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 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“.


The Google Effect and Digital Amnesia: How We Use Machines to Remember

The Google Effect and Digital Amnesia


The Google effect and digital amnesia both represent our tendency to forget information that can be easily found online or stored digitally. The following article will explain these effects, and how you can use your understanding of them to strategically choose when to remember things, and when to forget them.


The Google Effect and Digital Amnesia

The Google effect is our tendency to forget information that we know how to find online.

Digital amnesia is our tendency to forget information that we’ve stored on a digital device.

Both of these phenomena are similar, in that we forget, either intentionally or unintentionally, information that is available to us digitally. The main reason for this is that we are generally better at remembering where information is stored and how to retrieve it, than we are at remembering the information itself.

One study, for example, showed this by examining doctoral dissertations at MIT, and specifically how the way students cite sources changed over the years. The researchers found that once search engines and digital storage became more commonplace, students started relying more on their ability to remember where relevant information appears in scientific literature, rather than on their ability to remember the information itself.

Essentially, this means that we rely on digital devices and the internet as a form of external memory-storage, and as part of our transactive memory. This type of memory is frequently used in groups and relationships, and involves individuals in the group relying on each other to remember key information in certain areas. This memory is beneficial because it allows each person in the group to dedicate less cognitive resources to remembering all the shared information, since they know that someone else in the group has that information stored for them.

Note: that there are some philosophical arguments against the idea that the internet is a part of our transactive memory. These arguments center around the fact that transactive memory is a feature of a distributed cognitive system between individuals, while the internet is only as a tool which is used to access information. However, this distinction isn’t crucial, as long as you understand the overall idea behind these phenomena.


Why understanding these effects is important

There is nothing wrong with intentionally forgetting things that you know your devices can remember for you. We have so many things to remember, that an external memory-storage unit is of great help. Password managers are a good example of this, since they allow us to reliably remember a large number of strong, unique passwords, something that we would otherwise struggle to do effectively.

There are other benefits to strategically forgetting things. Notably, most of us have no way of remembering all the valuable information that we encounter every day. Because of this, relying on our ability to find information rather than on our ability to remember it frees up the cognitive resources necessary for processing of all of this information, which allows us to utilize it more effectively.

However, relying on devices to remember for you can be an issue if you need to remember the information directly. One study, for example, found that while using the internet allows us to quickly discover new information, our ability to recall this information is worse than when we discover it through other sources, such as books. While this isn’t a problem in cases where you just need to know where to find the information, it can be an issue in cases where you need to remember the information yourself, such as:

  • Information that you need to have readily available when you don’t have access to digital storage or to a search engine.
  • Information that is crucial to remember since you cannot afford to rely only on a digital backup.
  • Information that you want to internalize and remember in the long-term.

Therefore, the important thing is to be aware of the Google effect and digital amnesia, and to have them under your control. That is, the decision to forget certain pieces of information because you know you can retrieve them digitally is one that you should be making consciously and selectively.


Summary and conclusions

  • The Google effect is our tendency to forget information that we know how to find online.
  • Digital amnesia is our tendency to forget information that we stored on a digital device.
  • These phenomena are attributed to the fact that we often treat digital devices and the internet as a sort of external memory-storage, by making them a part of our transactive memory.
  • The primary reason why we do this is because we are generally better at remembering where information is stored and how to retrieve it, than we are at remembering the information itself.
  • Relying on digital devices to store information can be beneficial, since it frees up cognitive resources which are necessary for processing new information, and because this form of memory is generally efficient and reliable. However, the choice to do this should be conscious, since it can hinder us in cases where we need to remember key pieces of information directly.


The Cognitive Benefits of Playing Video Games

The Cognitive Benefits of Playing Video Games


Research shows that playing video games can be good for you. In the following article you will see:

  • The cognitive benefits associated with playing video games.
  • The long-term implications of these benefits.
  • What research says about the effectiveness of “brain-training games”.
  • How you can take advantage of video games in order to intentionally improve your cognitive performance.


The cognitive benefits of video games

Playing video games can improve your cognitive performance in a wide range of areas:

Overall, this list showcases some of the benefits associated with playing video games. However, it’s important to remember that different types of games offer different benefits. Therefore, each game will help you improve in some areas, which are related to the tasks that you perform in the game, but no single game will help you improve all aspects of your cognitive performance.


