The Dilemma of Obedience
A commonly offered explanation is that those who shocked the victim at the most severe level were monsters, the sadistic fringe of society. But if one considers that almost two-thirds of the participants fall into the category of “obedient” subjects, and that they represented ordinary people drawn from working, managerial, and professional classes, the argument becomes very shaky. Indeed, it is highly reminiscent of the issue that arose in connection with Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt contended that the ,prosecution’s effort to depict Eichmann as a sadistic monster was fundamentally wrong, that he came closer to being an uninspired bureaucrat who simply sat at his desk and did his job. For asserting these views, Arendt became the object of considerable scorn, even calumny. Somehow, it was felt that the monstrous deeds carried out by Eichmann required a brutal, twisted, and sadistic personality, evil incarnate. After witnessing hundreds of ordinary people submit to the authority in our own experiments, I must conclude that Arendt’s conception of the banality of evil comes closer to the truth than one might dare imagine. The ordinary person who shocked the victim did so out of a sense of obligation-a conception of his duties as a subject-and not from any peculiarly aggressive tendencies.
This is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority. A variety of inhibitions against disobeying authority come into play and successfully keep the person in his place.
Sitting back in one’s armchair, it is easy to condemn the actions of the obedient subjects. But those who condemn the subjects measure them against the standard of their own ability to formulate high-minded moral prescriptions. That is hardly a fair standard. Many of the subjects, at the level of stated opinion, feel quite as strongly as any of us about the moral requirement of refraining from action against a helpless victim. They, too, in general terms know what ought to be done and can state their values when the occasion arises. This has little, if anything, to do with their actual behavior under the pressure of circumstances.
If people are asked to render a moral judgment on what constitutes appropriate behavior in this situation, they unfailingly see disobedience as proper. But values are not the only forces at work in an actual, ongoing situation. They are but one narrow band of causes in the total spectrum of forces impinging on a person. Many people were unable to realize their values in action and found themselves continuing in the experiment even though they disagreed with what they were doing.
The force exerted by the moral sense of the individual is less effective than social myth would have us believe. Though such prescriptions as “Thou shalt not kill” occupy a pre-eminent place in the moral order, they do not occupy a correspondingly intractable position in human psychic structure. A few changes in newspaper headlines, a call from the draft board, orders from a man with epaulets, and men are led to kill with little difficulty. Even the forces mustered in a psychology experiment will go a long way toward removing the individual from moral controls. Moral factors can be shunted aside with relative ease by a calculated restructuring of the informational and social field.
What, then, keeps the person obeying the experimenter? First, there is a set of “binding factors” that lock the subject into the situation. They include such factors as politeness on his part, his desire to uphold his initial promise of aid to the experimenter, and the awkwardness of withdrawal. Second, a number of adjustments in the subject’s thinking occur that undermine his resolve to break with the authority. The adjustments help the subject maintain his relationship with the experimenter, while at the same time reducing the strain brought about by the experimental conflict. They are typical of thinking that comes about in obedient persons when they are instructed by authority to act against helpless individuals.
One such mechanism is the tendency of the individual to become so absorbed in the narrow technical aspects of the task that he loses sight of its broader consequences. The film Dr. Strangelove brilliantly satirized the absorption of a bomber crew in the exacting technical procedure of dropping nuclear weapons on a country. Similarly, in this experiment, subjects become immersed in the procedures, reading the word pairs with exquisite articulation and pressing the switches with great care. They want to put on a competent performance, but they show an accompanying narrowing of moral concern. The subject entrusts the broader tasks of setting goals and assessing morality to the experimental authority he is serving.
The most common adjustment of thought in the obedient subject is for him to see himself as not responsible for his own actions. He divests himself of responsibility by attributing all initiative to the experimenter, a legitimate authority. He sees himself not as a person acting in a morally accountable way but as the agent of external authority. In the postexperimental interview, when subjects were asked why they had gone on, a typical reply was: “I wouldn’t have done it by myself. I was just doing what I was told.” Unable to defy the authority of the experimenter, they attribute all responsibility to him. It is the old story of “just doing one’s duty” that was heard time and time again in the defense statements of those accused at Nuremberg. But it would be wrong to think of it as a thin alibi concocted for the occasion. Rather, it is a fundamental mode of thinking for a great many people once they are locked into a subordinate position in a structure of authority. The disappearance of a sense of responsibility is the most far-reaching consequence of submission to authority.
Although a person acting under authority performs actions that seem to violate standards of conscience, it would not be true to say that he loses his moral sense. Instead, it acquires a radically different focus. He does not respond with a moral sentiment to the actions he performs. Rather, his moral concern now shifts to a consideration of how well he is living up to the expectations that the authority has of him. In wartime, a soldier does not ask whether it is good or bad to bomb a hamlet; he does not experience shame or guilt in the destruction of a village: rather he feels pride or shame depending on how well he has performed the mission assigned to him.
Another psychological force at work in this situation may be termed “counteranthropomorphism.” For decades psychologists have discussed the primitive tendency among men to attribute to inanimate objects and forces the qualities of the human species. A countervailing tendency, however, is that of attributing an impersonal quality to forces that are essentially human in origin and maintenance. Some people treat systems of human origin as if they existed above and beyond any human agent, beyond the control of whim or human feeling. The human element behind agencies and institutions is denied. Thus, when the experimenter says, “The experiment requires that you continue,” the subject feels this to be an imperative that goes beyond any merely human command. He does not ask the seemingly obvious question, “Whose experiment? Why should the designer be served while the victim suffers?” The wishes of a man-the designer of the experiment-have become part of a schema which exerts on the subject’s mind a force that transcends the personal. “It’s got to go on. It’s got to go on,” repeated one subject. He failed to realize that a man like himself wanted it to go on. For him the human agent had faded from the picture, and “The Experiment” had acquired an impersonal momentum of its own.
No action of itself has an unchangeable psychological quality. Its meaning can be altered by placing it in particular contexts. An American newspaper recently quoted a pilot who conceded that Americans were bombing Vietnamese men, women, and children but felt that the bombing was for a “noble cause” and thus was justified. Similarly, most subjects in the experiment see their behavior in a larger context that is benevolent and useful to society-the pursuit of scientific truth. The psychological laboratory has a strong claim to legitimacy and evokes trust and confidence in those who come to perform there. An action such as shocking a victim, which in isolation appears evil, acquires a totally different meaning when placed in this setting. But allowing an act to be dominated by its context, while neglecting its human consequences, can be dangerous in the extreme.
At least one essential feature of the situation in Germany was not studied here-namely, the intense devaluation of the victim prior to action against him. For a decade and more, vehement anti-Jewish propaganda systematically prepared the German population to accept the destruction of the Jews. Step by step the Jews were excluded from the category of citizen and national, and finally were denied the status of human beings. Systematic devaluation of the victim provides a measure of psychological justification for brutal treatment of the victim and has been the constant accompaniment of massacres, pogroms, and wars. In all likelihood, our subjects would have experienced greater ease in shocking the victim had he been convincingly portrayed as a brutal criminal or a pervert.
Of considerable interest, however, is the fact that many subjects harshly devalue the victim as a consequence of acting against him. Such comments as, “He was so stupid and stubborn he deserved to get shocked,” were common. Once having acted against the victim, these subjects found it necessary to view him as an unworthy individual, whose punishment was made inevitable by his own deficiencies of intellect and character.
