The Milgram Experiment and What it Taught Us About Human Obedience

Back in the 1970s, social psychologist Stanley Milgram published a study that focused on the psychology of obedience. In the study, volunteers were asked to administer shocks to ‘learners’ in an experiment.

When the ‘learner’ made an error, the volunteer was asked to administer increasingly greater shocks. The researchers were present and indicated that it was imperative for the volunteer to keep administering the shocks, no matter how much pain the ‘learner’ appeared to be in. What the volunteers didn’t know is that the ‘learners’ experiencing the physical pain were actors, and it was all a hoax to see at what point the volunteer would stand up and say, ‘This is wrong. I refuse to keep doing this, because this person is obviously in pain.’

The fascinating yet grim outcome of the study? All but one of Milgram’s 40 volunteers went right on administering shocks. Two-thirds of them went on administering shocks right up to what their consoles told them was 450 volts, the highest voltage the equipment could produce, even though by that time, the learners were totally unresponsive and apparently either unconscious or dead.

How do you explain such a finding? Behaviorist psychologists interpreted it as an indication that people are subject to the conditioning of others whether they want to be or not, or whether they know it or not. In other words, the overwhelming majority (essentially every participant in the study) who failed to question authority had no choice but to act as they did. Yet this raises the question: These are people who go through life and make choices all the time. American society is full of contexts where 50 percent think or do one thing, or have one sort of preference, and 50 percent go a different way. If man is so subject to the conditioning of others, then why was it so different outside the setting of this study?

I offer several explanations. First, people don’t tend to question the authority of researchers and scientists. The Milgram study was staffed by scientists and the volunteers literally sat in the presence of researchers and followed their orders. People are intimidated by scientists, just like they are by doctors, lawyers, professors, and other experts, merely because they are in these roles. If the researcher said it, it must be true. There is little difference between this and the psychiatric patient. I hear it all the time:

‘Well, the doctor said this medication would solve my problems. It hasn’t. In fact, I feel even worse.’

‘Why don’t you tell the doctor?’ ‘Well, the doctor must know what he or she is doing. Who am I to question?’

This leads to the second and deeper explanation: Self-esteem. Try to keep in mind that the definition of self-esteem isn’t ‘feeling good about yourself.’ Feeling good about yourself is an effect, not an originating cause. The originating cause of self-esteem is (1) confidence in the power of reason; and (2) confidence in, and willingness to use, your own capacity for reason.

Faced with the scenario of the Milgram experiment, the volunteer with self-esteem would have called a stop to the whole thing and raised questions. He would do so based on the following assumptions: ‘The evidence of my senses matters. This person is clearly in pain. It’s not right to continue putting someone in pain, no matter what the circumstances. Whether or not I can keep these researchers from doing so, I’m definitely going to have no part of it.’

In other words, you can trust what you see and take it from there. You can stand up to somebody when they’re wrong, no matter who that somebody is. Credentials and earned status or authority are not irrelevant or insignificant. In fact, it’s reasonable to give someone the benefit of the doubt when they hold valuable credentials. However, when something that you see right in front of your face clashes with common sense, and abstract reasoning based on that common sense, you don’t hesitate to put that above everything.

The Milgram experiment required the volunteer to act on principle. Each of the volunteers could plainly see that something, somewhere, was seriously wrong. But virtually none of them had the self-esteem to exercise this judgment. Self-esteem means confidence in one’s mind to ascertain objective reality, and to act on that confidence, even when the experts might be wrong.

Whenever I see an instance of moral cowardice or inconceivable incompetence, I say to myself, ‘That’s how we got Barack Obama.’ And that is, in fact, how we got Barack Obama. This is a man who’s plainly wrong, who clearly doesn’t have any appreciation for, or understanding of how anything in an advanced society works. Yet he received deference because he seems to speak well, present well on television, and was a professional academic. ‘He must be smart, even if what he’s saying isn’t clear or doesn’t make sense.’

People apply this lack of intellectual assertion not just to Barack Obama, but to all manner of things in daily life. They don’t question or challenge their doctors, their lawyers, their accountants, their parents, their children, their siblings, or their psychotherapists. To one degree or another, they rest on their intellectual behinds. ‘Who am I to judge or know?’ Religions, psychological cultists and, of course, politicians, stand ready to exploit this lack of mental coherence in order to advance their own irrational agendas. This is what makes the dysfunctional part of the world go around.

Self-esteem is the most elusive, and yet the simplest thing in the world to attain. You don’t have to be especially bright and you don’t need any particular credentials. All you need is the willingness and ability to see what’s in front of you and make reasoned judgments about it, without fear. You put the operation of your own mind over and above everything, including real or imagined concerns about what others might think. It’s a rare person who has such self-esteem, and they come in all shapes, sizes, races, genders, educational levels and personalities. I wish there were a lot more of them. If there were, we wouldn’t have ‘President Obama’ and all the other disasters, international and local in scope, that people bring their way. The Milgram experiment would have had a very different outcome, as well.

For more on the Milgram Experiment, visit
(The Ludwig von Mises Institute)