Good Germans: Authority and obedience make dangerous bedfellows


Image of Eichmann’s trial from the Daily Beast

“I was just following orders.” It is these famous words of Adolf Eichmann’s, uttered during his trial for crimes against humanity in 1961, that made Stanley Milgram’s career. Eichmann had been a high level Nazi officer, and was responsible for carrying out Hitler’s final solution by deporting millions of Jews to concentration camps. The world was shocked by the extent of the atrocities of the Third Reich, that the Nazis killed untold millions of people in response to the orders of an unhinged authoritarian leader. Stanley Milgram, the American son of Jewish immigrants, was born in 1933, around the time Hitler rose to power in Germany. By the time 1961 rolled around, Milgram was an assistant professor at Yale, and he had devised and begun his famous Obedience experiments. Milgram posited that authority figures may elicit an uncomfortable level of obedience from their subordinates, as evidenced by the German people getting swept up in a demagogue’s maniacal vision. He sought to prove that completely normal people could commit unspeakable acts against other humans, simply because they were following orders from an authority figure.

Allow me to set the scene. You arrive at Yale University in response to an ad in the New Haven newspaper. You figure you’ll make $4.50 on what has been described as a learning experiment. After being introduced to another man, you are randomly assigned to be the teacher and he is randomly assigned to be the learner. You both move into adjacent rooms. In front of you, there’s a big shiny box with 30 marked switches ranging from 15 volts to 450 volts. You come to find that the learner is hooked up to this machine in the other room. You are told to ask the learner a question and shock him if he gets the answer wrong. You are supposed to administer a higher voltage shock for each incorrect answer. You ask the first question. The learner is correct. You move on. But soon, he begins to be wrong quite a bit, and you are moving fast through the switches. 200 volts. Flick, buzz. 215 volts. Flick, buzz. Finally, you get to 300 volts. The learner is wrong. You flick the switch; you hear the buzz of the shock. Suddenly, you hear loud banging on the wall. The learner is trying to signal you. You look to the experimenter in the room with you. He seems unalarmed. He tells you to keep going.


Image of Milgram with his shock generator from Aeon

You put your finger on the 315-volt switch and ask your question. The learner is wrong again. You flip the switch. Flick, buzz. The learner bangs on the wall again, trying to signal you. Again, you turn towards the experimenter. You are told that it is imperative to the experiment that you continue. You ask another question. The learner is silent. You look to the experimenter. He tells you that no answer is the same as an incorrect answer. You flip the 330-volt switch. Flick, buzz. Silence. You look at the experimenter. At this point you are getting nervous. You start to sweat profusely. You’re laughing for some reason even though this is not funny at all. You suspect that you may be hurting the other man. You suspect that the other man may no longer be able to respond. But the experimenter tells you that you must continue, that you have no choice. And you do. Question, silence, flick, buzz. Question, silence, flick, buzz. You get to the last switch. 450 volts. It clearly says “Danger-Severe Shock.” You are shaking, completely beside yourself. You ask your last question. Silence again. You put your finger on the last switch. You flick it. You hear the buzz of the shock. You are so relieved it’s over. You’ve never been more disturbed by your own actions in your life. In the other room, you still hear nothing but silence.

When people hear about this experiment, they swear that they would never do this. They would stop as soon as the other man alerted them that he wanted to stop. But 65% of participants shocked the learner all the way until the highest voltage, even though he had failed to respond to 10 questions in a row after banging on the wall. Even though many subjects showed severe signs of distress and expressed concern that they might have hurt the learner, only 14 out of 40 stopped in between the learner’s first protest and the end of the experiment. Most participants were experiencing serious discomfort, but continued to do something they thought was hurting someone else simply because they were told to keep going by an authority figure.

Milgram’s findings even surprised himself. People he had polled doubted that anyone would go all the way to the end, generally estimating that just a few people would actually administer the final shock. But two-thirds of the participants were willing to act outside of their own personal values not to hurt other people, simply because the experimenter asked them to. They were paid up front and told that they could leave at any time without penalty. They were all grown men, not college students. They had never met the other man, a confederate of the experimenter who was never actually shocked, and they had no reason to inflict harm on him. In fact, most participants rated the confederate as being pretty pleasant. Why would people continue to go on when they could have stopped? Milgram had his answer. People are shockingly malleable when authorities are involved. They will often go along with things with little to no explanation as to why they are doing it, and then rationalize their own actions to themselves once they become uncomfortable. Because we don’t like to think of ourselves as bad people, we start to believe that what we are doing is okay. This is classic cognitive dissonance.