Many of the people studied in the experiment were in some sense against what they did to the learner, and many protested even while they obeyed. But between thoughts, words, and the critical step of disobeying a malevolent authority lies another ingredient, the capacity for transforming beliefs and values into action. Some subjects were totally convinced of the wrongness of what they were doing but could not bring themselves to make an open break with authority. Some derived satisfaction from their thoughts and felt that-within themselves, at least-they had been on the side of the angels. What they failed to realize is that subjective feelings are largely irrelevant to the moral issue at hand so long as they are not transformed into action. Political control is effected through action. The attitudes of the guards at a concentration camp are of no consequence when in fact they are allowing the slaughter of innocent men to take place before them. Similarly, so-called “intellectual resistance” in occupied Europe-in which persons by a twist of thought felt that they had defied the invader-was merely indulgence in a consoling psychological mechanism. Tyrannies are perpetuated by diffident men who do not possess the courage to act out their beliefs. Time and again in the experiment people disvalued what they were doing but could not muster the inner resources to translate their values into action.
A variation of the basic experiment depicts a dilemma more common than the one outlined above: the subject was not ordered to push the trigger that shocked the victim, but merely to perform a subsidiary act (administering the word-pair test) before another subject actually delivered the shock. In this situation, 37 of 40 adults from the New Haven area continued to the highest shock level on the generator. Predictably, subjects excused their behavior by saying that the responsibility belonged to the man who actually pulled the switch. This may illustrate a dangerously typical situation in complex society: it is psychologically easy to ignore responsibility when one is only an intermediate link in a chain of evil action but is far from the final consequences of the action. Even Eichmann was sickened when he toured the concentration camps, but to participate in mass murder he had only to sit at a desk and shuffle papers. At the same time the man in the camp who actually dropped Cyclon-B into the gas chambers was able to justify his behavior on the grounds that he was only following orders from above. Thus there is a fragmentation of the total human act; no one man decides to carry out the evil act and is confronted with its consequences. The person who assumes full responsibility for the act has evaporated. Perhaps this is the most common characteristic of socially organized evil in modern society.
The problem of obedience, therefore, is not wholly psychological. The form and shape of society and the way it is developing have much to do with it. There was a time, perhaps, when men were able to give a fully human response to any situation because they were fully absorbed in it as human beings. But as soon as there was a division of labor among men, things changed. Beyond a certain point, the breaking up of society into people carrying out narrow and very special jobs takes away from the human quality of work and life. A person does not get to see the whole situation but only a small part of it, and is thus unable to act without some kind of over-all direction. He yields to authority but in doing so is alienated from his own actions.
George Orwell caught the essence of the situation when he wrote:
As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me. They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are on]y “doing their duty,” as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it.
The Process of Obedience:
Applying the Analysis to the Experiment
Antecedent Conditions of Obedience
First, we need to consider forces that acted on the person before he became our subject, forces that shaped his basic orientation to the social world and laid the groundwork for obedience.
The subject has grown up in the midst of structures of authority. From his very first years, he was exposed to parental regulation, whereby a sense of respect for adult authority was inculcated. Parental injunctions are also the source of moral imperatives. However, when a parent instructs a child to follow a moral injunction, he is, in fact, doing two things. First, he presents a specific ethical content to be followed. Second, he trains the child to comply with authoritative injunctions per se. Thus, when a parent says, “Don’t strike smaller children,” he provides not one imperative but two. The first concerns the manner in which the recipient of the command is to treat smaller children (the prototype of those who are helpless and innocent); the second and implicit imperative is, “And obey me!” Thus, the very genesis of our moral ideals is inseparable from the inculcation of an obedient attitude. Moreover, the demand for obedience remains the only consistent element across a variety of specific commands, and thus tends to acquire a prepotent strength relative to any particular moral content.
As soon as the child emerges from the cocoon of the family, he is transferred to an institutional system of authority, the school. Here, the child learns not merely a specific curriculum but also how to function within an organizational framework. His actions are, to a significant degree, regulated by his teachers, but he can perceive that they in turn are subjected to the discipline and requirements of a headmaster. The student observes that arrogance is not passively accepted by.authority but severely rebuked and that deference is the only appropriate and comfortable response to authority.
The first twenty years of the young person’s life are spent functioning as a subordinate element in an authority system, and upon leaving school, the male usually moves into either a civilian job or military service. On the job, he learns that although some discreetly expressed dissent is allowable, an underlying posture of submission is required for harmonious functioning with superiors. However much freedom of detail is allowed the individual, the situation is defined as one in which he is to do a job prescribed by someone else.
While structures of authority are of necessity present in all societies, advanced or primitive, modern society has the added characteristic of teaching individuals to respond to impersonal authorities. Whereas submission to authority is probably no less for an Ashanti than for an American factory worker, the range of persons who constitute authorities for the native are all personally known to him, while the modern industrial world forces individuals to submit to impersonal authorities, so that responses are made to abstract rank, indicated by an insignia, uniform or title.
Throughout this experience with authority, there is continual confrontation with a reward structure in which compliance with authority has been generally rewarded, while failure to comply has most frequently been punished. Although many forms of reward are meted out for dutiful compliance, the most ingenious is this: the individual is moved up a niche in the hierarchy, thus both motivating the person and perpetuating the structure simultaneously. This form of reward, “the promotion,” carries with it profound emotional gratification for the individual but its special feature is the fact that it ensures the continuity of the hierarchical form.
The net result of this experience is the internalization of the social order-that is, internalizing the set of axioms by which social life is conducted. And the chief axiom is: do what the man in charge says. Just as we internalize grammatical rules, and can thus both understand and produce new sentences, so we internalize axiomatic rules of social life which enable us to fulfill social requirements in novel situations. In any hierarchy of rules, that which requires compliance to authority assumes a paramount position.
Among the antecedent conditions, therefore, are the individual’s familial experience, the general societal setting built on impersonal systems of authority, and extended experience with a reward structure in which compliance with authority is rewarded, and failure to comply punished. While without doubt providing the background against which our subject’s habits of conduct were formed, these conditions are beyond the control of experimentation and do not immediately trigger movement to the agentic state. Let us now turn to the more immediate factors, within a specific situation, that lead to the agentic state.
Immediate Antecedent Conditions
Perception of authority. The first condition needed for transformation to the agentic state is the perception of a legitimate authority. From a psychological standpoint, authority means the person who is perceived to be in a position of social control within a given situation. Authority is contextually perceived and does not necessarily transcend the situation in which it is encountered. For example, should the experimenter encounter the subject on the street, he would have no special influence on him. A pilot’s authority over his passengers does not extend beyond the airplane. Authority is normatively supported: there is a shared expectation among people that certain situations do ordinarily have a socially controlling figure. Authority need not possess high status in the sense of “prestige.” For example, an usher at a theater is a source of social control to whom we ordinarily submit willingly. The power of an authority stems not from personal characteristics but from his perceived position in a social structure.
The question of how authority communicates itself seems, at first, not to require a special answer. We invariably seem to know who is in charge. We may, nonetheless, examine the behavior in the laboratory to try to dissect the process a little.
