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The Complex Reasons We Comply With Authority

Mimicking Stanley Milgram, a new study suggests it's pretty easy for an authority figure to persuade people to take an action that may harm another.
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Stanley Milgram's electric box. (Photo: Isabelle/Flickr)

Stanley Milgram's electric box. (Photo: Isabelle/Flickr)

Stanley Milgram is back, big time. The controversial psychologist, whose famous 1960s experiments concluded that most people will obey unethical orders, is the subject of a critically acclaimed new movie. And while Milgram's methods and conclusions have been challenged, his work is still the starting point for countless debates about human nature.

Not surprisingly, Milgram's name is prominently mentioned in a recent study that takes a new look at an old question: What does it take to get us to comply with instructions, even when we know doing so could harm others?

The study's conclusion: A gentle nudge will generally do it.

Economists Alexandros Karakostas of the Univeristy of Erlangen–Nuremberg in Germany, and Daniel John Zizzo of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, provide evidence of "a norm of compliance" toward authority figures. They found that a majority of participants in an experiment obeyed questionable orders, even though they used "weaker and less-explicit cues" than Milgram did in his seminal study.

The willingness to hurt others wasn't inspired by blind obedience so much as misplaced idealism—the belief they were contributing to important scientific work.

Their experiment, described in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, was conducted at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. The participants, 390 undergraduate and post-graduate students, participated in a game (described in detail here) in which two players were given 10 Dutch guilders (a unit of currency).

Each participant then decided "whether or not to destroy five guilders of the other player's endowment." This act would cost the player one guilder, but it could potentially earn them up to 10 guilders, depending on the decision of the other player.

The researchers weren't interested in the game per se, but rather whether they could change the players' initial inclinations. In one condition, if participants "decided not to reduce their partner's income, in the following round they were asked if they were sure they did not want to change their choice."

Another group of players were told "It would be especially useful (to the experimenter) if you were to reduce your partner's income if you have not done so already. You are entirely free not to reduce it if you wish." No reason as to why it would be "useful" was provided.

Others received that same statement, along with a vague justification: doing so "would help us achieve a scientific objective of the experiment." Still others were bluntly told, "We, as experimenters, give you the order now to reduce your partner's income."

The results were unambiguous. "We found that a norm of compliance exists, independently of any social norm to be pro-social," the researchers write. "A limited nudge, without an explicit justification, can induce compliance from 60 percent of the subjects."

The highest level of compliance was found when participants were told that, "in the rounds with yellow instructions (that is, rounds one, four, seven, and 10), it would be especially useful if you were to reduce your partner's income if you have not done so already." The researchers note that these instructions "make more transparent and stronger what the experimenter demands," thus adding to the pressure to comply.

"Phrasing the cue as a direct order was not particularly helpful (in getting more people to obey)," they add. The researchers suspect "the impoliteness and evident arbitrariness of the requests" may have led some participants to resist.

These findings support a revisionist interpretation of Milgram's studies that we wrote about in 2012, which concluded that his direct orders to inflict electric shocks were far less effective than entreaties to the participants that they must continue "for the sake of the study." The willingness to hurt others wasn't inspired by blind obedience so much as misplaced idealism—the belief they were contributing to important scientific work.

That is consistent with the fact that, in this new study, participants were often willing to change their behavior when told doing so would be helpful to the experimenters. A request to do something "for the sake of science" apparently carries a lot of weight, even when no specifics are provided.

So the main issue here may not be mindless obedience so much as the willingness to assume authority figures—that is to say, people we think of as experts—know what's best. If that's the lesson here, then it's imperative to figure out who, exactly, we perceive as an authority, and how they achieve that status.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.