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Conformity and Obedience

Were the soldiers involved in the tortures at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq
somehow "evil" or "bad apples"?
Would you or I have done what they did?


Abu Ghraib: Dog Collar on Prisoner  Abu Ghraib: Man with Electrodes  Abu Ghraib: Prisoner Threatened by Dogs

Video Excerpt from CBC The Big Picture | The Human Behaviour Experiments


A. Conformity

Question: Would I uphold my own beliefs when others around me disagree strongly?

Solomon Asch

 Asch's Conformity Experiment: 1950s

Subsequent Research

  • Group Size: conformity increased when group size rose from 2 to 4 and peaked at size 7
  • Group Unanimity: conformity fell markedly if at least one member of the group broke with the group's judgment. Standing up to a unanimous group is much harder than one in which there is at least one dissenter.


B. Obedience

Question: Would I torture someone if I was told to do so by someone in authority?


Stanley Milgram

  Milgram's Obedience Studies: 1960s


  • A "learner" (confederate of Milgram) is strapped into a chair with electrical cords and attachments to deliver a "shock" to "help him learn".
  • A "teacher" (the genuine participant) is brought to an adjoining room which contained a "shock generator" calibrated to transmit between "15" and "450 volts" of shock. An experimenter instructed the "teacher" what to do.
  • Question: Would the participant ("teacher") obey the experimenter despite hearing and seeing signs of danger and distress?


  • 65% of participants delivered shocks beyond the Danger level to the highest level on the "shock generator" panel.
  • Many protested that they were harming the learner and showed strong signs of distress (trembled, sweated, etc.). However, they continued to obey the experimenter.
  • This experiment could not now be performed again in the United States for ethical reasons.

This page was originally posted on 11/10/03 and last updated on 11/12/06.