First, the subject enters the situation with the expectation that someone will be in charge. Thus, the experimenter, upon first presenting himself, fills a gap experienced by the subject. Accordingly, the experimenter need not assert his authority, but merely identify it. He does so through a few introductory remarks, and since this self-defining ritual fits perfectly with the subject’s expectation of encountering a man in charge, it is not challenged. A supporting factor is the confidence and “air of authority” exhibited by the experimenter. Just as a servant possesses a deferential manner, so his master exudes a commanding presence that subtly communicates his dominant status within the situation at hand.
Second, external accouterments are often used to signify the authority in a given situation. Our experimenter was dressed in a gray technician’s coat, which linked him to the laboratory. Police, military, and other service uniforms are the most conspicuous signs of authority within common experience. Third, the subject notes the absence of competing authorities. (No one else claims to be in charge, and this helps confirm the presumption that the experimenter is the right man.) Fourth, there is the absence of conspicuously anomalous factors (e.g., a child of five claiming to be the scientist).
It is the appearance of authority and not actual authority to which the subject responds. Unless contradictory information or anomalous facts appear, the self-designation of the authority almost always suffices.
Entry into the Authority System. A second condition triggering the shift to the agentic state is the act of defining the person as part of the authority system in question. It is not enough that we perceive an authority, he must be an authority relevant to us. Thus, if we watch a parade, and hear a Colonel shout, “Left face,” we do not turn left, for we have not been defined as subordinate to his command. There is always a transition from that moment when we stand outside an authority system to that point when we are inside it. Authority systems are frequently limited by a physical context, and often we come under the influence of an authority when we cross the physical threshold into his domain. The fact that this experiment is carried out in a laboratory has a good deal to do with the degree of obedience exacted. There is a feeling that the experimenter “owns” the space and that the subject must conduct himself fittingly, as if a guest in some one’s house. If the experiment were to be carried on outside the laboratory, obedience would drop sharply.
Even more important, for the present experiment, is the fact that entry into the experimenter’s realm of authority is voluntary, undertaken through the free will of the participants. The psychological consequence of voluntary entry is that it creates a sense of commitment and obligation which will subsequently play a part in binding the subject to his role.
Were our subjects forcibly introduced to the experiment, they might well yield to authority, but the psychological mechanisms would be quite different from what we have observed. Generally, and wherever possible, society tries to create a sense of voluntary entry into its various institutions. Upon induction into the military, recruits take an oath of allegiance, and volunteers are preferred to inductees. While people will comply with a source of social control under coercion (as when a gun is aimed at them), the nature of obedience under such circumstances is limited to direct surveillance. When the gunman leaves, or when his capacity for sanctions is eliminated, obedience stops. In the case of voluntary obedience to a legitimate authority, the principal sanctions for disobedience come from within the person. They are not dependent upon coercion, but stem from the individual’s sense of commitment to his role. In this sense, there is an internalized basis for his obedience, not merely an external one.
Coordination of Command with the Function of Authority. Authority is the perceived source of social control within a specific context. The context defines the range of commands considered appropriate to the authority in question. There must, in general, be some intelligible link between the function of the controlling person, and the nature of the commands he issues. The connection need not be very well worked out but need only make sense in the most general way. Thus, in a military situation, a captain may order a subordinate to perform a highly dangerous action, but he may not order the subordinate to embrace his girlfriend. In one case, the order is logically linked to the general function of the military, and in the other case it is not.
In the obedience experiment, the subject acts within the context of a learning experiment and sees the experimenter’s commands as meaningfully coordinated to his role. In the context of the laboratory, such commands are felt to be appropriate in a general way, however much one may argue with certain specific developments that later occur.
Because the experimenter issues orders in a context he is presumed to know something about, his power is increased. Generally, authorities are felt to know more than the person they are commanding; whether they do or not, the occasion is defined as if they do. Even when a subordinate possesses a greater degree of technical knowledge than his superior, he must not presume to override the authority’s right to command but must present this knowledge to the superior to dispose of as he wishes. A typical source of strain occurs in authority systems when the person in authority is incompetent to the point of endangering the subordinates.
The Overarching Ideology. The perception of a legitimate source of social control within a defined social occasion is a necessary prerequisite for a shift to the agentic state. But the legitimacy of the occasion itself depends on its articulation to a justifying ideology. When subjects enter the laboratory and are told to perform, they do not in a bewildered fashion cry out, “I never heard of science. What do you mean by this?” Within this situation, the idea of science and its acceptance as a legitimate social enterprise provide the overarching ideological justification for the experiment. Such institutions as business, the church, the government, and the educational establishment provide other legitimate realms of activity, each justified by the values and needs of society, and also, from the standpoint of the typical person, accepted because they exist as part of the world in which he is born and grows up. Obedience could be secured outside such institutions, but it would not be the form of willing obedience, in which the person complies with a strong sense of doing the right thing. Moreover, if the experiment were carried out in a culture very different from our own-say, among Trobrianders-it would be necessary to find the functional equivalent of science in order to obtain psychologically comparable results. The Trobriander may not believe in scientists, but he respects witch doctors. The fourteenth-century Spanish Jesuit might have eschewed science, but he embraced the ideology of his church, and in its name, and for its preservation, tightened the screw on the rack without any problem of conscience.
Ideological justification is vital in obtaining willing obedience, for it permits the person to see his behavior as serving a desirable end. Only when viewed in this light, is compliance easily exacted.
An authority system, then, consists of a minimum of two persons sharing the expectation that one of them has the right to prescribe behavior for the other. In the current study, the experimenter is the key element in a system that extends beyond his person. The system includes the setting of the experiment, the impressive laboratory equipment, the devices which inculcate a sense of obligation in the subject, the mystique of science of which the experiment is a part, and the broad institutional accords that permit such activities to go on-that is, the diffuse societal support that is implied by the very fact that the experiment is being run and tolerated in a civilized city.
The experimenter acquires his capacity to influence behavior not by virtue of the exercise of force or threat but by virtue of the position he occupies in a social structure. There is general agreement not only that he can influence behavior but that he ought to be able to. Thus, his power comes about in some degree through the consent of those over whom he presides. But once this consent is initially granted, its withdrawal does not proceed automatically or without great cost.
The Agentic State
What are the properties of the agentic state, and its consequences for the subject?
Moved into the agentic state, the person becomes something different from his former self, with new properties not easily traced to his usual personality.
First, the entire set of activities carried out by the subject comes to be pervaded by his relationship to the experimenter; the subject typically wishes to perform competently and to make a good appearance before this central figure. He directs his attention to those features of the situation required for such competent performance. He attends to the instructions, concentrates on the technical requirements of administering shocks, and finds himself absorbed in the narrow technical tasks at hand. Punishment of the learner shrinks to an insignificant part of the total experience, a mere gloss on the complex activities of the laboratory.
Those not familiar with the experiment may think that the predicament of the subject is one in which he is assaulted by conflicting forces emanating from the learner and the experimenter. In a very real sense, however, a process of tuning occurs in the subject, with maximal receptivity to the emissions of the authority, whereas the learner’s signals are muted and psychologically remote. Those who are skeptical of this effect might observe the behavior of individuals organized in a hierarchical structure. The meeting of a company president with his subordinates will do. The subordinates respond with attentive concern to each word uttered by the president. Ideas originally mentioned by persons of a low status will frequently not be heard, but when repeated by the president, they are greeted with enthusiasm.
