by Stanley Milgram
Obedience is as basic an element in the structure of social life as one can
Some system of authority is a requirement of all
communal living, and it is only the person dwelling in isolation who is not
forced to respond, with defiance or submission, to the commands of others.
For many people, obedience is a deeply ingrained behavior tendency, indeed a
potent impulse overriding training in ethics, sympathy, and moral conduct.
The dilemma inherent in submission to authority is ancient, as old as the
story of Abraham, and the question of whether one should obey when commands
conflict with conscience has been argued by Plato, dramatized in
Antigone, and treated to philosophic analysis in almost every historical
Conservative philosophers argue that the very fabric of society is
threatened by disobedience, while humanists stress the primacy of the
The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import, but
they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I
set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an
ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was
ordered to by an experimental scientist.
Stark authority was pitted against the subjects'
strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects'
ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than
not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the
command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the
fact most urgently demanding explanation.
In the basic experimental designs two people come to a psychology laboratory
to take part in a study of memory and learning.
One of them is designated a "teacher" and the
other a "learner."
The experimenter explains that the study is concerned
with the effects of punishment on learning. The learner is conducted into a
room, seated in a kind of miniature electric chair, his arms are strapped to
prevent excessive movement, and an electrode is attached to his wrist.
told that he will be read lists of simple word pairs, and that he will then
be tested on his ability to remember the second word of a pair when he hears
the first one again. whenever he makes an error, he will receive electric
shocks of increasing intensity.
The real focus of the experiment is the teacher. After watching the learner
being strapped into place, he is seated before an impressive shock
generator. The instrument panel consists of thirty lever switches set in a
horizontal line. Each switch is clearly labeled with a voltage designation
ranging from 14 to 450 volts.
The following designations are clearly indicated for groups of four
Going from left to right: Slight Shock, Moderate
Shock, Strong Shock, Very Strong Shock, Intense Shock, Extreme Intensity
Shock, Danger: Severe Shock. (Two switches after this last designation are
simply marked XXX.)
When a switch is depressed, a pilot light corresponding to each switch is
illuminated in bright red; an electric buzzing is heard; a blue light,
labeled "voltage energizer," flashes; the dial on the voltage meter swings
to the right; and various relay clicks sound off.
The upper left hand corner of the generator is labeled SHOCK GENERATOR,
TYPE ZLB. DYSON INSTRUMENT COMPANY, WALTHAM, MASS., OUTPUT 15 VOLTS -- 450
Each subject is given a sample 45 volt shock from the generator before his
run as teacher, and the jolt strengthens his belief in the authenticity of
The teacher is a genuinely naive subject who has come to the laboratory for
the experiment. The learner, or victim, is actually an actor who receives no
shock at all. The point of the experiment is to see how far a person will
proceed in a concrete and measurable situation in which he is ordered to
inflict increasing pain on a protesting victim.
Conflict arises when the man receiving the shock begins to show that he is
experiencing discomfort. At 75 volts, he grunts; at 120 volts, he complains
loudly; at 150, he demands to be released from the experiment. As the
voltage increases, his protests become more vehement and emotional. At 285
volts, his response can be described only as an agonized scream. Soon
thereafter, he makes no sound at all.
For the teacher, the situation quickly becomes one of gripping tension. It
is not a game for him: conflict is intense obvious. The manifest suffering
of the learner presses him to quit: but each time he hesitates to administer
a shock, the experimenter orders him to continue. To extricate himself from
this plight, the subject must make a clear break with authority.
The subject, Gretchen Brantt, is an attractive thirty-one year old
medical technician who works at the Yale Medical School. She had emigrated
from Germany five years before.
On several occasions when the learner complains, she turns to the
experimenter coolly and inquires,
"Shall I continue?" She promptly returns to
her task when the experimenter asks her to do so.
At the administration of 210 volts she turns
to the experimenter, remarking firmly, "Well, I'm sorry, I don't think
we should continue."
Experimenter: The experiment requires that you go on until he has
learned all the word pairs correctly.
Brandt: He has a heart condition, I'm sorry. He told you that before.
Experimenter: The shocks may be painful but they're not dangerous.
