The Psychology of Authority: What Two Famous Experiments Tell Us

Patient Expert

Two weeks ago, I posted about the police shooting of James Boyd, a homeless man struggling with mental illness. A police video revealed that Mr Boyd had been shot in cold blood.

In a follow-up post, I noted that the mentally ill in the US are currently being killed by police at twice the rate of lynchings that occurred in the south from about 1880 to 1930.

Clearly, we have a problem. A lot of it has to do with the psychology of authority. We have two famous (and notorious) experiments to guide us. Perhaps you have heard of them:

The Milgram Experiment

In 1961, Stanley Migram of Yale recruited 40 young men as "teachers." Upon orders from an "experimenter," the teacher would deliver electrical shocks to a "learner" strapped in a chair behind a screen. The shocks started at 30 volts and increased in gradual increments to 450 volts.

The many switches bore labels ranging from "slight shock" to "danger: severe shock" to two with the ominous "xxx."

The experiment was inspired by the highly public trial of Adolf Eichman, one of the key engineers of the Holocaust. Eichman's defense, when finally brought to justice in 1960, was he had only been following orders. He was executed in 1962.

Does following orders absolve one of personal responsibility? What about when the one in authority is a stranger in a white lab coat?

In the Milgram experiment, the experimenter instructed the teacher to read questions to the learner, and administer a shock for a wrong answer. The shocks were not real, but the teachers did not know this. The learners were in on the experiment, and only pretended to be in pain. After a number of voltage increases, the learners started feigning great distress. When the teachers became squeamish about pressing ahead, the experimenter told them:

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

Prior to conducting the experiment, Milgram predicted that only about three percent of the teachers would carry on with the experiment once the shocks got very strong. In fact, 26 of the 40 (65 percent) issued the maximum voltage. Concluded Dr Milgram:

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

In 1971, Philip Zimbardo of Stanford recruited 24 psychologically healthy undergraduate students to play "prisoners" and "guards" in a mock prison. The prisoners were arrested and booked, issued prison uniforms, and otherwise dehumanized. The guards were issued khakis and batons and mirrored sunglasses.

In no time, each group displayed surprising identification with their respective roles, even Dr Zimbardo, who acted as the prison superintendent. As the prisoners became more submissive, the guards became more aggressive and abusive - to the point that the experiment, intended to run for two weeks, had to be stopped after six days.

According to Dr Zimbardo:

Only a few people were able to resist the situational temptations to yield to power and dominance while maintaining some semblance of morality and decency.

Dr Zimbardo owned up to his own personal failure for allowing the experiment to go on for far too long.

Personal Observations

Both studies have been roundly criticized on ethical grounds and methodology. There are also dangers in attempting to generalize the findings into the real world. Still, we would be foolish to ignore the obvious lessons.

In the US, we are living in a dangerous state of normal, where officers of the law are often impossible to distinguish from an occupying military force. Too often, standard police procedure requires a show of force, a display of weapons. Too often, the results are fatal. Nearly always, the officers involved are absolved.

I lived in New Zealand for 11 years during the seventies-eighties. There were numerous cases there of police exceeding their authority, but the difference is they did it without guns. No surprise, according to one index, New Zealand is rated the third most peaceful country in the world, after Iceland and Denmark. The US ranks 99 out of 162.

The realist in me knows the absurdity in proposing to remove guns from our police. The realist in me also insists upon it.

Your views are most welcome. Comments below ...