There is nothing especially malicious in this; it reflects the natural responses to authority. If we explore a little more deeply, we will see why this is so: the person in authority, by virtue of that position, is in the optimal position to bestow benefits or inflict deprivations. The boss can fire or promote; the military superior can send a man into dangerous combat or give him a soft job; the tribal patriarch consents to a marriage or orders an execution; thus, it is highly adaptive to attend with meticulous concern to authority’s whim.
Because of this, authority tends to be seen as something larger than the individual. The individual often views authority as an impersonal force, whose dictates transcend mere human wish or desire. Those in authority acquire, for some, a suprahuman character.
The phenomenon of differential tuning occurs with impressive regularity in the experiment at hand. The learner operates under the handicap that the subject is not truly attuned to him, for the subject’s feelings and percepts are dominated by the presence of the experimenter. For many subjects, the learner becomes simply an unpleasant obstacle interfering with attainment of a satisfying relationship with the experimenter. His pleas for mercy are consequential only in that they add a certain discomfort to what evidently is required of the subject if he is to gain the approval of the central emotional figure in the situation.
Redefining the Meaning of the Situation
Control the manner in which a man interprets his world, and you have gone a long way toward controlling his behavior. That is why ideology, an attempt to interpret the condition of man, is always a prominent feature of revolutions, wars, and other circumstances in which individuals are called upon to perform extraordinary action. Governments invest heavily in propaganda, which constitutes the official manner of interpreting events.
Every situation also possesses a kind of ideology, which we call the “definition of the situation,” and which is the interpretation of the meaning of a social occasion. It provides the perspective through which the elements of a situation gain coherence. An act viewed in one perspective may seem heinous; the same action viewed in another perspective seems fully warranted. There is a propensity for people to accept definitions of action provided by legitimate authority. That is, although the subject performs the action, he allows authority to define its meaning.
It is this ideological abrogation to the authority that constitutes the principal cognitive basis of obedience. If, after all, the world or the situation is as the authority defines it, a certain set of actions follows logically.
Loss of Responsibility
The most far-reaching consequence of the agentic shift is that a man feels responsible to the authority directing him but feels no
The relationship between authority and subject, therefore, cannot be viewed as one in which a coercive figure forces action from an unwilling subordinate. Because the subject accepts authority’s definition of the situation, action follows willingly responsibility for the content of the actions that the authority prescribes. Morality does not disappear, but acquires a radically different focus: the subordinate person feels shame or pride depending on how adequately he has performed the actions called for by authority.
Language provides numerous terms to pinpoint this type of morality: loyalty, duty, discipline, all are terms heavily saturated with moral meaning and refer to the degree to which a person fulfills his obligations to authority. They refer not to the “goodness” of the person per se but to the adequacy with which a subordinate fulfills his socially defined role. The most frequent defense of the individual who has performed a heinous act under command of authority is that he has simply done his duty. In asserting this defense, the individual is not introducing an alibi concocted for the 1l10ment but is reporting honestly on the psychological attitude induced by submission to authority.
For a man to feel responsible for his actions, he must sense that the behavior has flowed from “the self.” In the situation we have studied, subjects have precisely the opposite view of their actions-namely, they see them as originating in the motives of some other person. Subjects in the experiment frequently said, “If it were up to me, I would not have administered shocks to the learner :”
Superego functions shift from an evaluation of the goodness or badness of the acts to an assessment of how well or poorly one is functioning in the authority system. Because the inhibitory forces which prevent the individual from acting harshly against others on his own are short-circuited, actions are no longer limited by conscience.
Consider an individual who, in everyday life, is gentle and kind. Even in moments of anger he does not strike out against those who have frustrated him. Feeling that he must spank a mischievous child, he finds the task distasteful; indeed, the very musculature in his arms becomes paralyzed, and he abandons the task. Yet, when taken into military service he is ordered to drop bombs on people, and he does so. The act does not originate in his own motive system and thus is not checked by the inhibitory forces of his internal psychological system. In growing up, the normal individual has learned to check the expression of aggressive impulses. But the culture has failed, almost entirely, in inculcating internal controls on actions that have their origin in authority. For this reason, the latter constitutes a far greater danger to human survival.
It is not only important to people that they look good to others, they must also look good to themselves. A person’s ego ideal can be an important source of internal inhibitory regulation. Tempted to perform harsh action, he may assess its consequences for his self-image and refrain. But once the person has moved into the agentic state, this evaluative mechanism is wholly absent. The action, since it no longer stems from motives of his own, no longer reflects on his self-image and thus has no consequences for self-conception. Indeed, the individual frequently discerns an opposition between what he himself wishes on the one hand and what is required of him on the other. He sees the action, even though he performs it, as alien to his nature. For this reason, actions performed under command are, from the subject’s viewpoint, virtually guiltless, however inhumane they may be. And it is toward authority that the subject turns for confirmation of his worth.
Commands and the Agentic State
The agentic state constitutes a potential out of which specific acts of obedience flow. But something more than the potential is required-namely, specific commands that serve as the triggering mechanism. We have already pointed out that, in a general way, the commands given must be consistent with the role of authority. A command consists of two main parts: a definition of action and the imperative that the action be executed. (A request, for example, contains a definition of action but lacks the insistence that it be carried out. )
Commands, then, lead to specific acts of obedience. Is the agentic state just another word for obedience? No, it is that state of mental organization which enhances the likelihood of obedience. Obedience is the behavioral aspect of the state. A person may be in an agentic state-that is, in a state of openness to regulation from an authority-without ever being given a command and thus never having to obey.
Once a person has entered the agentic state, what keeps him in it? Whenever elements are linked in a hierarchy, there need to be forces to maintain them in that relationship. If these did not exist, the mildest perturbation would bring about the disintegration of the structure. Therefore, once people are brought into a social hierarchy, there must be some cementing mechanism to endow the structure with at least minimal stability.
Some people interpret the experimental situation as one in which the subject, in a highly rational manner, can weigh the conflicting values in the situation, process the factors according to some mental calculus, and base his actions on the outcome of this equation. Thus, the subject’s predicament is reduced to a problem of rational decision making. This analysis ignores a crucial aspect of behavior illuminated by the experiments. Though many subjects make the intellectual decision that they should not give any more shocks to the learner, they are frequently unable to transform this conviction into action. Viewing these subjects in the laboratory, one can sense their intense inner struggle to extricate themselves from the authority, while ill-defined but powerful bonds hold them at the shock generator. One subject tells the experimenter: “He can’t stand it. I’m not going to kill that man in there. You hear him hollering in there. He’s hollering. He can’t stand it.” Although at the verbal level the subject has resolved not to go on, he continues to act in accord with the experimenter’s commands. Many subjects make tentative movements toward disobedience but then seem restrained, as if by a bond. Let us now examine the forces that powerfully bind a subject to his role.
The best way to begin tracing these forces is to ask: What does the subject have to go through if he wants to break off? Through what psychological underbrush must he cut to get from his position in front of the shock generator to a stance of defiance?
