An authority figure is someone who is perceived to have the power to make decisions, give orders and enforce obedience. Whether the authority is real or fake, it can cause people to abandon their personal conscience and obey. Milgram’s 1963 study of obedience shows just how persuasive an authority can be.
Forty males aged 20-50 were obtained through an advert in a newspaper inviting people to participate in a study of memory and learning at Yale University, for which they would be paid a turning up fee of $4.50.
During the procedure, the participants were asked to draw pieces of paper from a hat to determine who would be the teacher and who would be the learner. This was rigged so that the participants always picked the role of the teacher and the confederates (actors) would pick the role of the learner. The participants were then paired with a confederate and watched them be strapped to what looked like an electric chair and told that the electrodes placed on the learners wrists were attached to a shock generator.
The subject and the experimenter then went into a separate room containing the shock generator and several switches marked 15 to 450 volts. The subject was asked to administer a paired-associative learning task. The participant read some word pairs to the learner and then read the first word of a pair with four words. The learner had to specify which of the four terms were originally paired with the first word by pressing one of four switches. The learner purposefully got most of the answers wrong and for each wrong answer the teacher was asked to give him an electric shock. Participants experienced extreme emotional distress, shaking and sweating and overheard the cries of the confederate. But when a subject protested, the experimenter simply asked him to continue.
The results of the study are presented in the Table 2. Despite the extreme emotional stress that the participants experienced, all participants administered a shock of at least 300 volts and 65% of participants administered the highest number of volts labelled ‘XXX.’
So why did this obedience occur? Participants obeyed the instructions to shock the confederate because the experimenter was a figure of authority. The experiment took place at Yale University, a place of impeccable reputation and it is likely that the investigators were seen as skilled, experienced and reputable people. This sense of authority was emphasised by the appearance of the experimenter who remained in the room with the participant throughout the experiment. The role was played by a high school biology teacher who wore a grey lab coat and had a stern appearance.
This study has demonstrated how the power of authority created by a situation can have such a dramatic effect on obedience and how it can cause people to act in a way that conflicts with their own morals and views.
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioural study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.