When Hitler rose to power in Germany, he did so by appealing to disillusioned Germans who were struggling to feed their families and blaming their struggles on the “impurity” of the Jewish people. He combined hopeful rhetoric about the glory of Germany with hateful rhetoric about how the Jews were responsible for Germany’s challenges. Within 12 years, Hitler had ordered the extermination of up to 6,000,000 innocent Jews. Hitler’s populist, xenophobic talk led to World War II and the largest genocide in the history of the world. The power of a single authority is enough to bring the whole world to its knees. And the men and women who helped Hitler carry out his atrocities? Well, they were just following orders.


Image from Pinterest

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371.

Social Psych Snapshot: Recent Research


Image from Duke University

We’re excited to announce our first guest post by our colleague, Hannah! In her posts, Hannah will compile a short list of recent links to interesting articles and news in the world of psychology for your perusing pleasure. Enjoy the fruits of her labor below!

Frustrated at work? Venting on gchat may not be the best coping strategy.

The science of vacations.

Your phone can distract you even when you (try to) ignore it.

Through “echoborgs,” an old concept developed by Stanley Milgram (who is known for his studies on obedience) finds new life.

Three psychologists weigh in on empathy.

Hannah graduated with a degree in Psychology from Reed College, and worked in educational research and meta-analysis as a lab manager at Duke University before entering the Social Psychology PhD program in 2014. Her research focuses on social psychological processes at work in educational contexts.

Papa Don’t Preach: Josh Duggar and the Psychological Consequences of Christian Patriarchy (Part 1)

Image from the Duggar Family

On May 19, 2015, InTouch Weekly magazine published an article alleging sexual abuse within the Duggar family, the stars of the TLC show 19 Kids and Counting. The accusations detailed unwanted and unsolicited sexual touching between their eldest son Josh and 5 young girls, including 4 of his younger sisters, while he was still a minor. Duggar has confirmed the accusations, and he, his wife and his parents have all issued statements about the abuse. While the commentary from the Duggar camp seems to revolve around repentance and redemption, the police report, taken 3 years after the incidents, reveals that the Duggars likely acted to protect their son from the legal consequences of his actions.

The Duggars are considered some of the most influential members of the Quiverfull and Christian Patriarchy movements, and are well known among conservative circles. The Quiverfull movement encourages parents to put their family planning “in God’s hands,” while the Christian Patriarchy movement asserts that men are the moral and spiritual heads of the household. While these beliefs have long sparked questions about the judgment of the members of these movements, these recent revelations have brought to light even more problematic issues, like the encouragement of victim blaming in handling sexual abuse included in a popular Christian homeschooling program from the Advanced Training Institute. While it may be difficult for many of us to understand what drives these extreme religious movements, there are definitely psychological forces at work here.

We’re going to unpack this scandal, SocialPsyQ style, in a series of 3 posts. In the first post, we will consider the role of obedience and authority.

1) Obedience- A cornerstone of Christian Patriarchy parenting is total obedience to parental demands. Many practices, including blanket training, are essentially just a repurposing of operant conditioning, where repeated consequences or rewards for a certain behavior lead to learned responses.1 In blanket training, the parent puts an infant or small child on a blanket, and tells it not to move. If the infant moves off of the blanket, they receive some form of corporal punishment and are put back on the blanket. This happens until the baby does not leave the blanket. While this may appear to be obedience, this is actually a conditioned fear response. The baby obeys the parent for fear of physical abuse, not because it has learned that obeying mom is better than not. There are no studies that suggest that this kind of will-bending is a good parenting practice.

Evidence from psychology research overwhelmingly endorses attachment parenting, a kind of parenting where the parent acts as a trusted, secure base from which the infant can explore the environment.2,3,4,5 One’s childhood attachment to parents can have long-reaching consequences, affecting the security of a child’s future relationships, their mental health and their ability to regulate their emotions.6,7,8 Practices like blanket training discourage curiosity and may lead to insecure attachments with caregivers. The research suggests that a warm and supportive environment is by far the best for a child’s development into an autonomous person, and that it is the best way to form positive relationships with caregivers. Total obedience is not for a child’s developmental benefit, it is for the adult who wants their child to obey.

