Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


prisonstudy

An image from the BBC Prison Study

Rethinking the Classic ‘Obedience’ Studies

• November 25, 2012 • 6:10 PM

An image from the BBC Prison Study

Stanley Milgram’s 1961 obedience experiments and the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment are legendary. But new research adds new wrinkles to our understanding of allegiance and evil.

They are among the most famous of all psychological studies, and together they paint a dark portrait of human nature. Widely disseminated in the media, they spread the belief that people are prone to blindly follow authority figures—and will quickly become cruel and abusive when placed in positions of power.

It’s hard to overstate the impact of Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments of 1961, or the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971. Yet in recent years, the conclusions derived from those studies have been, if not debunked, radically reinterpreted.

A new perspective—one that views human nature in a more nuanced light—is offered by psychologists Alex Haslam of the University of Queensland, Australia, and Stephen Reicher of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

In an essay published in the open-access journal PLoS Biology, they argue that people will indeed comply with the questionable demands of authority figures—but only if they strongly identify with that person, and buy into the rightness of those beliefs.

In other words, we’re not unthinking automatons. Nor are we monsters waiting for permission for our dark sides to be unleashed. However, we are more susceptible to psychological manipulation than we may realize.

In Milgram’s study, members of the general public were placed in the role of “teacher” and told that a “learner” was in a nearby room. Each time the “learner” failed to correctly recall a word as part of a memory experiment, the “teacher” was told to administer an electrical shock.

As the “learner” kept making mistakes, the “teacher” was ordered to give him stronger and stronger jolts of electricity. If a participant hesitated, the experimenter—an authority figure wearing a white coat—instructed him to continue.

Somewhat amazingly, most people did so: 65 percent of participants continued to give stronger and stronger shocks until the experiment ended with the “learner” apparently unconscious. (The torture was entirely fictional; no actual shocks were administered.)

To a world still reeling from the question of why so many Germans obeyed orders and carried out Nazi atrocities, here was a clear answer: We are predisposed to obey authority figures.

The Stanford Prisoner Experiment, conducted a few years later, was equally unnerving. Students were randomly assigned to assume the role of either prisoner or guard in a “prison” set up in the university’s psychology department. As Haslam and Reicher note, “such was the abuse meted out to the prisoners by the guards that the study had to be terminated after just six days.”

Lead author Philip Zimbardo, who assumed the role of “prison superintendent” with a level of zeal he later found frightening, concluded that brutality was “a natural consequence of being in the uniform of a guard and asserting the power inherent in that role.”

So is all this proof of the “banality of evil,” to use historian Hannah Arendt’s memorable phrase? Not really, argue Haslam and Reicher. They point to their own work on the BBC Prison Study, which mimicked the seminal Stanford study.

They found that participants “did not conform automatically to their assigned role” as prisoner or guard. Rather, there was a period of resistance, which ultimately gave way to a “draconian” new hierarchy. Before becoming brutal, the participants needed time to assume their new identities, and internalize their role in the system.

Once they did so, “the hallmark of the tyrannical regime was not conformity, but creative leadership and engaged followership within a group of true believers,” they write. “This analysis mirrors recent conclusions about the Nazi tyranny.”

It also sounds familiar to anyone who has studied the rise of semi-autonomous terror cells in recent decades. Suicide bombers don’t give up their lives out of unthinking obedience to some religious or political figure; rather, they have gradually melded their identities with that of the group they’re in, and the cause it represents.

Similarly, the researchers argue, a close look at Milgram’s study suggests it really isn’t about blind obedience at all. Transcripts of the sessions show the participants are often torn by the instruction to administer stronger shocks. Direct orders to do so were far less effective than entreaties that they need to continue for the sake of the study.

These reluctant sadists kept “torturing” in response to appeals that they were doing important scientific work—work that would ultimately benefit mankind. Looked at in this way, it wasn’t some inherent evil or conformism that drove them forward, but rather a misplaced sense of idealism.

This interpretation is still quite unsettling, of course. If a person has has fully bought into a certain world view and believes he or she is acting on the side of right, this conviction “makes them work energetically and creatively to ensure its success,” Haslam and Reicher write.

So in the researchers’ view, the lesson of these two still-important studies isn’t about conformity or even cruelty per se. Rather, they reveal a dangerous two-step process, in which authority figures “advocate oppression of others,” and underlings, due in part to their own psychological makeup and personal histories, “identify with those authorities … who promote vicious acts as virtuous.”

So we may not be inherently evil, but it appears many of us can be enticed into believing that a heinous act is, in fact, good and necessary. Perhaps the real lesson of these startling experiments is the importance of learning how to think critically.

The most effective antidote to evil may be rigorous skepticism.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.