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Conformity and Obedience: Yielding to Others
Were the soldiers involved in the tortures at Abu Ghraib prison during March 2003 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
If you do no know what "Abu Graib" was about, read the entry at Wikipedia

A. Conformity

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

What would you do in these sorts of circumstances, e.g.,

[Solomon Asch]Asch's Conformity Experiment: 1950s



[Conformity in Group]


Subsequent Research

B. Obedience

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

[Stanley Milgram]Milgram's Obedience Studies: 1962

Video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xOYLCy5PVgM (5 min.)


[Milgram Experimental Set-up]
[Shock Generator]


[Migram Experiment Results]
  • 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. As Prof. Alan Elms, then Milgram's research assistant, recently noted (2011): "Some subjects wept as they administered the higher-level shocks. Others smirked or giggled or laughed hysterically; still others sweated profusely or clenched their teeth or pulled their hair. But for the most part they obeyed."
  • Note that this experiment could not be performed any longer in the US for ethical reasons: it had the potential of harming the participants by subjecting them to such high levels of distress.

Contemporary Critique of Milgram

Several social scientists have raised major questions about the meaning of or conclusions we can draw from Milgram's experiment. Note that it was NOT a single experiment. Rather Milgram (1974) ran 18 different variations of the design reported above. Reicher & Haslam (2011) challenge putting sole emphasis upon the variation in which 65% of the "teachers" went to 450 volts:

When the subjects sat in the same room as the learner and watched as he was shocked, however, the percentage of obedient teachers went down to 40. It fell further when the participant had to press the learner’s hand onto an electric plate to deliver the shock. And it went below 20 percent when two other “participants”—actually actors—refused to comply. Moreover, in three conditions nobody went up to 450 volts: when the learner demanded that shocks be delivered, when the authority was the victim of shocks, or when two authorities argued and gave conflicting instructions. In short, Milgram’s range of experiments revealed that seemingly small details could trigger a complete reversal of behavior—in other words, these studies are about both obedience and disobedience. Instead of only asking why people obey, we need to ask when they obey and also when they do not. (pp. 59-60)

Reicher & Haslam (2011) go on to point out a very different way of understanding what was happening:

As psychologist Jerry Burger of Santa Clara University has observed, of [the] four instructions [given to the "teacher"] only the last is a direct order. In Obedience (1974), Milgram gives an example of one reaction to this prod:

Experimenter: You have no other choice, sir, you must go on.
Subject: If this were Russia maybe, but not in America.
(The experiment is terminated.)

In a recent partial replication of Milgram’s study, Burger [2009] found that every time this prompt was used, his subjects refused to go on. This point is critically important because it tells us that individuals are not narrowly focused on being good followers. Instead they are more focused on doing the right thing. The irony here is hard to miss. Milgram’s findings are often portrayed as showing that human beings mindlessly carry out even the most extreme orders. What the shock experiments actually show is that we stop following when we start getting ordered around. In short, whatever it is that people do when they carry out the experimenter’s bidding, they are not simply obeying orders. (p. 61)

So, possibly this experiment needs to be more critically evaluated. People may not be completely blind and willing to follow authority. Rather, in the social setting of an experiment, there may be forces such as social identification and interpersonal bonding that help to explain such behavior as well. 

C. The Power of the Situation

Question: Can my personality and ways of acting be changed by new circumstances?
The Stanford Prison Simulation (August 1971)

Philip Zimbardo in 2008Philip Zimbardo (b. 1933 in The Bronx, NY) at Stanford University designed an experiment to explore why prisons become so abusive and degrading locations. He selected 24 males students who had been screened to be physical healthy & psychologically stable. They were randomly divided into two groups: guards and prisoners.

    Slide show on Prison Experiment
  • Stanford Prison
                      ExperimentOn a quiet Sunday morning, the "prisoners" were "arrested" at their dormitory rooms or homes, handcuffed, and driven in police cars to the simulated prison in the basement of the Psychology Dept. building on campus.
  • The prisoners were fingerprinted and put blindfolded in a holding cell.
  • The prisoners were humiliated: stripped naked, searched, "deloused," and issued a uniform (a dress or smock with no underwear). A chain was applied to their right leg and all were required to wear stocking caps (instead of having their heads shaved). Each prisoner was given an ID number.
  • The guards were given no training, but given the authority to do whatever they thought needed to maintain order in the prison and respect by the prisoners. There was an undergraduate student who served as "warden."
  • Prisoners were awakened at 2:30 am for a "count". "Rebellious" prisoners were made to do push-ups.
  • Eventually prisoners rebelled. Guards were particularly harsh in treating the leader of the "rebellion" by denying him cigarettes and other things.
  • The first "prisoner" began showing strong negative emotional reactions within 36 hours.
  • By the end of five days, the experiment had to be ended. Some prisoners were clearly showing withdrawn behavior and some of the guards had begun to act sadistically.   
Zimbardo and his colleagues explain the transformation of these students into prisoners and guards as the results of
    • Social Roles: A social role is a widely shared expectation about how people in certain positions are supposed to behave.
    • The Power of the Situation: By (re)creating such a different but realistic environment than that the students were used to, they were overwhelmed by these very differences and had little to rely upon to maintain their typical behavioral patterns.
Zimbardo has been the subject of harsh criticism for conducting this experiment, but has argued that he never expected that the students' behaviors would so quickly and powerful deteriorate the way they did. His 2007 book, The Lucifer Effect, describes how powerful situations undermine the moral behaviors of otherwise good people.

                    Zimbardo et al in 2013


Elms, A. ( 2011, December 10). From CNN Blogs. Posted at The Situationist website. Retrieved Jan 11, 2012 from http://thesituationist.wordpress.com/category/classic-experiments>. Originally posted at <http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2011/12/09/my-summer-with-stanley-milgram/?hpt=he_c2

Further sources on the Milgram experiment can be found here:
  • Burger, J. (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today? American Psychologist, 64, 1-11.
  • Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S. D., & Sutton, J. (2011). The shock of the old: Reconnecting with Milgram’s obedience studies, 50 years on. Special Issue of The Psychologist, 24(9).
  • Haslam, S. A., & Reicher, S. D. (2007). Beyond the banality of evil: Three dynamics of an interactionist social psychology of tyranny. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 615-622
  • Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York. NY: Harper & Row.
  • Reicher, S. D., & Haslam, S. A. (2011). After shock? Towards a social identity explanation of the Milgram ‘obedience’ studies. British Journal of Social Psychology, 50, 163-169.
  • Reicher, S. D., & Haslam, S. A., (2011). Culture of shock: A fresh look at Milgram’s obedience studies. Scientific American Mind, 22(6), 57-61.

The Stanford Prison Experiment (http://www.prisonexp.org) site maintained by Philip Zimbardo

Zimbardo, P. (2007). The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. New York, NY: Random House.

This page was originally posted on 11/10/03 and last updated on November 12, 2016