Vital Ignored Truths in Milgram’s Obedience to Authority Studies


Psychologist Stanley Milgram (1933–1984) was deeply affected by Nazi atrocities, so when his early 1960s research on Americans revealed an unexpectedly high rate of obedience to authority commanding subjects to commit cruel actions, this very much troubled him. Milgram’s studies revealed other truths—not as widely known—that are crucial to fighting authoritarianism.

One ignored finding is that many of Milgram’s subjects did express dissent but ultimately obeyed. Milgram very much wanted us to recognize that in authoritarian settings, dissent alone without disobedience is of no value in stopping abuse, as dissent is routinely ignored by authoritarians.

In the original Milgram study at Yale University, subjects were recruited for an experiment ostensibly investigating learning. The naïve subjects were the “teachers” and a confederate was the “learner,” and there was also an experimenter authority who ordered subject teachers to shock the learner for incorrect responses. In the most well-known variation of the experiment, 26 of 40 teacher subjects (65%) continued to shock the confederate learner to the highest level of 450 volts (which was labeled as “Danger: severe shock”) even as the confederate learner pounded the walls to protest and no longer answered after 315 volts. While 65% of subjects neverdisobeyed authority, even the other 35% (who ultimately disobeyed) did shock subjects at lower levels.

Vital but often ignored is that audio recordings of Milgram’s study reveal that many subjects did offer dissent but ultimately obeyed. Many subjects tried several different forms of verbal protest saying “I can’t do this anymore” or “I’m not going to do this anymore.” The experimenter authority responded to subjects’ objections with a series of orders/prods to ensure they continued (Prod 1: “Please continue”; Prod 2: “The experiment requires you to continue”; Prod 3: “It is absolutely essential that you continue”; and Prod 4: “You have no other choice, you must go on”). With these prods/orders, most subjects who had protested complied.

For critics of Milgram, these protests were attempts at disobedience, but for Milgram—and myself—these protests were dissent, not disobedience. And what’s crucial is that dissent without disobedience had no value for the victim.

Dissent is not the same as disobedience, as a person may voice protest with an authority but still obey. People who are capable of dissent but incapable of disobedience are often uncomfortable challenging the very legitimacy of that authority to wield power. In contrast, genuine anti-authoritarians are comfortable with both dissent and disobedience when they deem authority to be illegitimate.

Dissent alone may be effective in a genuinely democratic society, but authoritarians—be they Milgram’s experimenter authority or U.S. corporatist government—ignore dissent. Authoritarians realize that simply ignoring dissent is often an effective way to marginalize it, even when that dissent comes from the majority of the people.

In 2014, political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, in a study published in Perspectives on Politics, empirically established how average U.S. citizens are almost completely ignored by U.S. governmental authorities in terms of public policies. Reviewing U.S. public opinions of policy issues, along with examining 1,779 different enacted public policies between 1981 and 2002, Gilens and Page determined that “even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.” They conclude, “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

When dissent—be it through public opinion polls, protest demonstrations, or otherwise—is impotent in changing policy, this is an indicator of living under authoritarian rule. If a society is not authoritarian but democratic, then the tension that dissent creates is resolved so that dissenters experience their grievances being taken seriously, as evidenced by policy changes. In an authoritarian society, dissenters—even when in the majority—routinely feel impotent and helpless.

Dissent without disobedience is essentially no threat to authoritarians in power. Clever authoritarians may even welcome dissent without disobedience, since it can be easily ignored and provides the illusion of a free and democratic society. Only disobedience can threaten authoritarians.

Genuine anti-authoritarians who move beyond dissent to actually resist and disobey illegitimate authority are punished and marginalized. As I detail in Resisting Illegitimate Authority, U.S. anti-authoritarians have been shunned, financially punished, psychopathologized, criminalized, and assassinated. Anti-authoritarians are punished both to marginalize them and to send an intimidating message to others who may consider resisting illegitimate authority. Authoritarians know that just as cowardice is contagious so too can courage be contagious, a reality which Milgram validated.

Milgram, in one variation of his experiment, showed the importance of modeling disobedience in order to reduce compliance with illegitimate authority. When two other participant teachers were also confederates sitting next to the teacher subject refused to obey (one stopping at 150 volts, and the other stopping at 210 volts), the level of obedience was reduced from 65% to 10% compliance for the highest-level 450 volt shock. While Milgram confirmed the importance of models of disobedience, he was concerned that U.S. society lacked enough courageous models.

Prior to Milgram’s publishing Obedience to Authority (1974), he was shaken by the My Lai massacre and other U.S. atrocities that were committed by American soldiers in the Vietnam War. Milgram was pained by U.S. society’s incapacity to counter what he called humanity’s “fatal flaw” of compliance with abusive authority which, he concluded, “in the long run gives our species only a modest chance of survival.”

As I describe in Resisting Illegitimate Authority, within the human family there are anti-authoritarians—people comfortable resisting illegitimate authority; but at present, for reasons that I discuss, there are not enough of them.

Bruce E. Levine, a practicing clinical psychologist often at odds with the mainstream of his profession, writes and speaks about how society, culture, politics and psychology intersect. His most recent book is Resisting Illegitimate Authority: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Being an Anti-Authoritarian―Strategies, Tools, and Models (AK Press, September, 2018). His Web site is brucelevine.net