Skip to content
Surprising Science

A Closer Look at Milgram’s Experiment Reveals How We Resist Authority

Stanley Milgram found in an experiment how easily one's own ethics could become compromised in the face of authoritarianism. But Matthew Hollander argues that there's far more nuance to the participants in his study.

In the wake of the Holocaust atrocities, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment to find out how easily one’s own ethics could become compromised in the face of authoritarianism. He found that most people break under that pressure. But Michael Byrne from Motherboard has written on a new study that examines Milgram’s findings in more detail. Matthew Hollander, a Graduate Student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, argues that there’s far more nuance to the participants in his study than compliant and non-compliant.

Back in 1961, Milgram took close to 800 participants to see if they would willingly inflict harm on a person if under an authority figure orders. The study called for participants to shock a person in another room (played an actor) if they gave a wrong answer to a question. The actors made the shocks seem real, convulsing with each shock and begging the participant to stop. Milgram found that 65 percent of participants went on to administer all the shocks, showing that most people will bend under an authority figure. He wrote:

“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.”

But Hollander argues that dropping participants into the categories of compliant and non-compliant takes away some of the nuance of what can be gleaned from this exercise. Hollander obtained tapes from the experiment, which he reviewed and found some new insight into the study. He said in an article for his school’s paper:

“The majority did cave, and follow the experimenter’s orders. But a good number of people resisted, and I’ve found particular ways they did that, including ways of resisting that they share with the people who ultimately complied.”

Some of these people employed several different defenses in an attempt to resists these authority figures.

“Before examining these recordings, I was imagining some really aggressive ways of stopping the experiment — trying to open the door where the ‘learner’ is locked in, yelling at the experimenter, trying to leave. What I found was there are many ways to try to stop the experiment, but they’re less aggressive.”

In their attempts to stop, participants said things, like “I can’t do this anymore,” or “I won’t do this anymore,” which were voiced by 98 percent of the participants Hollander listened to from Milgram’s study. This shows that there wasn’t a blind obedience to these authority figures, but a level of consciousness to want and try to resist.

Read more at Motherboard

Photo Credit: Shutterstock


Up Next
What does football really teach us? In "Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game," author Mark Edmundson recounts his own high school football experience from the perspective of age and asks that very same question in a nuanced, clear-eyed way that might make you think twice about why we love football so much and what that love may be doing to us and our children.