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Obedience to Authority

Adolf Eichmann

During World War II (WWII), SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann was Chief of the Jewish Office for the Gestapo.  Eichmann was responsible for researching possible solutions to the Jewish question for Germany.  Eichmann was very successful in establishing the Center for Jewish Emigration that other offices were founded based on Eichmann’s theories.  Eichmann was promoted and assumed a major role in the deportation of Jews to death camps, The Final Solution. At the end of the war Eichmann escaped to Argentina.  In 1960 Israeli Mossad agents abducted Eichmann from Argentina and returned him to Israel to stand trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Eichmann was responsible for the deportation of more than three million Jews.  Eichmann was sentenced to death and was executed in Israel.  Eichmann’s defense:  “I was following orders” (i).

Stanley Milgram

Intrigued by the Eichmann defense, in 1961 social psychologist Stanley Milgram asked, “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?” (1974).  Milgram’s experimental research was conducted at Yale University on obedience to authority from 1960 – 1963.  Milgram wanted to verify that if a person of authority ordered one to inflict severe pain on another person via electric shock would the person comply.  Milgram conducted a series of experiments during this period to determine if Eichmann’s “following orders” claim was valid.

The Obedience to Authority Experiment


The participants consisted of 40 men, ages 20 through 50 whose professions varied from unskilled to professional, and the late James McDonough who played the part of the learner.


A shock generator was used to create the allusion of electro-shock therapy.  Shock levels began at 30 volts and increased in 15-volt increments with a maximum voltage of 450 volts.  The generator consisted of switches labeled to identify shock levels such as “slight shock,” “moderate shock” and “danger: severe shock.”  Two switches were labeled “XXX.”

The participants or “teachers” would shock the student or “learner” when an incorrect answer was given to the selected series of questions.  The participant assumed the shock was real.  These participants believed they were shocking the learner.  Again to reiterate, the learner was James McDonough.  During the experiment the participant could hear the learner requesting that the procedure stop.  In several instances the shock voltage exceeded a 300 volt level at which time the learner would bang and plead the participant to stop.  At this point the learner would be completely silent and refuse to answer any more questions.  The participant was instructed to treat the silence as incorrect responses and to initiate further shock.

When participants asked if they should continue, they were met with a series of responses from the experimenter.  These responses were; please continue, the experiment requires you to continue, it is essential that you continue, and you have no other choice you must continue.  At this stage in the experiment the level of shock that the participant was willing to deliver was used to measure the level of obedience to authority (ii).


When Milgram first asked a group of Yale University students how far they believed the participants would go, the prediction was that no more three out of 100 would actually deliver the maximum shock.   Milgram’s research concluded that 65% (two-thirds) of the participants delivered the maximum shock of 450 volts. 26 out of the 40 participants in Milgram’s experiment delivered the maximum shock, only 14 stopped when they perceived the learner to be in distress.  Also noteworthy is that many of the participants did object but still continued to follow orders.

According to Milgram the focus of the study is the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience.  Milgram researched and examined justifications for acts against humanity by German Officers during WWII.  The Eichmann defense was based on obedience and “following orders.”  Milgram began his experiment after the Eichmann trial concluded.

One of the primary topics of interest for Milgram was researching the ethics and integrity of persons instructed to harm another person.  Milgram was very interested in how people could be influenced to commit such atrocities.

Milgram’s research concluded that even though participants were stressed at the end of the experiment and may have even protested during the experiment, the participants still remained obedient and followed instruction even when they could hear crying and pleading. Milgram created a simple situation that turned out to be extremely thought provoking and powerful.

Replicating Milgram

Milgram’s works from the 1960s are still studied and debated today.  Gamson’s 1981 experiment called the Manufacturers Human Relations Consultants (MHRC) Encounter attempted to replicate Milgram’s work.  This study conducted by Gamson consisted of one’s encounters with unjust authority (iii).

Participants in this study were from Michigan.  These participants were told that they would be part of a videotaped survey.  Survey questions were designed to prompt opinionated answers for questions regarding oil companies, employee rights, and extramarital affairs. The similarity of this experiment and that of Milgram’s was that during both of the experiments the experimenter oversteps it bounds and the questions and methods become unjust.  When the participants of the Gamson experiment perceived the abuse of authority people became angry, rebelled, and did not complete the survey. The Gamson experiment was not completed and the researchers published results as such.  Reports from the experimenters indicated that the stress and pressure was too much for the participants.  Sensitive to the deceptive practices of the experiment, these researchers relied on the ethics of the incomplete research to conclude the experiment.

The similarities and differences between Milgram’s experiment and that of the MHRC’s experiment were verifying if the general populace would comply with those in authority.  The differences are that Milgram’s participants were all men and the MHRC’s participants were men and women.  Milgrams experiment was conducted in a lab at Yale University and the MHRC’s experiment in Michigan at a Holiday Inn.  These experiments also conclude that Milgrams experiment produced an obedient affect while the results of the MHRC were rebellion.  The common denominator of both experiments is that authoritative figures overstep his or her bounds.

One can also infer that the social situations influenced both experiments.  If one introduces the theories of Lewin (iv) and Latane (v) one could raise the question of individual change when exposed to social forces.  The Milgram experiment did not include relationships or intimacy whereas the MHRC questioned issues of community and social wellbeing determining outcomes of obedience or rebillion.

Milgram’s experiment has continued to create controversy.  Society does not want to accept that ordinary everyday people could be influenced to commit crimes against humanity.  Many researchers have tried to negate Milgram’s conclusions.  Many have replicated Milgrams work and to no avail continue to reach the same conclusions.

Milgram stated that these results astonished people.  That normal everyday people, professional people, and people in authority change in unusual circumstance continues to be topic of current research. Milgram concluded that one’s moral sense or conscience is not lost, but the focus turns to obedience and the need to please one’s superiors.  Social hierarchy has been in place since the beginning of time and it is only through a learned knowledge or change in social behavior that that one can rebel and remove themselves from a situation that forces one to conform.

Veronica Emilia Nuzzolo, M.Ed., Ph.D.




(i) The Eichmann Trial, The Jewish Virtual Library (n.d.), retrieved from http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/eichmann.html
(ii) Milgram, S. (1974) Obedience to authority, Harper and Row
(iii) Brown, Roger (1986), Social Psychology, the Second Edition, the Free Press
Gamson, Fireman, and Rytina, (1982), The MHRC Encounter, as cited in Brown, R., (1986), Social Psychology, the Free Press
(iv) Lewin, K (1935), as cited in Brown, R. (1986), Social Psychology, the Free Press
(v) Latane, B (1981) as cited in Brown, R. (1986), Social Psychology, the Free Press

How to cite this article:
Nuzzolo, V. E., (2016).  Obedience to Authority.  Retrieved from, https://risetoshinetoday.org/obedience-to-authority-2/

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