Authority Bias: What We Can Learn from the Milgram Obedience Experiments

Authority Bias: the Milgram Experiment and the Dangers of Blind Obedience


The authority bias is the tendency to obey the orders of an authority figure, even when you strongly believe that there is something wrong with those orders. Experiments show that this tendency is much more powerful than most people assume, and in the following article you will learn how this bias affects people, and how you can fight against its dangerous influence.


The Milgram obedience experiment

The first and most infamous study on the authority bias was conducted in 1961 by Stanley Milgram, a professor of psychology at Yale University, in what became known as the “Milgram experiment”.

The goal of this experiment, which was inspired in part by the events of the Holocaust, was to see whether people are willing to follow orders from an authority figure, when those orders violate their moral beliefs.

The procedure for this experiment was simple yet chilling:

  • There were three individuals involved: the first was the Experimenter, who served as the authority figure running the experiment. The second was the Teacher, who was the subject of the experiment. The third was the Learner, who pretended to be another subject in the experiment, but who was in fact an actor.
  • The experiment started with the subject and the actor each drawing a slip of paper, to determine whether they would play the role of the teacher or the learner. However, in reality both slips said “Teacher”, and the actor would lie and say that his said “Learner”, thus guaranteeing that the subject would always play the role of the teacher.
  • After assigning roles, the teacher and the learner were taken into an adjacent room, and the learner was strapped into what looked like an electric chair, with an electrode attached to his wrist. The subject was told that the straps were there to prevent excessive movement while the learner was being shocked, though in reality the goal was to make it impossible for the learner to escape the situation himself.
  • The subject of the experiment was then shown how to operate an authentic-looking shock generator, with 30 switches that go from 15 volts up to 450 volts. These switches were labeled with verbal designations starting with “Slight Shock” and up to “Danger: Severe Shock”, with the last two switches past that simply marked as “XXX”. Before starting, the subject was given a sample 45-volt shock, in order to convince him that the shock generator was real, and to demonstrate the pain of getting shocked by it. In reality however, no shocks were delivered in the experiment beyond this one.
  • The learning task itself was relatively simple: the teacher, who was the subject of the experiment, read a list of word-pairs to the learner, who was the actor strapped into the electric chair. Then, the teacher read aloud the first word out of each pair, and the learner had to pick one of four options, using a signal box, in order to indicate what was the second word in the pair.
  • The subject was told to administer an electric shock each time the learner picked the wrong answer. Furthermore, he was told to increase the intensity of the shock each time this happened, by moving to the next switch in the generator, and to announce the shock level aloud each time, in order to ensure that he remained cognizant of this increase.
  • The subject was told that once he finished going through the list, he needed to start over again, and continue administering shocks until the learner managed to remember all the pairs correctly.

In practice, this is what happened once the experiment started:

…no vocal response or other sign of protest is heard from the learner until Shock Level 300 is reached. When the 300-volt shock is administered, the learner pounds on the wall of the room in which he is bound to the electric chair. The pounding can be heard by the subject. From this point on, the learner’s answers no longer appear on the four-way panel. At this juncture, subjects ordinarily turn to the experimenter for guidance. The experimenter instructs the subject to treat the absence of a response as a wrong answer, and to shock the subject according to the usual schedule. He advises the subjects to allow 10 seconds before considering no response as a wrong answer, and to increase the shock level one step each time the learner fails to respond correctly. The learner’s pounding is repeated after the 315-volt shock is administered; afterwards he is not heard from, nor do his answers reappear on the four-way signal box.

At any point during the experiment, the subject could indicate that they wish to stop. Any time this happened, the experimenter would tell the subject the following things, in order, using a firm but polite tone:

Please continue.

The experiment requires that you continue.

It is absolutely essential that you continue.

You have no other choice, you must go on.

If, after saying all 4 lines, the subject still refused to carry on with the experiment, then the experiment was stopped.


Results of the experiment

Before starting the experiment, Milgram ran a short poll, asking people what portion of the subjects they believed would be willing to go up to the highest shock level. On average, people thought that only approximately 1 in 100 subjects would be willing to do so.