Brandt: Well, I'm sorry. I think when shocks continue like this they are
dangerous. You ask him if he wants to get out. It's his free will.
Experimenter: It is absolutely essential that we continue....
Brandt: I'd like you to ask him. We came here of our free will. If he
wants to continue I'll go ahead. He told you he had a heart condition.
I'm sorry. I don't want to be responsible for anything happening to him.
I wouldn't like it for me either.
Experimenter: You have no other choice.
Brandt: I think we are here on our own free will. I don't want to be
responsible if anything happens to him. Please understand that.
She refuses to go further.
And the experiment is terminated.
The woman is firm and resolute throughout. She indicates in the interview
that she was in no way tense or nervous, and this corresponds to her
controlled appearance during the experiment. She feels that the last shock
she administered to the learner was extremely painful and reiterates that
she "did not want to be responsible for any harm to him."
The woman's straightforward, courteous behavior in the experiment, lack of
tension, and total control of her own action seem to make disobedience a
simple and rational deed.
Her behavior is the very embodiment of what I
envisioned would be true for almost all subjects.
An Unexpected Outcome
Before the experiments, I sought predictions about the outcome from various
kinds of people - psychiatrists, college sophomores, middle-class adults,
graduate students and faculty in the behavioral sciences.
With remarkable similarity, they predicted that
virtually all the subjects would refuse to obey the experimenter. The
psychiatrist, specifically, predicted that most subjects would not go beyond
150 volts, when the victim makes his first explicit demand to be freed. They
expected that only 4 percent would reach 300 volts, and that only a
pathological fringe of about one in a thousand would administer the highest
shock on the board.
These predictions were unequivocally wrong. Of the forty subjects in the
first experiment, twenty-five obeyed the orders of the experimenter to the
end, punishing the victim until they reached the most potent shock available
on the generator.
After 450 volts were administered three times, the
experimenter called a halt to the session. Many obedient subjects then
heaved sighs of relief, mopped their brows, rubbed their fingers over their
eyes, or nervously fumbled cigarettes.
Others displayed only minimal signs of tension
from beginning to end.
When the very first experiments were carried out, Yale undergraduates were
used as subjects, and about 60 percent of them were fully obedient. A
colleague of mine immediately dismissed these findings as having no
relevance to "ordinary" people, asserting that Yale undergraduates are a
highly aggressive, competitive bunch who step on each other's necks on the
He assured me that when "ordinary" people were
tested, the results would be quite different. As we moved from the pilot
studies to the regular experimental series, people drawn from every stratum
of New Haven life came to be employed in the experiment professionals, white
collar workers, unemployed persons, and industrial workers. The experimental
outcome was the same as we had observed among the students.
Moreover, when the experiments were repeated in Princeton, Munich, Rome,
South Africa, and Australia, the level of obedience was invariably somewhat
higher than found in the investigation reported in this article.
Thus one scientist in Munich found 85 percent of
his subjects obedient.
Fred Prozi's reactions, if more dramatic than most, illuminate the
conflicts experienced by others in less visible form. About fifty years old
and unemployed at the time of the experiment, he has a good-natured, if
slightly dissolute, appearance, and he strikes people as a rather ordinary
He begins the session calmly but becomes tense as it proceeds.
After delivering the 180-volt shock, he pivots
around in the chair and, shaking his head, addresses the experimenter in
Prozi: I can't stand it I'm not going to
kill that man in there. You hear him hollering?
Experimenter: As I told you before, the shocks may be painful, but . . .
Prozi: But he's hollering. He can t stand it. What's going to happen to
Experimenter (his voice is patient, matter-of fact): The experiment
requires that you continue, Teacher.
Prozi: Aah, but, unh, I'm not going to get that man sick in there --
know what I mean?
Experimenter: Whether the learner likes it or not, we must go on,
through all the word pairs.
Prozi: I refuse to take the responsibility. He's in there hollering
Experimenter: It's absolutely essential that you continue, Prozi.
Prozi (indicating the unused questions): There's too many left here, I
mean, Jeez, if he gets them wrong, there's too many of them left. I
mean, who's going to take the responsibility if anything happens to that
Experimenter: I'm responsible for anything that happens to him.
