Posts Tagged ‘Zimbardo’

Turning Milgram Upside Down


I published a post (back in June 2011) on Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo (see “Milgram”), that concluded

Ordinary, nice people can carry out acts of violence or cruelty that they would never believe themselves to be capable of.

When I published my post, I was going along with the widely accepted cultural view (such as the song by Peter Gabriel and an old episode of BBC Horizon) in the belief that it was all soundly based on the science of Milgram and Zimbardo. Now, while I know that what science sets up is often debunked and replaced later, what has happened since I posted has been quite astonishing.

A few years ago, I was looking for a podcast to listen to on my commute, and happened across Radiolab’s “Who’s Bad” show of 9 January 2012 which had a section on Stanley Milgram by The University of Exeter’s Alex Haslam.

You can download the podcast on your podcast app, or stream/listen to it on the WNYC Studio’s website using this link: It’s around the 14.42 time mark.

If you listen, Haslam makes the case – using Milgram’s own archived data – for turning the way we have thought of Milgram upside down. The experiment everyone knows – or thinks they know – is merely one of 40-50 similar experiments called variants, and each was numbered and gave significantly different results – and Alex lists a few in the podcast:

  • Experiment 14, if the “authority figure” is not wearing a white coat, obedience drops to about 20%.
  • Experiment 17, when others refuse to obey, obedience falls to about 10%.
  • Experiment 15, when two people give orders, and disagree with each other, then the obedience rate falls to zero!

These variations – and the data in the archives – show that people struggled and resisted with the scenario, even in the most famous variant, the 65% one.

The participants were given various carefully written “prods” – not actual “orders”. However, even when using the prod that comes nearest to being thought-of as an order: “You have no other choice, you must go on”, not one person obeyed.

All refused being given orders!

“The one thing the study does show is that people do NOT obey orders” -Alex Haslam

This is quite the opposite conclusion to the popular view. The popular/ cultural view is a misconception; people are naturally good.

In Milgram’s experiments, the data overwhelmingly shows that people were giving the pain not because they were told to/ following orders – but because they wanted to help, to contribute to science.

In other words, people will do bad ONLY if it is for a greater good! (see wikipedia)

Since then, others began to look anew at the Milgram experimental data, here’re some example links if you want to follow up more arguments about how we have all got Milgram (and human nature) all wrong:

On reflection, I am happier to believe that people are less likely to do harm by following orders. This sets a healthy limit on the power of authority.

Having said that, I can only suppose that in a less science-lab setting, order-following might be motivated by fear – which would explain how people can follow orders and do awful things to others; tyranny is not the same as authority, and rebelling against authority is not the same as standing up to a tyrant.

It seems that people either think what they were doing is for the greater good, or else they act out of fear.

I am happier with this view, it means that people tend to be good, or at least not bad. This is more optimistic and hopeful than the popular (mis)understanding of Milgram – that ordinary people are capable of doing violent and cruel things just because they were ordered to by an authority figure.




[Picture of Stanley Milgram]I first came across mention of Stanley Milgrams famous experiment from Peter Gabriel of all people.  I was at a Peter Gabriel concert, and Peter sat at his piano and took time to explain The Milgram 18 Experiment to us.

He told us that this was the meaning behind his song “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” from “So, 1986”, which needed an explanation as the lyrics are very brief!

I remembered this when I did some sociology and criminology modules at Open University.

Pioneering social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, did a very controversial and famous experiment in the 1960s. It was designed to determine just how far ordinary people would go in obeying people in authority. “Following Orders”. Milgram was Jewish and wanted to understand how Germans could have persecuted the Jews and other groups during WWII.

A volunteer was wired up in a room, and in an adjoining room was a device that administered a varying electric shock to the volunteer.  Subjects were asked by researchers to administer the shock each time that the volunteer failed a word association test. The Subjects did not know that the shocks were fake and that the volunteer doing the word association tests was in fact an actor.

Over 65 per cent of the subject followed orders, even to the extent of delivering potentially lethal electric shocks “Carrying Out Orders“.  They simply felt that the moral responsibility did not lie with them, but with the authority figure telling them to do it.

It was all about who had the ultimate responsibility, and that each of us has a far greater capacity to be evil if the circumstances are right, and where there is a recognised hierarchy, or a clear ringleader.

The Milgram Experiment has had a profound effect ever since.  It means that we each have to be watchful of the context in which we act.  I am amazed at how often Milgram crops up in my life.

Not long after Milgram‘s experiment, Philip Zimbardo set up a new experiment where female subjects were asked to monitor a task and to give electric shocks to those who failed, but half of the female subject were dressed in normal clothes, the other half were in a disguise that rendered them anonymous. Those who could not be identified gave stronger and longer shocks.

Zimbardo showed that people are more viscous when masked, in disguise, unidentifiable, in a crowd, in a car, on the telephone, or through the internet. Anonymity is incredibly important, and when mixed with Milgram, such as with the army, or police force, where anonymity and authority / abrogated responsibility come into play, the de-individualisation and dehumanisation is maximised.


Ordinary, nice people can carry out acts of violence or cruelty that they would never believe themselves to be capable of.