleasant obstacle interfering with attainment of a satisfying relationship with the experimenter.
-41- Control the manner in which a man interprets his world and you have gone a long way toward controlling his behaviour.
-42- Superego functions shift from an evaluation of the goodness or badness of the acts to an assessment of how well or poorly one is functioning in the authority system. Because the inhibitory forces which prevent the individual from acting harshly against other on his own are short-circuited, actions are no longer limited by conscience.
-43- The recurrent nature of the action demanded of the subject itself creates binding forces.
-44- “Everything I have done to this point is bad, and I now acknowledge it by breaking off.”
-45- Goffman (1959) points out that every social situation is built upon a working consensus among the participants. One of its chief premises is that once a definition of the situation has been projected and agreed upon by participants, there shall be no challenge to it. Indeed, disruption of the accepted definition by one participant has the character of moral transgression. Under no circumstance is open conflict about the definition of the situation compatible with polite social exchange.
-46- More specifically, according to Goffman’s analysis, “society is organized on the principle that any individual who possesses certain social characteristics has a moral right to expect that others will value and treat him in a correspondingly appropriate way…When an individual projects a definition of the situation and then makes an implicit or explicit claim to be a person of a particular kind, he automatically exerts a moral demand upon the others, obliging them to value and treat him in the manner that persons of his kind have a right to expect” (page 185). Since to refuse to obey the experimenter is to reject his claim to competence and authority in this situation, a severe social impropriety is necessarily involved.
-47- The remarkable thing is, once the “ice is broken” through disobedience, virtually all the tension, anxiety, and fear evaporate.
-48- Theoretically, strain is likely to arise whenever an entity that can function autonomously is brought into a hierarchy, because the design requirements of an autonomous unit are quite different from those of a component specifically and uniquely designed for systemic functioning. Men can function on their own or, through the assumption of roles, merge into larger systems. But the very fact of dual capacities requires a design compromise. We are not perfectly tailored for complete autonomy, nor for total submission.
-49- If the individual’s submergence in the authority system were total, he would feel no tension as he followed commands, no matter how harsh, for the actions required would be seen only through the meanings imposed by authority, and would thus be fully acceptable to the subject. Every sign of tension, therefore, is evidence of the failure of authority to transform the person to an unalloyed state of agency.
-50- Nothing is more dangerous to human survival than malevolent authority combined with the dehumanizing effect of buffers. There is a contrast here between what is logical and what is psychological. On a purely quantitative basis, it is more wicked to kill ten thousand by hurling an artillery shell into a town, than to kill one man by pommeling him with a stone, yet the latter is by far the more psychologically difficult act.
-51- Republicans and Democrats were not significantly different in obedience levels; Catholics were more obedient than Jews or Protestants. The better educated were more defiant than the less well educated. Those in the moral professions of law, medicine, and teaching showed greater defiance than those in the more technical professions, such as engineering and physical science. The longer one’s military service, the more obedience—except that former officers were less obedient than those who served only as enlisted men, regardless of length of service.
-52- It is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.
-53- Conformity is, as de Tocqueville shrewdly observed, the logical regulatory mechanism of democratized relations among men. It is “democratic” in the sense that the pressure it places on the target is not to make him better or worse than those exerting the pressure but merely to make him the same.
|by V. L. Craven|