Sequential Nature of the Action
The laboratory hour is an unfolding process in which each action influences the next. The obedient act is perseverative; after the initial instructions, the experimenter does not command the subject to initiate a new act but simply to continue doing what he is doing. The recurrent nature of the action demanded of the subject itself creates binding forces. As the subject delivers more and more painful shocks, he must seek to justify to himself what he has done; one form of justification is to go to the end. For if he breaks off, he must say to himself: “Everything I have done to this point is bad, and I now acknowledge it by breaking off.” But, if he goes on, he is reassured about his past performance. Earlier actions give rise to discomforts, which are neutralized by later ones. And the subject is implicated into the destructive behavior in piecemeal fashion.
Underlying all social occasions is a situational etiquette that plays a part in regulating behavior. In order to break off the experiment, the subject must breach the implicit set of understandings that are part of the social occasion. He made an initial promise to aid the experimenter, and now he must renege on this commitment. Although to the outsider the act of refusing to shock stems from moral considerations, the action is experienced by the subject as renouncing an obligation to the experimenter, and such repudiation is not undertaken lightly. There is another side to this matter.
Coffman (1959) points out that every social situation is built upon a working consensus among the participants. One of its chief premises is that once a definition of the situation has been projected and agreed upon by participants, there shall be no challenge to it. Indeed, disruption of the accepted definition by one participant has the character of moral transgression. Under no circumstance is open conflict about the definition of the situation compatible with polite social exchange.
More specifically, according to Coffman’s analysis, “society is organized on the principle that any individual who possesses certain social characteristics has a moral right to expect that others will value and treat him in a correspondingly appropriate way. . . . When an individual projects a definition of the situation and then makes an implicit or explicit claim to be a person of a particular kind, he automatically exerts a moral demand upon the others, obliging them to value and treat him in the manner that persons of his kind have a right to expect”. Since to refuse to obey the experimenter is to reject his claim to competence and authority in this situation, a severe social impropriety is necessarily involved.
The experimental situation is so constructed that there is no way the subject can stop shocking the learner without violating the experimenter’s self-definition. The learner cannot break off and at the same time protect the authority’s definitions of his own competence. Thus, the subject fears that if he breaks off, he will appear arrogant, untoward, and rude. Such emotions, although they appear small in scope alongside the violence being done to the learner, nonetheless help bind the subject into obedience. They suffuse the mind and feelings of the subject, who is miserable at the prospect of having to repudiate the authority to his face. The entire prospect of turning against the experimental authority, with its attendant disruption of a well-defined social situation, is an embarrassment that many people are unable to face up to. In an effort to avoid this awkward event, many subjects find obedience a less painful alternative.
In ordinary social encounters precautions are frequently taken to prevent just such disruption of the occasion, but the subject finds himself in a situation where even the discreet exercise of tact cannot save the experimenter from being discredited. Only obedience can preserve the experimenter’s status and dignity. It is a curious thing that a measure of compassion on the part of the subject, an unwillingness to “hurt” the experimenter’s feelings, are part of those binding forces inhibiting disobedience. The withdrawal of such deference may be as painful to the subject as to the authority he defies. Readers who feel this to be a trivial consideration ought to carry out the following experiment. It will help them feel the force of inhibition that operates on the subject.
First, identify a person for whom you have genuine respect, preferably someone older than yourself by at least a generation, and who represents an authority in an important life domain. He could be a respected professor, a beloved priest, or under certain circumstances a parent. It must also be a person whom you refer to with some title such as Professor Parsons, Father Paul, or Dr. Charles Brown. He must be a person who represents to you the distance and solemnity of a genuine authority. To understand what it means to breach the etiquette of relations with authority, you need merely present yourself to the person and, in place of using his title, whether it be Dr., Professor, or Father, address him using his first name, or perhaps even an appropriate nickname. You may state to Dr. Brown, for example, “Good morning, Charlie!”
As you approach him you will experience anxiety and a powerful inhibition that may well prevent successful completion of the experiment. You may say to yourself: “Why should I carry out this foolish experiment? I have always had a fine relationship with Dr. Brown, which may now be jeopardized. Why should I appear arrogant to him?”
More than likely, you will not be able to perform the disrespectful action, but even in attempting it you will gain a greater understanding of the feelings experienced by our subjects.
Social occasions, the very elements out of which society is built, are held together, therefore, by the operation of a certain situational etiquette, whereby each person respects the definition of the situation presented by another and in this way avoids conflict, embarrassment, and awkward disruption of social exchange. The most basic aspect of that etiquette does not concern the content of what transpires from one person to the next but rather the maintenance of the structural relations between them. Such relations can be those of equality or of hierarchy. When the occasion is defined as one of hierarchy, any attempt to alter the defined structure will be experienced as a moral transgression and will evoke anxiety, shame, embarrassment, and diminished feelings of self-worth.
The fears experienced by the subject are largely anticipatory in nature, referring to vague apprehensions of the unknown. Such diffuse apprehension is termed anxiety.
What is the source of this anxiety? It stems from the individual’s long history of socialization. He has, in the course of moving from a biological creature to a civilized person, internalized the basic rules of social life. And the most basic of these is respect for authority. The rules are internally enforced by linking their possible breach to a How of disruptive, ego-threatening affect. The emotional signs observed in the laboratory-trembling, anxious laughter, acute embarrassment-are evidence of an assault on these rules. As the subject contemplates this break, anxiety is generated, signaling him to step back from the forbidden action and thereby creating an emotional barrier through which he must pass in order to defy authority.
The remarkable thing is, once the “ice is broken” through disobedience, virtually all the tension, anxiety, and fear evaporate.
Strain and Disobedience
Conversion of psychological stress into physical symptoms is a commonly observed phenomenon in psychiatric practice. Ordinarily, there is improvement in the emotional state of the patient as psychic stress comes to be absorbed by physical symptoms. Within this experiment, we can observe numerous signs of stress: sweating, trembling, and, in some instances, anxious laughter. Such physical expressions not only indicate the presence of strain but also reduce it. The strain, instead of eventuating in disobedience, is deflected into physical expression, and the tension is thereby dissipated.
Strain, if sufficiently powerful, leads to disobedience, but at the outset it gives rise to dissent. Dissent refers to a subject’s expression of disagreement with the course of action prescribed by the experimenter. But this verbal dispute does not necessarily mean that the subject will disobey the experimenter, for dissent serves a dual and conflicting function. On the one hand it may be the first step in a progressive rift between the subject and the experimenter, a testing of the experimenter’s intentions, and an attempt to persuade him to alter his course of action. But paradoxically it may also serve as a strain-reducing mechanism, a valve that allows the subject to blow off steam without altering his course of action.
Dissent may occur without rupturing hierarchical bonds and thus belongs to an order of experience that is qualitatively discontinuous with disobedience. Many dissenting individuals who are capable of expressing disagreement with authority still respect authority’s right to overrule their expressed opinion. While disagreeing, they are not prepared to act on this conviction.
As a strain-reducing mechanism, dissent is a source of psychological consolation to the subject in regard to the moral conflict at issue. The subject publicly defines himself as opposed to shocking the victim and thus establishes a desirable self-image. At the same time, he maintains his submissive relationship to authority by continuing to obey.
The several mechanisms described here-avoidance, denial, physical conversion, minimal compliance, subterfuge, the search for social reassurance, blaming the victim, and noninstrumental dissent-may each be linked to specific sources of strain. Thus, visceral reactions are reduced by avoidance; self-image is protected by acts of .subterfuge, minimal compliance, and dissent; and so forth. More critically, these mechanisms must be seen as subserving an overriding end: they allow the subject’s relationship to authority to remain intact by reducing experienced conflict to a tolerable level.
