The burden of the disobedient (an excerpt from Milgram’s “Obedience to Authority”)

Wanting to share a very short excerpt from the book Obedience to Authority (1974; 2004 ed.) by Stanley Milgram, page 164:

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.

That piece continues to stand out to me, so I feel compelled to post it here.

Milgram’s experiments went a long way in demonstrating how hard it can be for an individual to break away and buck back against perceived authority as well as the acquiescence of his/her peers. It’s not easy, and I do believe this can leave some people doubting themselves and their actions for a lifetime despite having done the right thing. Kinda funny how that works…

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10 Responses to The burden of the disobedient (an excerpt from Milgram’s “Obedience to Authority”)

  1. Wyrd Smythe says:

    Speaking personally (as a life-long dedicated iconoclast), and extrapolating what I feel onto others based on things they’ve said and written, I have to disagree with Milgram, There can also be the deep-felt view that others just don’t get it, that one truly does see something most others don’t. Rather than any feeling of guilt, there is the feeling of WTF is wrong with you people?!

    However, there can be doubt that ones views are correct… As the old joke goes, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs… then perhaps you’ve misunderstood the situation!” This is why one of my favorite aphorisms is, “Only evil doesn’t question itself.” Self-checking and cross-checking with reality is important!

    • Byenia says:

      Hi Wyrd,

      How familiar are you with these sets of experiments?

      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        The electric shock ones, right? I’ve always wondered WTF about those and what it suggests about some (many?) people. There is also the element of knowing one is involved in a “scientific study” and perhaps being willing to go along with instructions under the presumption that “it’s all for science” and under control and, of course, nothing Really Bad could happen.

        Milgram was kind of trying to draw a line to the behavior of the Germans in WWII, and I think it’s an open question how successful that was. This is one of those places were the enormous number of variables in real-life situations makes it hard to draw lines from one to the other. There are elements of fear, war and national unity that are absent from Milgram’s study.

        But I am quite certain that, if I were involved in some study and told to abuse a subject, I’d tell them to go stuff themselves. And I know I’m not alone, due to what others say and write: Sorkin’s A Few Good Men is all about orders versus morality. In a sense, the story references the Milgram experiment and suggests that thoughtful people don’t blindly follow orders. Or shouldn’t. Even our Military Code of Justice says soldiers must follow lawful orders.

        Migram might be right about the herd, but some of us are sheepdogs (and wish more were). Intelligence should allow us to rise above blind obedience.

        • Byenia says:

          The whole idea was to setup an experiment where people participated in an effort to further scientific understandings (in this case claimed to be pertaining to memorization and learning) and where an authority was present, giving the go-ahead. The (perceived legitimate) authority figure present had a preset script that he repeatedly dryly, never straying from it or behaving intimidatingly. No threats were involved and participants could stop at any time without repercussions (other than perhaps thinking they’d botched the experiment they signed on to take part in). The person being shocked was assumed to be randomly chosen among the participants, though he was actually an actor and no shocks were truly dispensed.

          But what’s particularly interesting in these experiments is how the very presence and proximity of an authority figure allowed people to transfer responsibility from themselves and onto him and the institution he belonged to. So it was a question about following instructions obediently, which the majority did, plenty all the way to completion, even when the actor (“learner”) screamed in agony and later fell silent (even going so far as complaining of chest pains and a heart condition). If you watch footage from these experiments you see how many people struggled with continuing on in following the directions — plenty seemed very torn and worried about dispensing the shocks once they became very painful and the actor became despondent. Yet many (approximately 65% in the original experiment) kept at it.

          Kinda eye-opening though to see how the data broke down in the end across several similar experiments, as well as the newer studies along the same vein. The book explains it all in great detail.

          And I don’t think Dr. Milgram went into the experiment expecting any particular outcome. He initially seemed surprised by the results as much as anyone else.

          Footage of the 2009 UK mini-replication of the experiment:

          There 9 out of 12 participants went all the way to 450 volts, a higher percentage than in the original 1961 experiment. But I would like to see a much larger sample size in a replicated study before taking it too seriously.

          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            Yep, those experiments are well-known in certain quarters.

            …to further scientific understandings (in this case claimed to be pertaining to memorization and learning)…

            The claim was the cover story told the participants, wasn’t it? The actual scientific understanding sought was why people under authority will commit horrendous acts to other humans in their care. There’s another well-known study (can’t recall the name right now) that studied “prisoners” and “guards” (both volunteers) in a simulated prison environment and found similar results — that humans will treat other humans like crap under the right circumstances.