In reality, out of the 40 subjects in the study, 26 obeyed the experimenter’s orders to the end, and continued punishing the victim until they reached the highest possible level on the shock generator, at which point the experiment was stopped by the experimenter.

Out of the 14 subjects who defied the experimenter, every single one was willing to go above the volt-level labeled “Very Strong Shock”, contrary to prior expectations. In addition, only 5 of the 14 stopped at the 300-volt level, which is when the victim starts banging on the wall after getting shocked.

Furthermore, after the experiment was over, subjects were asked to rank how painful they thought their last shocks were to the learner, on a scale of 1 (“not painful at all”) to 14 (“extremely painful”). The most common response was 14, and the mean response was 13.4, indicating that subjects honestly believed that they were causing extreme pain to the learner, even as they continued administering shocks.

This is not to say that subjects were comfortable shocking the victim. In fact, nearly all of them appeared to be under extreme stress:

Subjects were observed to sweat, tremble, stutter, bite their lips, groan, and dig their fingernails into their flesh. One sign of tension was the regular occurrence of nervous laughing fits. Fourteen of the 40 subjects showed definite signs of nervous laughter and smiling. The laughter seemed entirely out of place, even bizarre. Full-blown, uncontrollable seizures were observed for 3 subjects. On one occasion we observed a seizure so violently convulsive that it was necessary to call a halt to the experiment. In the post-experimental interviews subjects took pains to point out that they were not sadistic types, and that the laughter did not mean they enjoyed shocking the victim

The conflict between what subjects’ conscience told them and what they ended up doing is striking, because it shows us that they obeyed the experimenter’s orders not because they enjoyed them, but because they could not bring themselves to disobey:

I observed a mature and initially poised businessman enter the laboratory smiling and confident. Within 20 minutes he was reduced to a twitching, stuttering wreck, who was rapidly approaching a point of nervous collapse. He constantly pulled on his earlobe, and twisted his hands. At one point he pushed his fist into his forehead and muttered: “Oh God, let’s stop it.” And yet he continued to respond to every word of the experimenter, and obeyed to the end.

Even the people who defied the experimenter’s orders were often apologetic for doing so. One subject said:

He’s banging in there. I’m gonna chicken out. I’d like to continue, but I can’t do that to a man. . . . I’m sorry I can’t do that to a man. I’ll hurt his heart. You take your check. . . . No really, I couldn’t do it.

Overall, the interesting thing is that both people who defied the experimenter and those who obeyed him to the end knew that continuing to administer shocks was the wrong thing to do. But while some of them kept going, others decided to stop:

I think he’s trying to communicate, he’s knocking. . . . Well it’s not fair to shock the guy . . . these are terrific volts. I don’t think this is very humane. . . . Oh, I can’t go on with this; no, this isn’t right. It’s a hell of an experiment. The guy is suffering in there. No, I don’t want to go on. This is crazy. [Subject refused to administer more shocks.]

This shows that it’s not just about having a conscience which tells you right from wrong. Rather, it’s also about having the willingness to act, and to do the right thing when you know you should do it.


Replications and variations

You might assume that this all happened because the researchers selected a certain type of person for the experiment. In reality however, the subjects came from a wide range of backgrounds. They were between the ages of 20 and 50, representing occupations such as salesman, engineer, teacher, and laborer, and ranging in education level from someone who had not finished elementary school, to those who had doctorates and other professional degrees.

Furthermore, these results were replicated by other researchers. Their studies examined various populations, including people from completely different cultures than the original study, as well children as young as 6. In every case, the researchers found a similar pattern of behavior.

Interestingly, Milgram himself conducted a number of follow-up experiments, with different variations of the original experiment, which led to different rates of defiance:

  • Ensuring that the subject could hear the victim scream in agony and beg to be released barely had an effect on defiance rates, which only went up from 34% to 38%.
  • Placing the subject in the same room as the victim brought up the defiance rate to 60%.
  • Having the subject force the victim’s hand onto the shock-plate while electrocuting him brought the defiance rate further up, but still only to 70%.
  • Removing the experimenter from the room where the subject was and having him give instructions by telephone, brought up the defiance rate to 78%, even though the subject could only hear the banging on the wall in this condition. Interestingly, some subjects in this case also administered weaker shocks than they were supposed to, and lied to the experimenter about doing so.