Disobedience is the ultimate means whereby strain is brought to an end. It is not an act that comes easily.
It implies not merely the refusal to carry out a particular command of the experimenter but a reformulation of the relationship between subject and authority.
It is tinged with apprehension. The subject has found himself locked into a well-defined social order. To break out of the assigned role is to create, on a small scale, a form of anomie. The future of the subject’s interaction with the experimenter is predictable as long as he maintains the relationship in which he has been defined, in contrast to the totally unknown character of the relationship attendant upon a break. For many subjects there is apprehension about what will follow disobedience, frequently tinged with fantasy of the authority’s undefined retribution. But as the course of action demanded by the experimenter becomes intolerable, a process is initiated which in some subjects erupts into disobedience.
The sequence starts with inner doubt, tension that is at first a private experience but which invariably comes to assume an external form, as the subject informs the experimenter of his apprehension or draws his attention to the victim’s suffering. The subject expects, at some level, that the experimenter will make the same inference from these facts as he has: that one should not proceed with the shocks. When the experimenter fails to do this, communication shades into dissent, as the subject attempts to persuade the authority to alter his course of action. Just as the shock series consists of a step-by-step increase in severity, so the voicing of dissent allows for a graduated movement toward a break with the experimenter. The initial expression of disagreement, however tentatively phrased, provides a higher plateau from which t( launch the next point of disagreement. Ideally, the dissenting subject would like the experimenter to release the subject, to alter the course of the experiment, and thus eliminate the need to break with authority. Failing this, dissent is transformed into a threat that the subject will refuse to carry out the authority’s orders. Finally, the subject, having exhausted all other means, finds that he must get at the very root of his relationship with the experimenter in order to stop shocking the victim: he disobeys. Inner doubt, externalization of doubt, dissent, threat, disobedience: it is a difficult path, which only a minority of subjects are able to pursue to its conclusion. Yet it is not a negative conclusion, but has the character of an affirmative act, a deliberate bucking of the tide. It is compliance that carries the passive connotation. The act of disobedience requires a mobilization of inner resources, and their transformation beyond inner preoccupation, beyond merely polite verbal exchange, into a domain of action. But the psychic cost is considerable.
For most people, it is painful to renege on the promise of aid they made to the experimenter. While the obedient subject shifts responsibility for shocking the learner onto the experimenter, those who disobey accept responsibility for destruction of the experiment. In disobeying, the subject believes he has ruined the experiment, thwarted the purposes of the scientist, and proved inadequate to the task assigned to him. But at that very moment he has provided the measure we sought and an affirmation of humanistic values.
The price of disobedience is a gnawing sense that one has been faithless. Even though he has chosen the morally correct action, the subject remains troubled by the disruption of the social order he brought about, and cannot fully dispel the feeling that he deserted a cause to which he had pledged support. It is he, and not the obedient subject, who experiences the burden of his action.
Obedience and the War in Vietnam
Every generation comes to learn about the problem of obedience through its own historical experience. The United States has recently emerged from a costly and controversial war in Southeast Asia.
The catalogue of inhumane actions performed by ordinary Americans in the Vietnamese conflict is too long to document here in detail. The reader is referred to several treatises on this subject (Taylor, 1970; Glasser, 1971; Halberstam, 1965). We may recount merely that our soldiers routinely burned villages, engaged in a “free-fire zone” policy, employed napalm extensively, utilized the most advanced technology against primitive armies, defoliated vast areas of the land, forced the evacuation of the sick and aged for purposes of military expediency, and massacred outright hundreds of unarmed civilians.
To the psychologist, these do not appear as impersonal historical events but rather as actions carried out by men just like ourselves who have been transformed by authority and thus have relinquished all sense of individual responsibility for their actions.
How is it that a person who is decent, within the course of a few months finds himself killing other men with no limitations of conscience? Let us review the process.
First, he must be moved from a position outside the system of military authority to a point within it. The well-known induction notice provides the formal mechanism. An oath of allegiance is employed to further strengthen the recruit’s commitment to his new role.
The military training area is spatially segregated from the larger community to assure the absence of competing authorities. Rewards and punishments are meted out according to how well one obeys. A period of several weeks is spent in basic training. Although its ostensible purpose is to provide the recruit with military skills, its fundamental aim is to break down any residues of individuality and selfhood.
The hours spent on the drill field do not have as their major goal teaching the person to parade efficiently. The aim is discipline, and to give visible form to the submersion of the individual to an organizational mode. Columns and platoons soon move as one man, each responding to the authority of the drill sergeant. Such formations consist not of individuals, but automatons. The entire aim of military training is to reduce the foot soldier to this state, to eliminate any traces of ego, and to assure, through extended exposure, an internalized acceptance of military authority.
Before shipment to the war zone, authority takes pains to define the meaning of the soldier’s action in a way that links it to valued ideals and the larger purposes of society. Recruits are told that those he confronts in battle are enemies of his nation and that unless they are destroyed, his own country is endangered. The situation is defined in a way that makes cruel and inhumane action seem justified. In the Vietnamese War, an additional element made cruel action easier: the enemy was of another race. Vietnamese were commonly referred to as “gooks,” as if they were subhuman and thus not worthy of sympathy.
Within the war zone, new realities take over; the soldier now faces an adversary similarly trained and indoctrinated. Any disorganization in the soldier’s own ranks constitutes a danger to his unit, for it will then be a less effective fighting unit, and subject to defeat. Thus, the maintenance of discipline becomes an element of survival, and the soldier is left with little choice but to obey.
In the routine performance of his duties, the soldier experiences no individual constraints against killing, wounding, or maiming others, whether soldiers or civilians. Through his actions, men, women, and children suffer anguish and death, but he does not see these events as personally relevant. He is carrying out the mission assigned to him.
The possibility of disobeying or of defecting occurs to some soldiers, but the actual situation in which they now function does not make it seem practical. Where would they desert to? Moreover, there are stringent penalties for defiance, and, finally, there is a powerful, internalized basis for obedience. The soldier does not wish to appear a coward, disloyal, or un-American. The situation has been so defined that he can see himself as patriotic, courageous, and manly only through compliance.
He has been told he kills others in a just cause. And this definition comes from the highest sources-not merely from his platoon leader, nor from the top brass in Vietnam, but from the President himself. Those who protest the war at home are resented. For the soldier is locked into a structure of authority, and those who charge that he is doing the devil’s work threaten the very psychological adjustments that make life tolerable. Simply getting through the day and staying alive is chore enough; there is no time to worry about morality.
For some, transformation to the agentic stage is only partial, and humane values break through. Such conscience-struck soldiers, however few, are potential sources of disruption and are segregated from the unit.
But here we learn a powerful lesson in the functioning of organizations. The defection of a single individual, as long as it can be contained, is of little consequence. He will be replaced by the man next in line. The only danger to military functioning resides in the possibility that a lone defector will stimulate others. Therefore, he must be isolated, or severely punished to discourage imitation.
In many instances, technology helps reduce strain by providing needed buffers. Napalm is dropped on civilians from ten thousand feet overhead; not men but tiny blips on an infrared oscilloscope are the target of Gatling guns.