Prozi: All right. (Consults list of words.) The next one's "Slow --
walk, truck, dance, music" Answer please. (A buzzing sound indicates the
learner has signaled his answer.) Wrong. A hundred and ninety-five
volts. "Dance." (Zzumph!)
Learner (yelling): Let me out of here. My hearts bothering me (Teacher
looks at experimenter.)
Experimenter: Continue, please.
Learner (screaming): Let me out of here! You have no right to keep me
here! Let me out of here, my hearts bothering me, let me out!
Prozi (shakes head, pats the table nervously): You see he's hollering.
Hear that? Gee, I don't know.
Experimenter: The experiment requires . . .
Prozi (interrupting): I know it does sir, but I mean -- hunh! He don't
know what he's getting in for. He's up to 195 volts! (Experiment
continues, through 210 volts, 225 volts, 240 volts, 255 volts, 270
volts, at which point Prozi, with evident relief, runs out of word-pair
Experimenter: You'll have to go back to the beginning of that page and
go through them again until he's learned them all correctly.
Prozi: Aw, no. I'm not going to kill that man. You mean I've got to keep
going up with the scale? No sir. He's hollering in there. I'm not going
to give him 450 volts.
Experimenter: The experiment requires that you go on.
Learner: Ohhh. I absolutely refuse to answer anymore. (Shouting urgently
now.) Let me out of here! You cant bold me here. Get me out.
Experimenter: Continue. The next word is "green," please.
Prozi: "Greengrass, hat, ink, apple." (Nothing happens. No answering
buzz. Just gloomy silence.)
Prozi: I don't think he is going to answer.
Experimenter: If the learner doesn't answer in a reasonable time, about
four or five seconds, consider the answer wrong. And follow the same
procedures you have been doing for wrong answers. Say, "Wrong," tell him
the number of volts, give him the punishment, read him the correct
answer. Continue, please.
Prozi: "Green -- grass, hat, ink, apple." Answer, please. (More silence.
Subject just sits there.)
Experimenter: Go on with the procedure, please.
Prozi: Three hundred and fifteen volts. The answer is "ink." (Zzumph!)
Learner: Ohh. Ooohh
Prozi: (relieved to her response"). Next one . . .
Learner: I absolutely refuse to answer.
Prozi: You got to. You get a shock if you don't answer. (Experiment
continues with learner refusing to answer, and, finally failing even to
grunt or groan. At 375 volts, the subject stands up.)
Prozi: I think something's happened to that fellow in there. I don't get
no answer. He was hollering at less voltage. Can't you check in and see
if he's all right, please?
Experimenter (with same detached calm): Not once we've started. Please
Prozi (sits down, sighs deeply): "Cool day, shade, water, paint." Answer
please. Are you all right in there? Are you all right?
Experimenter: Please continue, Teacher. Continue, please. (Subject
pushes lever. Zzumph!)
Prozi (swiveling around in his chair): Something's happened to that man
in there. (Swiveling back.) Next one. "Low -- dollar, necklace, moon,
paint." (Turning around again.) Something's happened to that man in
there. You better check in on him, sir. He won't answer or nothing.
Experimenter: Continue. Go on, please.
Prozi: You accept all responsibility?
Experimenter: The responsibility is mine. Correct. Please go on.
(Subject returns to his list, starts running through words as rapidly as
he can read them, works through to 450 volts.)
Prozi: That's that.
Experimenter: Continue using the 450 switch for each wrong answer.
Prozi: But I don't get anything!
Experimenter: Please continue. The next word is "white."
Prozi: Don't you think you should look in on him, please?
Experimenter: Not once we've started the experiment.
Prozi: What if he's dead in there? (Gestures toward the room with the
electric chair.) l mean, he told me he. can't stand the shock, sir. I
don't mean to be rude, but I think you should look In on him. All you
have to do is look in on him. All you have to do is look in the door. I
don't get no answer, no noise. Something might have happened to the
gentleman in there, sir.
Experimenter: We must continue. Go on, please.