All these studies also tried to answer the question of who is likely to obey, and who is likely to be defiant. However, while we know that various personality traits can affect this choice, the way in which they do so remains relatively unclear. The only thing we know for certain is just how willing most people are to follow orders which are given by an authority figure, even when they know that these orders are wrong.


How to mitigate the authority bias

These experiments illustrate the dangerous power of using authority to convince others to do your bidding, which can work even when the authority is mostly implied, and there is no punishment for disobedience.

While the experiments themselves were very dramatic, in our everyday life the influence of the authority bias is less notable, though it still plays an important role in the way we make decisions. One study, for example, found that people are more likely to discriminate against minorities in hiring situations, if they receive justification for doing so from an authority figure.

The main problem is that most people immediately assume that “that’s not something I would do”. While this may be true, it is difficult to know what you would do in reality, until you’re actually in such a situation. We saw this in the experiments above, where there was a huge difference between the number of people who were predicted to obey, and the number of people who obeyed in reality.

Therefore, you need to be aware of this bias, and of the fact that you might feel compelled to obey authority figures, even when you know that you shouldn’t. When you find yourself in such a scenario, where there is a conflict between what you’re told to do, and what your logic and conscience tell you is right to do, remember that all the people in the experiment knew that what they were doing was wrong. The difference between those who obeyed their orders and those who defied them was that those who defied them were willing to actively take action in order to stop the experiment. If you are afraid to act, ask yourself why you’re afraid, and what’s stopping you from taking action.

Furthermore, keep in mind the following techniques, which can help you take action and defy orders in cases where you otherwise wouldn’t:

  • As we saw earlier, people were much more like to be defiant when the experimenter wasn’t in the same room as them. This indicates that creating distance between yourself and the authority figure can help you take a stand when necessary. The farther you are from them, either physically or emotionally, the easier you will find it to defy them.
  • Convincing yourself that the authority figure giving is illegitimate also increases the likelihood of disobeying them. As such, the less legitimate you believe the authority figure is, the more likely you will be to defy them when necessary. You can convince yourself of their illegitimacy by asking yourself things such as what power they hold over you in reality, or who gave them their authority in the first place.
  • As we saw in Milgram’s follow-up experiments, when the subjects were in the same room as the victim, they were much more likely to disobey the order to electrocute him. This indicates that reducing the physical and emotional distance between yourself and the victim can help you be more defiant when necessary. You can reduce your emotional distance to the victim by trying to put yourself in their shoes and imagine how they feel, or by imagining how you would feel about your actions if the victim was someone you are close to. In the Milgram experiment, many of the subjects continued to administer shocks while looking away, in an attempt to disassociate themselves from the victim, whom they knew was suffering. Don’t let that happen to you.


Summary and conclusions

  • The authority bias is a tendency to obey the orders of an authority figure, even when you believe that there is something wrong with those orders.
  • The goal of the Milgram experiment was to see whether people would obey the order to electrocute someone, even if that person was begging them to stop.
  • Though Milgram predicted that only a few people would be willing to obey, in reality the majority of the people were willing to continue shocking the victim until they were told to stop by the experimenter. These people did so even though they believed that they were inflicting great pain on their victim, and even though they thought that what they were doing was wrong, which led them to experience great distress throughout the process.
  • These findings were replicated by various researchers, who performed their experiments on people from a wide range of demographics.
  • This bias can affect people in their everyday life, albeit in a less dramatic form. You can mitigate its influence by increasing the distance between yourself and the authority figure, by convincing yourself that the authority figure is illegitimate, and by reducing the distance between yourself and the victims of your actions.


If you found this experiment interesting, and want to learn more about the authority bias and its implications, take a look at Milgram’s highly-praised book “Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View“.