2) Authority- In social psychology, Stanley Milgram famously showed that requests from authorities can cause people to do unthinkable things in the name of obedience, namely, to administer increasing levels of electric shock to someone who eventually appears to be in serious pain, or in need of medical attention.9,10 Over 60% of participants were willing to shock the other person up to the highest level of shock available at the behest of the experimenter, even when it was marked to show how dangerous it was and even after the other participant had repeatedly indicated that they should stop.* Phillip Zimbardo also demonstrated, via the Stanford Prison Experiment, that imbuing college students with the authority of a prison guard led them to abuse the “prisoners”, even though all participants knew this was a contrived psychological experiment.11,12 The effect was so intense that Zimbardo himself was even effected by his role as the “warden”, allowing the abuse of the prisoners. The experiment was shut down after only 6 days.

Participants from the Milgram Obedience experiments and the Stanford Prison experiment were shocked by their own behavior, and experienced distress from their involvement in the experiments. It’s easy to imagine how a constant authoritarian environment in the home could lead to very real consequences for children, when even fully grown adults can be disturbed by their obedience, even if just for the duration of a psychology experiment.

With Christian Patriarchy encouraging parents and men to assert their authority over children and women with a goal of total obedience, it seems clear that this is not a healthy environment for child development. It is well known that authoritarian parenting, where the parent strictly controls a child, often leads to unintended consequences, like acting out, and it certainly seems to have contributed to an environment in the Duggar home that both demonized sexuality, and gave Josh Duggar an opportunity to assault young girls against their will.13 Perhaps the Duggars could use a little SocialPsyQ?

Stay tuned for Part 2 on Monday, June 1st!

*The Milgram experiments used a recording or a confederate (an experimenter posing as a participant) to make participants believe that they were shocking another person in a different room, but they actually were not. No one was physically injured in these experiments and there was no evidence of lasting psychological consequences for participation.

NOTE: This article deals with the Quiverfull and Christian Patriarchy movements specifically, and does not assert that all Christians believe these things or raise their children these ways.

  1. Skinner, B. F. (1963). Operant behavior. American Psychologist, 18(8), 503.
  1. Sears, W., & Sears, M. (2001). The attachment parenting book: A commonsense guide to understanding and nurturing your baby. Little, Brown.
  1. Granju, K. A., & Kennedy, B. (1999). Attachment parenting: Instinctive care for your baby and young child. Simon and Schuster.
  1. Wearden, A., Peters, I., Berry, K., Barrowclough, C., & Liversidge, T. (2008). Adult attachment, parenting experiences, and core beliefs about self and others. Personality and Individual Differences, 44(5), 1246-1257.
  1. Bowlby, J. (2005). A secure base: Clinical applications of attachment theory (Vol. 393). Taylor & Francis.
  1. Schore, A. N. (2001). Effects of a secure attachment relationship on right brain development, affect regulation, and infant mental health. Infant mental health journal, 22(1-2), 7-66.
  1. Waters, E., Merrick, S., Treboux, D., Crowell, J., & Albersheim, L. (2000). Attachment security in infancy and early adulthood: a twenty‐year longitudinal study. Child development, 71(3), 684-689.
  1. Main, M., Kaplan, N., & Cassidy, J. (1985). Security in infancy, childhood, and adulthood: A move to the level of representation. Monographs of the society for research in child development, 66-104.
  1. Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371.
  1. Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human relations, 18(1), 57-76.
  1. Haney, C., & Zimbardo, P. (1998). The past and future of US prison policy: Twenty-five years after the Stanford Prison Experiment. American Psychologist, 53(7), 709.
  1. Zimbardo, P. G., Haney, C., Curtis Banks, W., & Jaffe, D. (1972). Stanford prison experiment: a simulation study of the psychology of imprisonment. Philip G. Zimbardo, Incorporated.
  2. Aunola, K., Stattin, H., & Nurmi, J. E. (2000). Parenting styles and adolescents’ achievement strategies. Journal of adolescence, 23(2), 205-222.