Prozi: You mean keep giving that? Four-hundred-fifty volts, what he's
Experimenter: That's correct. Continue. The next word is "white."
Prozi (now at a furious pace): "White -- cloud, horse, rock, house."
Answer, please. The answer is "horse." Four hundred and fifty volts. (Zzumph!)
Next words, "Bag -- paint, music. clown, girl." The next answer is
'paint." Four hundred and fifty volts. (Zzumph!) Next word is "Short --
sentence, movie . . ."
Experimenter: Excuse me, Teacher. We'll have to discontinue the
Morris Braverman, another subject, is a thirty-nine-year-old social
worker. He looks older than his years because of his bald head and serious
demeanor. His brow is furrowed, as if all the world's burdens were carried
on his face. Ho appears intelligent and concerned.
When the learner refuses to answer and the experimenter instructs Braverman
to treat the absence of an answer as equivalent to a wrong answer, he takes
his instruction to heart.
Before administering 300 volts he asserts
officiously to the victim,
"Mr. Wallace, your silence has to be
considered as a wrong answer."
Then he administers the shock He offers
halfheartedly to change places with the learner, then asks the experimenter.
"Do I have to follow these instructions
He is satisfied with the experimenter's answer
that he does. His very refined and authoritative manner of speaking is
increasingly broken up by wheezing laughter.
The experimenter's notes on Mr. Braverman at the last few shocks are:
Almost breaking up now each time gives
shock. Rubbing face to hide laughter
Squinting, trying to hide face with
hand, still laughing
Cannot control his laughter at this
point no matter what he does
Clenching fist, pushing it onto table
In an interview after the session, Mr. Braverman
summarizes the experiment with impressive fluency and intelligence. He feels
the experiment may have been designed also to "test the effects on the
teacher of being in an essentially sadistic role, as well as the reactions
of a student to a learning situation that was authoritative and punitive."
When asked how painful the last few shocks administered to the learner were,
he indicates that the most extreme category on the scale is not adequate (it
read EXTREMELY PAINFUL) and places his mark at the edge of the scale with an
arrow carrying it beyond the scale.
It is almost impossible to convey the greatly relaxed, sedate quality of his
conversation in the interview. In the most relaxed terms, he speaks about
his severe inner tension.
Experimenter: At what point were you most
tense or nervous?
Mr. Braverman: Well, when he first began to cry out in pain, and I
realized this was hurting him. This got worse when he just blocked and
refused to answer. There was I. I'm a nice person, I think, hurting
somebody, and caught up in what seemed a mad situation . . . and in the
interest of science, one goes through with it.
When the interviewer pursues the general
question of tension, Mr. Braverman spontaneously mentions his laughter.
"My reactions were awfully peculiar. I don't
know if you were watching me, but my reactions were giggly, and trying
to stifle laughter. This isn't the way I usually am. This was a sheer
reaction to a totally impossible situation. And my reaction was to the
situation of having to hurt somebody. And being totally helpless and
caught up in a set of circumstances where l just couldn't deviate and I
couldn't try to help. This is what got me."
Mr. Braverman, like all subjects, was told the
actual nature and purpose of the experiment, and a year later he affirmed in
a questionnaire that he had learned something of personal importance:
"What appalled me was that I could possess
this capacity for obedience and compliance to a central idea, i.e., the
adherence to this value was at the expense of violation of another
value, i.e., don't hurt someone who is helpless and not hurting you. As
my wife said, 'You can call yourself Eichmann,' I hope I deal more
effectively with any future conflicts of values I encounter."
The Etiquette of
One theoretical interpretation of this behavior holds that all people harbor
deeply aggressive instincts continually pressing for expression, and that
the experiment provides institutional justification for the release of these
According to this view, if a person is placed in
a situation in which he has complete power over another individual, whom he
may punish as much as he likes, all that is sadistic and bestial in man
comes to the fore. The impulse to shock the victim is seen to flow from the
potent aggressive tendencies, which are part of the motivational life of the
individual, and the experiment, because it provides social legitimacy,
simply opens the door to their expression.
It becomes vital, therefore, to compare the subject's performance when he is
under orders and when he is allowed to choose the shock level.
