Obedience to Authority | Stanley Milgram

Summary of: Obedience to Authority
By: Stanley Milgram


Are humans inherently obedient to authority, even if doing so may lead to heinous acts? ‘Obedience to Authority’ by Stanley Milgram dives into this question through a series of groundbreaking experiments. Shockingly, the results depict human nature’s predisposition towards obedience, even at the cost of hurting others. The author’s experiments reveal how various factors, including authority, responsibility, and proximity to the victim, influence our moral compass. This book summary navigates these findings, exploring themes like the agentic state, conformity, and the power of disobedience.

Blind Obedience: The Root of all Atrocities

The dangers of uncritical obedience to authority are evident in most human disasters in history. Whether it was genocide or war, people who obeyed orders without question were responsible for the atrocities. In his book, the author examines how obedience can lead ordinary people to commit great evils and offers insights into the science of obedience. With reference to his experiments on obedience, he explores how far people will go in fulfilling orders and how to resist the alluring power of authority.

The Shocking Experiment

The author conducted an experiment to understand the obedience of individuals towards authority. The experiment involved three people – the authoritative experimenter, a volunteer acting as a learner, and a naive participant. The participants were made to believe that they were punishing the learner for his mistakes by administering electric shocks. The shocks ranged from 15 to 450 volts and the pain level was visibly displayed on the generator. Despite the learner’s cries of agony, the experimenter instructed the participants to continue. The experiment’s results showed that people, under societal pressure, could willingly hurt others even if it conflicted with their morals.

The Perils of Blind Obedience

The highly regarded book delves into Milgram’s experiment which revealed a terrifying fact – we’re conditioned to obey authority regardless of the gravity of the situation.

Nobody ever thought the level of obedience to authority could be so high until Yale University sociology professor Stanley Milgram conducted a groundbreaking experiment in 1961. The study aimed to investigate the extent of obedience to authority.

The “learner” in the study was given a series of memory exercises, and for every mistake he made, the “teacher” was instructed to shock him. The intensity of the shock increased with every mistake the learner made. Shockingly, an average of over 50 percent of participants followed orders and administered the highest possible shock of 450 volts despite hearing the learner’s agonized screams.

The results of the experiment suggest that people tend to follow orders blindly, even when the behavior goes against their standards, values, or conscience. The desire to avoid conflict and punishment, together with the perception of authority, renders people unable to challenge or disobey commands.

The book argues that the experiment epitomizes the dangers of over-reliance on authority figures and the submissive mentality that people develop from a young age. The study implied that obedience can be problematic in situations like the Holocaust and for ordinary people when taking part in immoral or harmful activities instructed by the authority.

In conclusion, the book provides valuable insights into the workings of obedience and the perils of submitting to authority blindly. It’s a must-read for those concerned about the consequences of following orders without questioning them first.

The Danger of Blind Obedience

The agentic state is a dangerous mindset that absolves individuals of moral and ethical responsibility, shifting it onto a perceived authority. The Nazi regime is an example of the destructive power of this state, as soldiers who participated in the genocide were only following orders. The author argues that blindly obeying authority is detrimental to society and individuals must take responsibility for their moral behavior.

The agentic state is a concept coined by the author to describe the mindset individuals enter when they shift responsibility for their actions onto an external entity, such as an experimenter or perceived authority. The author observed that subjects in an experiment repeatedly asked for assurance that the experimenter assumed responsibility for the harm inflicted on learners. They believed that their actions were not their own, but rather the result of following orders.

This mindset absolves individuals of moral and ethical responsibility and allows them to justify their actions as mere obedience to authority. The author warns of the danger of the agentic state, citing the example of Nazi soldiers who were only following orders but were equally responsible for the genocide they participated in.

Blindly obeying authority leads to a shift in moral responsibility, which allows for atrocities to be committed without a sense of personal responsibility. The author argues that individuals must take responsibility for their moral behavior and not rely solely on authority figures to determine their actions.

In conclusion, the agentic state is a dangerous mindset that shifts responsibility for moral behavior onto perceived authority. The author warns that individuals must take responsibility for their actions and not blindly obey authority figures to prevent the atrocities seen in history.

Blind Obedience to Authority

The author conducts an experiment to test blind obedience to authority. He modified a previous experiment where subjects were willing to shock a learner upon receiving commands from a person of perceived authority. In the new variation, subjects were told to increase the voltage by an actor posing as a peer. The subjects rebelled against the actor, calling him cruel and sadistic for upping the voltage. The experimenter, however, was seen as an authority figure, acting for a higher reason and facilitating scientific research. This experiment highlights the power of perceived authority in influencing human behavior.

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