Other benefits of playing

In addition to improving your cognitive performance, playing video games offers additional benefits:


Short-term vs. long-term effects

Research shows that some of the benefits of playing video games can last long after you’ve finished playing. One study, for example, showed that letting kids play a cognitive-training game consistently for a month, led to cognitive improvements which were still significant when the kids were tested 3 months after they stopped playing. Furthermore, neurological studies show that playing video games consistently can lead to long-term positive changes in terms of how the brain processes information, and in terms of factors such as neural plasticity.

Overall, the longer you ‘train’ by playing games, the longer the benefits will usually last. However, the relationship between the time spent playing and the degree of cognitive improvement is complex, so it’s difficult to predict exactly how long the benefits will last in different scenarios.


Brain-training games

There are some commercial games which purport to specifically improve cognitive performance (often referred to as “brain-training games”). The effectiveness of these games is under debate in the scientific community, with some studies showing that they can lead to an improvement in cognitive performance, and with other studies showing that these games do not lead to a significant improvement, especially in comparison with regular video games.

Overall, the evidence regarding the effectiveness of these games suggests that brain-training games help you improve primarily at cognitive tasks that are closely related to the tasks in the game, and less so with other tasks. The biggest issue with this is that brain-training companies often overhype their products, and make false claims regarding how effective their games are.

Based on this, it seems that brain-training games can work in some aspects, to some degree, for some people. Therefore, if you enjoy playing these games, and feel like they are helping you improve in related tasks (beyond those in the game itself), then by all means, keep playing them. Just be wary, and keep your expectations realistic.


Using video games to improve your cognitive performance

As we saw so far, playing video games can help you improve various aspects of your cognitive performance. You will generally get these benefits whether you’re actively trying to or not, so if you want to just keep playing and reaping the rewards, that’s perfectly fine; one of the greatest advantages of video games is that they allow you to improve passively, while having fun.

However, if you want to actively try and get the most out of playing, then you need to keep in mind the 80/20 rule, meaning that in general, you should expect 80% of the benefits from playing video games to come from 20% of the play time. Therefore, if you’re playing with the goal of improving your cognitive performance, you should invest your time wisely, and remember that playing past a certain point will get you diminishing returns on your efforts. To circumvent this, you can diversify the type of games that you play, which will also help you improve different cognitive abilities.


Testing whether games help you improve

If you want to test whether video games are actually improving your abilities, you can try to do this by assessing your performance on tasks which require similar skills to those in the game. For example, let’s say you want to measure whether playing a new action game will improve your reaction time. Before you start playing for the first time, take a few online tests of reaction time, and record your performance on each of them. Then, after playing the game for some time, retake these tests, and compare your performance now to what you got when you took the baseline measurements.

Try to keep the testing conditions as similar as possible between the trials, in terms of the device you take them on, the time of the day, etc. This will make your experiment more reliable, by allowing you to control for some variables which might affect the results.

However, keep in mind that it’s difficult to know for sure whether you’ve improved, since there are other factors which might also affect the results, such as the fact that you’ve already taken these tests before. In addition, if you play video games regularly, it’s possible that gaming already improved your cognitive abilities, and that playing new games is mostly keeping you at a high-but-consistent level of performance.

Overall, self-experimentation can be an interesting way to measure whether playing video games is helping you improve your cognitive abilities. Just keep in mind that this form of experimentation has some limitations, so the results might not always be clear-cut.


Summary and conclusions

  • Research shows that playing video games improves various cognitive abilities, such as reaction time, mental flexibility, spatial memory, attentional capacity, and visual processing.
  • In addition, playing video games has emotional and social benefits, such as reducing stress levels, increasing self-esteem, and encouraging cooperative behavior.
  • The benefits of playing video games can often continue to last in the long-term, even after you’ve stopped playing the game.
  • Brain-training games, which are designed specifically for to improve cognitive performance, appear to be beneficial in some cases. However, they are often overhyped by the companies that sell them, and their benefits are sometimes no greater than those associated with playing regular video games.
  • One of the greatest advantages of playing video games is that they allow you to improve passively, while having fun. However, if you want to actively try and get the most from playing, try to diversify the types of games that you play, and remember that past a certain point of playing, you will get diminishing returns on your efforts.