The procedure was identical to our standard experiment, except that the
teacher was told that he was free to select any shock level of any on the
trials. (The experimenter took pains to point out that the teacher could use
the highest levels on the generator, the lowest, any in between, or any
combination of levels.)
Each subject proceeded for thirty critical
trials. The learner's protests were coordinated to standard shock levels,
his first grunt coming at 75 volts, his first vehement protest at 150 volts.
The average shock used during the thirty critical trials was less than 60
volts -- lower than the point at which the victim showed the first signs of
discomfort. Three of the forty subjects did not go beyond the very lowest
level on the board, twenty-eight went no higher than 75 volts, and
thirty-eight did not go beyond the first loud protest at 150 volts.
Two subjects provided the exception,
administering up to 325 and 450 volts, but the overall result was that the
great majority of people delivered very low, usually painless, shocks when
the choice was explicitly up to them.
The condition of the experiment undermines another commonly offered
explanation of the subjects' behavior -- that those who shocked the victim
at the most severe levels came only from the sadistic fringe of society. 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 her 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 personality, evil
After witnessing hundreds of ordinary persons
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 - an impression 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.
Many of the people were in some sense against what they did to the learner,
and many protested even while they obeyed. Some were totally convinced of
the wrongness of their actions but could not bring themselves to make an
open break with authority. They often derived satisfaction from their
thoughts and felt that - within themselves, at least - they had been on the
side of the angels. They tried to reduce strain by obeying the experimenter
but "only slightly," encouraging the learner, touching the generator
When interviewed, such a subject would stress
that he "asserted my humanity" by administering the briefest shock possible.
Handling the conflict in this manner was easier than defiance.
The situation is constructed so that there is no way the subject can stop
shocking the learner without violating the experimenter's definitions of his
own competence. The subject fears that he will appear arrogant, untoward,
and rude if he breaks off. Although these inhibiting emotions appear small
in scope alongside the violence being done to the learner, they suffuse the
mind and feelings of the subject, who is miserable at the prospect of having
to repudiate the authority to his face.
(When the experiment was altered so that the
experimenter gave his instructions by telephone instead of in person, only a
third as many people were fully obedient through 450 volts).
It is a curious thing that a measure of
compassion on the part of the subject - an unwillingness to "hurt" the
experimenter's feelings - is part of those binding forces inhibiting his
The withdrawal of such deference may be as
painful to the subject as to the authority he defies.
Duty Without Conflict
The subjects do not derive satisfaction from inflicting pain, but they often
like the feeling they get from pleasing the experimenter.
They are proud of doing a good job, obeying the
experimenter under difficult circumstances. While the subjects administered
only mild shocks on their own initiative, one experimental variation showed
that, under orders, 30 percent of them were willing to deliver 450 volts
even when they had to forcibly push the learner's hand down on the
Bruno Batta is a thirty-seven-year-old welder who took part in the
variation requiring the use of force. He was born in New Haven, his parents
in Italy. He has a rough-hewn face that conveys a conspicuous lack of
alertness. He has some difficulty in mastering the experimental procedure
and needs to be corrected by the experimenter several times.
He shows appreciation for the help and
willingness to do what is required. After the 150 volt level, Batta has to
force the learner's hand down on the shock plate, since the learner himself
refuses to touch it.
When the learner first complains, Mr. Batta pays no attention to him. His
face remains impassive, as if to dissociate himself from the learner's
disruptive behavior. When the experimenter instructs him to force the
learner's hand down, he adopts a rigid, mechanical procedure. He tests the
generator switch. When it fails to function, he immediately forces the
learner's hand onto the shock plate. All the while he maintains the same
rigid mask. The learner, seated alongside him, begs him to stop, but with
robotic impassivity he continues the procedure.
What is extraordinary is his apparent total indifference to the
learner; he hardly takes cognizance of him as a human being. Meanwhile, he
relates to the experimenter in a submissive and courteous fashion.
At the 330 volt level, the learner refuses not only to touch the shock plate
but also to provide any answers.
Annoyed, Batta turns to him, and chastises him:
"You better answer and get it over with. We
can't stay here all night."