The war proceeds; ordinary men act with cruelty and severity that makes the behavior of our experimental subjects appear as angel’s play. The end of the war comes not through the disobedience of individual soldiers but by the alteration in governmental policy; soldiers lay down their arms when they are ordered to do so.
Before the war ends, human behavior comes to light that confirms our bleakest forebodings. In the Vietnam War, the massacre at Mai Lai revealed with special clarity the problem to which this book has addressed itself. Here is an account of the incident by a participant, who was interviewed by Mike Wallace of CBS News:
Q. How many men aboard each chopper?
A. Five of us. And we landed next to the village, and we all got on line and we started walking toward the village. And there was one man, one gook in the shelter, and he was all huddled up down in there, and the man called out and said there’s a gook over there.
Q. How old a man was this? I mean was this a fighting man or an older man?
A. An older man. And the man hauled out and said that there’s a
gook over here, and then Sergeant Mitchell hollered back and said shoot him.
Q. Sergeant Mitchell was in charge of the twenty of you?
A. He was in charge of the whole squad. And so then, the man shot him. So we moved into the village, and we started searching up the village and gathering people and running through the center of the village.
Q. How many people did you round up?
A. Well, there was about forty, fifty people that we gathered in the center of the village. And we placed them in there, and it was like a little island, right there in the center of the village, I’d say.
. . . And. . .
Q. What kind of people-men, women, children?
A. Men, women, children.
A. Babies. And we huddled them up. We made them squat down and Lieutenant Calley came over and said, “You know what to do with them, don’t you?” And I said yes. So I took it for granted that he just wanted us to watch them. And he left, and came back about ten or fifteen minutes later and said, “How come you ain’t killed them yet?” And I told him that I didn’t think you wanted us to kill them, that you just wanted us to guard them. He said, “No,I want them dead.” So-
Q. He told this to all of you, or to you particularly?
A. Well, I was facing him. So, but the other three, four guys heard it and so he stepped back about ten, fifteen feet, and he started shooting them. And he told me to start shooting. So I started shooting, I poured about four clips into the group.
Q. You fired four clips from your. . .
Q. And that’s about how many clips- I mean, how many-
A. I carried seventeen rounds to each clip.
Q. So you fired something like sixty-seven shots?
Q. And you killed how many? At that time?
A. Well, I fired them automatic, so you can’t- You just spray the area on them and so you can’t know how many you killed ’cause they were going fast. So I might have killed ten or fifteen of them.
Q. Men, women, and children?
A. Men, women, and children.
Q. And babies?
A. And babies.
Q. Okay. Then what?
A. So we started to gather them up, more people, and we had about seven or eight people, that we was gonna put into the hootch, and we dropped a hand grenade in there with them.
Q. Now, you’re rounding up more?
A. We’re rounding up more, and we had about seven or eight people. And we was going to throw them in the hootch, and well, we put them in the hootch and then we dropped a hand grenade down there with them. And somebody holed up in the ravine, and told us to bring them over to the ravine, so we took them back out, and led them over to-and by that time, we already had them over there, and they had about seventy, seventy-five people all gathered up. So we threw ours in with them and Lieutenant Calley told me, he said, “Soldier, we got another job to do.” And so he walked over to the people, and he started pushing them off and started shooting.. . .
Q. Started pushing them off into the ravine?
A. Off into the ravine. It was a ditch. And so we started pushing them off, and we started shooting them, so all together we just pushed them all off, and just started using automatics on them. And then . . .
Q. Again-men, women, and children?
A. Men, women, and children.
Q. And babies?
A. And babies. And so we started shooting them and somebody told us to switch off to single shot so that we could save ammo. So we switched off to single shot, and shot a few more rounds. . . .
Q. Why did you do it?
A. Why did I do it? Because I felt like I was ordered to do it, and it seemed like that, at the time I felt like I was doing the right thing, because, like I said, I lost buddies. I lost a damn good buddy, Bobby Wilson, and it was on my conscience. So, after I done it, I felt good, but later on that day, it was getting to me.
Q. You’re married?
Q. How old?
A. The boy is two and a half, and the little girl is a year and a half. Q. Obviously, the question comes to my mind. . . the father of two little kids like that . . . how can he shoot babies?
A. I didn’t have the little girl. I just had the little boy at the time.
Q. uh-huh How do you shoot babies?
A. I don’t know. It’s just one of these things.
Q. How many people would you imagine were killed that day?
A. I’d say about three hundred and seventy.
Q. How do you arrive at that figure?
A. Just looking.
Q. You say you think that many people, and you yourself were responsible for how many?
A. I couldn’t say.
Q. Twenty-five? Fifty?
A. I couldn’t say. Just too many.
Q. And how many men did the actual shooting?
A. Well, I really couldn’t say that either. There was other. . . there was another platoon in there, and . . . but I just couldn’t say how many.
Q. But these civilians were lined up and shot? They weren’t killed by cross fire?
A. They weren’t lined up. . . . They [were] just pushed in a ravine, or just sitting, squatting . . . and shot.
Q. What did these civilians-particularly the women and children, the old men-what did they do? What did they say to you?
A. They weren’t much saying to them. They [were] just being pushed and they were doing what they was told to do.
Q. They weren’t begging, or saying, “No . . . no,” or . . .A. Right. They were begging and saying, “No, no.” And the mothers was hugging their children, and . . . but they kept right on firing. Well, we kept right on firing. They was waving their arms and begging. . . .
(New York Times, Nov. 25, 1969)
The soldier was not brought to trial for his role at Mai Lai, as he was no longer under military jurisdiction at the time the massacre came to public attention.
In reading through the transcripts of the Mai Lai episode, the Eichmann trial, and the trial of Lieutenant Henry Wirz, commandant at Andersonville, the following themes recur:
1. We find a set of people carrying out their jobs and dominated by an administrative, rather than a moral, outlook.
2. Indeed, the individuals involved make a distinction between destroying others as a matter of duty and the expression of personal feeling. They experience a sense of morality to the degree in which all of their actions are governed by orders from higher authority.
3. Individual values of loyalty, duty, and discipline derive from the technical needs of the hierarchy. They are experienced as highly personal moral imperatives by the individual, but at the organizational level they are simply the technical preconditions for the maintenance of the larger system.
4. There is frequent modification of language, so that the acts do not, at verbal level, come into direct conflict with the verbal moral concepts that are part of every person’s upbringing. Euphemisms come to dominate language-not frivolously, but as a means of guarding the person against the full moral implications of his acts.
5. Responsibility invariably shifts upward in the mind of the subordinate. And, often, there are many requests for “authorization.” Indeed, the repeated requests for authorization are always an early sign that the subordinate senses, at some level, that the transgression of a moral rule is involved.
6. The actions are almost always justified in terms of a set of constructive purposes, and come to be seen as noble in the light of some high ideological goal. In the experiment, science is served by the act of shocking the victim against his will; in Germany, the destruction of the Jews was represented as a “hygienic” process against “jewish vermin” (Hilberg, 1961).
7. There is always some element of bad form in objecting to the destructive course of events, or indeed, in making it a topic of conversation. Thus, in Nazi Germany, even among those most closely identified with the “final solution,” it was considered an act of discourtesy to talk about the killings (Hilberg, 1961), Subjects in the experiment most frequently experience their objections as embarrassing.
