How far would people go when asked to do something? What history teaches us and what experiments prove about our levels of obedience to authority? And, more important, are we able to understand and counter this type of influence?

The obedience to authority experiment

In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram created an experiment, now very well known, were a research participant is asked by the experimenter to punish someone else with electrical shocks, basically asking the questions, how many people would comply? And, to be more specific, how many people would comply if the shocks were increased to nearly deadly levels?

Upon arriving at the lab a research participant would meet up with another person and they would draw straws to see who plays the role of teacher and who plays the role of learner.  In reality the participant always ended up being the teacher and the other person, the learner, was always a research confederate.

The participant was asked to help the learner, this is the confederate actor, to memorize pairs of words. When the learner made a mistake, recalling the correct word, the teacher was instructed to push a lever that delivered an electrical shock as punishment. As the learner made more mistakes the teacher was instructed to deliver stronger and stronger shocks.

The confederate would always make mistakes as planned by the experimenter so the research participant was asked in each experiment to deliver increasingly powerful shocks. In reality there were no shocks but the learners were trained actors and they acted quite convincingly as though the shocks were real and as the shocks got more intense the learner would begin to complain.

And, some frightening conclusions

Sometimes the participant would look at the experimenter and ask: “Should should I go on?”. When this happened the experimenter would prod the subject to continue using one of four standard prompts: “Please continue!” “The experiment requires you to continue!”, “It is absolutely essential that you continue and you have no other choice!”  or “You must go on!”.

These statements were the full extent of the continued efforts to influence participants to comply with the request to deliver punishment. What sort of things did the actor playing the learner say? Well, it began with “Ouch!” and as the intensity increased moved to actual screams of pain, and the learner would eventually say “I’m no longer in the experiment let me out!”

So, how many participants continued to shock the learner even after he asked to have it stop? What about after the learner didn’t say anything at all to the teacher’s questions, and only groaned in pain with the next shock? Most people were and to this day continue to be surprised by the results: the majority of people, the majority, obeyed the experimenter and continue to administer shocks even after the learner became unresponsive.

In the original study, 65% went on to administer shots at a level that was labeled on the machine 450 V and “Danger! Severe shock!”. And, when people see these results today, many of them say “I’d never do that or that would never happen today!”. Which, makes sense. Who would comply to such a degree?! Who, would obey to endanger other humans for such a trivial reason, just because they are ordered so?!

Well, the answer is surprising. Many other experiments proved that obedience to authority is extremely high and proves that a subject who has neither ability nor expertise to make decisions, especially in a crisis, will leave decision making to the group and its hierarchy and that people tend to view themselves as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and  therefore no longer responsible for their actions.

The experiments began in July 1961, in the basement of Linsly-Chittenden Hall at Yale University, three months after the start of the trial of German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Milgram devised his psychological study to answer the popular contemporary question: “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?”The experiment was repeated many times around the globe, with fairly consistent results.

If you want to push yourself to go against authority, remind yourself that at the end of the day you will be ultimately responsible for what you do. In other words, before you comply with the request from an authority figure ask yourself: am I comfortable having others know that I did this?

Some people including the famous investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett referred to this as The Newspaper Test. How would you feel if there was a story about what you just did on the front page of the local newspaper? Would you be ashamed if people knew? If so then you should stop and think again before complying.