            I think those are quite valid results, but I do wonder about how accurate a scientific study can be when participants know they are participating in a (presumably) controlled experiment. One of the things that makes studying human behavior so challenging is that our behavior is interconnected to so many other factors. Studies naturally try to isolate a specific trait and often end up disconnecting the subject from crucial environmental factors so the study ends up studying an “artificial” behavior, or one riddled with artifacts that wouldn’t otherwise be present.

            Simply put, it’s really hard to study people who know they’re being studied. Even interviews about natural past behaviors become slightly artificial under the light of an “official” interview.

            Anyway, I don’t think it invalidates Milgram’s experiment — which has been much repeated with similar results and no major dissenting studies (that I know of), plus it pretty much matches “gut sense” — it’s what anyone truly familiar with people might expect, It does suggest a small grain of salt in considering the results. My guess would be the study tends to inflate the behavior, rather than suppress it, which is why my take-away has always been, Yep, sounds like people to me alright,… but they’re probably not generally quite that bad under normal circumstances.

            OTOH, an awful lot of fiction (and history) concerns how people behave under very non-normal circumstances! There is some saying to the effect that you don’t really know someone until you see them under severe stress.

            • Byenia says:

              Yes, that was the cover story. Wikipedia can give anyone an overall run-down who’s curious, or better yet, check out the book mentioned which goes into all of the studies conducted to detect what differences may occur when specific variables are altered (like changing the location and setting of the study, enrolling female participants instead, removing the authority figure physically from the setting, adding other actors to play as “teachers” to see how group pressure influences people, etc.). Struck me as an interesting series of studies.

              You’re thinking of Philip Zimbardo’s “prison” study. There’s info about that one elsewhere on this blog and a good video of Dr. Zimbardo in his later years describing the findings of his whole array of research. Interesting stuff.

              Social studies aren’t perfect, and I’d never claim they are. All they can do is provide us with some insight. That people know they’re participating in a study doesn’t mean that they’re clued in on the actual nature of the study and what’s being examined. But the social science realm works with what they can. Various findings illuminate all sorts of tendencies and (sometimes surprising) behaviors that can be replicated in various ways, particularly when it comes to group dynamics and submitting to perceived authority.

              Look at the Abu Graib scandal…there’s a real-life scenario where people indeed did act much worse than many of us out here would expect to see. And the military as a whole offers up all sorts of natural cases where people suppressed their consciences in favor of following orders. Heck, corporate hierarchies demonstrate the same thing over and over again, and those who dissent and go public with wrongdoings as whistle-blowers do catch a lot of grief, including from the general public they were wishing to inform.

              It’s a question of individual integrity withstanding the pressures of conforming to a group or some set standard (in Milgram’s studies, that being the felt obligation to aid in scientific research that they had agreed to comply with). Just interesting stuff to think about.

              • Wyrd Smythe says:

                The thing about Abu Ghraib is that they were dealing with people they considered “the enemy” and were at war. Strong parallels to Germany in WWII, and there are interesting (meaning: ugly) things that happen when one group is able to define another group as “the enemy” (which allows killing) or as “not as human as us” (which allows slavery).

                As for formal studies, participants don’t need to know the nature of the study. Merely the knowledge that they are involved in a “scientific study” may release them from certain cares. They may assume everything is under control and going as planned. They may assume anything they are asked to do is “okay” somehow.

                All-in-all it just goes to show that “social” is just a nicer word for “herd-like.” 🙂

                • Byenia says:

                  Sure, but there are countless real-life examples we can pull from too in order to examine group dynamics and people’s willingness to submit to perceived authority. Not as if we were entirely naive about this until studies came along to illuminate this tendency for us.

                  Not all that’s social is herd-like, but all that’s herd-like can’t help but be social.

                  • Wyrd Smythe says:

                    Heh, no, it vaguely reminds me about an MIT study I read about that determined that pizza sauce remains mouth-burning hot due to the insulating properties of the bread beneath and cheese above.

                    My reaction to that was, “Well, duh!” 🙂

                    Hmmmm… now I’m hungry for pizza!

                    (Just FYI… There’s something not quite right between whoever is hosting your blog and… I tried to respond via the notifications on WP, but it just spun its wheels for a while and then did nothing. I had to come here to post this comment. IIRC, I had to do that for the one above, also.)

  2. Byenia says:


    That’s because I pay to host my blog, yet my old unpaid blog is affiliated with WP, so my old handle is shown up in the WP bar instead of this new one. No clue why, but it’s always been that way. *shrugs*

    As for these studies, if they don’t interest you, that’s fine. They do, however, interest me. So I share them.

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