These are the only words he directs to the
learner in the course of an hour. Never again does he speak to him. The
scene is brutal and depressing, his hard, impassive face showing total
indifference as he subdues the screaming learner and gives him shocks. He
seems to derive no pleasure from the act itself, only quiet satisfaction at
doing his job properly.
When he administers 450 volts, he turns to the experimenter and asks,
"Where do we go from here, Professor?"
His tone is deferential and expresses his
willingness to be a cooperative subject, in contrast to the learner's
At the end of the session he tells the experimenter how honored he has been
to help him, and in a moment of contrition, remarks,
"Sir, sorry it couldn't have been a full
He has done his honest best. It is only the
deficient behavior of the learner that has denied the experimenter full
The essence of obedience is that a person comes to view himself as the
instrument for carrying out another person's wishes, and he therefore no
longer regards himself as responsible for his actions.
Once this critical shift of viewpoint has
occurred, all of the essential features of obedience follow. The most
far-reaching consequence is that the person feels responsible to the
authority directing him but feels no responsibility for the content of the
actions that the authority prescribes. Morality does not disappear - it
acquires a radically different focus: the subordinate person feels shame or
pride depending on how adequately he has performed the actions called for by
Language provides numerous terms to pinpoint this type of morality: loyalty,
duty, discipline are all 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 moment but is reporting honestly on the psychological
attitude induced by submission to authority.
For a person 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
"if it were up to me, I would not have
administered shocks to the learner."
Once authority has been isolated as the cause of
the subject's behavior, it is legitimate to inquire into the necessary
elements of authority and how it must be perceived in order to gain his
compliance. We conducted some investigations into the kinds of changes that
would cause the experimenter to lose his power and to be disobeyed by the
Some of the variations revealed that:
The experimenter's physical presence has
a marked impact on his authority - As cited earlier, obedience
dropped off sharply when orders were given by telephone. The
experimenter could often induce a disobedient subject to go on by
returning to the laboratory.
Conflicting authority severely paralyzes
actions - When two experimenters of equal status, both seated at the
command desk, gave incompatible orders, no shocks were delivered
past the point of their disagreement.
The rebellious action of others severely
undermines authority - In one variation, three teachers (two actors
and a real subject) administered a test and shocks. When the two
actors disobeyed the experimenter and refused to go beyond a certain
shock level, thirty-six of forty subjects joined their disobedient
peers and refused as well.
Although the experimenter's authority was
fragile in some respects, it is also true that he had almost none of the
tools used in ordinary command structures.
For example, the experimenter did not threaten
the subjects with punishment - such as loss of income, community ostracism,
or jail - for failure to obey. Neither could he offer incentives.
Indeed, we should expect the experimenter's
authority to be much less than that of someone like a general, since the
experimenter has no power to enforce his imperatives, and since
participation in a psychological experiment scarcely evokes the sense of
urgency and dedication found in warfare. Despite these limitations, he still
managed to command a dismaying degree of obedience.
I will cite one final variation of the experiment that depicts a dilemma
that is more common in everyday life. The subject was not ordered to pull
the lever that shocked the victim, but merely to perform a subsidiary task
(administering the word-pair test) while another person administered the
shock. In this situation, thirty-seven of forty adults continued to the
highest level of the shock generator.
Predictably, they excused their behavior by
saying that the responsibility belonged to the man who actually pulled the
switch. This may illustrate a dangerously typical arrangement in a complex
society: it is easy to ignore responsibility when one is only an
intermediate link in a chain of actions.
The problem of obedience 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 people
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 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
overall direction. He yields to authority but in doing so is alienated from
his own actions.
Even Eichmann was sickened when he toured the concentration camps,
but 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 ground that he was only following orders from
above. Thus there is a fragmentation of the total human act; no one
is confronted with the consequences of his decision to carry out the evil
The person who assumes responsibility has
Perhaps this is the most common characteristic
of socially organized evil in modern society.
1. The ethical problems of carrying out an
experiment of this sort are too complex to be dealt with here, but they
receive extended treatment in the book from which this article is taken.
2. Names of subjects described in this piece have been changed.