8. When the relationship between subject and authority remains intact, psychological adjustments come into play to ease the strain of carrying out immoral orders.
9. Obedience does not take the form of a dramatic confrontation of opposed wills or philosophies but is embedded in a larger atmosphere where social relationships, career aspirations, and technical routines set the dominant tone. Typically, we do not find a heroic figure struggling with conscience, nor a pathologically aggressive man ruthlessly exploiting a position of power, but a functionary who has been given a job to do and who strives to create an impression of competence in his work.
Now let us return to the experiments and try to underscore their meaning. The behavior revealed in the experiments reported here is normal human behavior but revealed under conditions that show with particular clarity the danger to human survival inherent in our make-up. And what is it we have seen? Not aggression, for there is no anger, vindictiveness, or hatred in those who shocked the victim. Men do become angry; they do act hatefully and explode in rage against others. But not here. Something far more dangerous is revealed: the capacity for man to abandon his humanity, indeed, the inevitability that he does so, as he merges his unique personality into larger institutional structures.
This is a fatal flaw nature has designed into us, and which in the long run gives our species only a modest chance of survival.
It is ironic that the virtues of loyalty, discipline, and self-sacrifice that we value so highly in the individual are the very properties that create destructive organizational engines of war and bind men to malevolent systems of authority.
Each individual possesses a conscience which to a greater or lesser degree serves to restrain the unimpeded flow of impulses destructive to others. But when he merges his person into an organizational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of humane inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority.
What is the limit of such obedience? At many points we attempted to establish a boundary. Cries from the victim were inserted; they were not good enough. The victim claimed heart trouble; subjects still shocked him on command. The victim pleaded to be let free, and his answers no longer registered on the signal box; subjects continued to shock him. At the outset we had not conceived that such drastic procedures would be needed to generate disobedience, and each step was added only as the ineffectiveness of the earlier techniques became clear. The final effort to establish a limit was the Touch-Proximity condition. But the very first subject in this condition subdued the victim on command, and proceeded to the highest shock level. A quarter of the subjects in this condition performed similarly.
The results, as seen and felt in the laboratory, are to this author disturbing. They raise the possibility that human nature, or-more specifically-the kind of character produced in American democratic society, cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority. A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.
In an article entitled “The Dangers of Obedience,” Harold J. Laski wrote:
. . . civilization means, above all, an unwillingness to inflict unnecessary pain. Within the ambit of that definition, those of us who heedlessly accept the commands of authority cannot yet claim to be civilized men.
. . . Our business, if we desire to live a life not utterly devoid of meaning and significance, is to accept nothing which contradicts our basic experience merely because it comes to us from tradition or convention or authority. It may well be that we shall be wrong; but our self-expression is thwarted at the root unless the certainties we are asked to accept coincide with the certainties we experience. That is why the condition of freedom in any state is always a widespread and consistent skepticism of the canons upon which power insists.
Problem of Ethics in Research
This judgment is based, first, on the numerous conversations I have had with subjects immediately after their participation in the experiment. Such conversations can reveal a good deal, but what they showed most was how readily the experience is assimilated to the normal frame of things. Moreover, subjects were friendly rather than hostile, curious rather than denunciatory, and in no sense demeaned by the experience. This was my general impression, and it was later supported by formal procedures undertaken to assess the subjects’ reaction to the experiment.
The central moral justification for allowing a procedure of the sort used in my experiment is that it is judged acceptable by those who have taken part in it. Moreover, it was the salience of this fact throughout that constituted the chief moral warrant for the continuation of the experiments.
This fact is crucial to any appraisal of the experiment from an ethical standpoint.
Imagine an experiment in which a person’s little finger was routinely snipped off in the course of a laboratory hour. Not only is such an experiment reprehensible, but within hours the study would be brought to a halt as outraged participants pressed their complaints on the university administration, and legal measures were invoked to restrain the experimenter. When a person has been abused, he knows it, and will quite properly react against the source of such mistreatment.
Criticism of the experiment that does not take account of the tolerant reaction of the participants is hollow. This applies particularly to criticism centering on the use of technical illusions (or “deception,” as the critics prefer to say) that fails to relate this detail to the central fact that subjects find the device acceptable. Again, the participant, rather than the external critic, must be the ultimate source of judgment.
While some persons construe the experimenter to be acting in terms of deceit, manipulation, and chicanery, it is, as you should certainly appreciate, also possible to see him as a dramatist who creates scenes of revelatory power, and who brings participants into them. So perhaps we are not so far apart in the kind of work we do. I do grant there is an important difference in that those exposed to your theatrical illusions expect to confront them, while my subjects are not forewarned. However, whether it is unethical to pursue truths through the use of my form of dramaturgical device cannot be answered in the abstract. It depends entirely on the response of those who have been exposed to such procedures.
One further point: the obedient subject does not blame himself for shocking the victim, because the act does not originate in the self. It originates in authority, and the worst the obedient subject says of himself is that he must learn to resist authority more effectively in the future.
That the experiment has stimulated this thought in some subjects is, to my mind, a satisfying . . . consequence of the inquiry. An illustrative case is provided by the experience of a young man who took part in a Princeton replication of the obedience experiment, conducted in 1964. He was fully obedient. On October 27,1970, he wrote to me:
“Participation in the ‘shock experiment’ . . . has had a great impact on my life. . . .
“When I was a subject in 1964, though I believed that I was hurting someone, I was totally unaware of why I was doing so. Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority. . . . To permit myself to be drafted with the understanding that I am submitting to authority’s demand to do something very wrong would make me frightened of myself. . . . I am fully prepared to go to jail if I am not granted Conscientious Objector status. Indeed, it is the only course I could take to be faithful to what I believe. My only hope is that members of my board act equally according to their conscience. . . .”
He inquired whether any other participants had reacted similarly, and whether, in my opinion, participation in the study could have this effect.
“The experiment does, of course, deal with the dilemma individuals face
when they are confronted with conflicting demands of authority and conscience, and I am glad that your participation in the study has brought you to a deeper personal consideration of these issues. Several participants have informed me that their own sensitivity to the problem of submission to authority was increased as a result of their experience in the study. If the experiment has heightened your awareness of the problem of indiscriminate submission to authority, it will have performed an important function. If you believe strongly that it is wrong to kill others in the service of your country, then you ought certainly to press vigorously for CO status, and I am deeply hopeful that your sincerity in this matter will be recognized.”
A few months later he wrote again. He indicated, first, that the draft board was not very impressed with the effect of his participation in the experiment, but he was granted CO status nonetheless. He writes:
“The experience of the interview doesn’t lessen my strong belief of the great impact of the experiment on my life. . . .
“. . . You have discovered one of the most important causes of all the trouble in this world. . . . I am grateful to have been able to provide you with a part of the information necessary for that discovery. I am delighted to have acted, by refusing to serve in the Armed Forces, in a manner which people must act if these problems are to be solved.
“With sincere thanks for your contribution to my life.”
In a world in which action is often clouded with ambiguity, I nonetheless feel constrained to give greater heed to this man, who actually participated in the study, than to a distant critic. For disembodied moralizing is not the issue, but only the human response of those who have participated in the experiment. And that response not only endorses the procedures employed, but overwhelmingly calls for deeper inquiry to illuminate the issues of obedience and disobedience.