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Dušan Arsovski

Stanley Milgram - Obedience to Authority An Experimental View

10 Why Obedience? - An analysis

Milgram starts his argument by talking about evolution, instincts, structure, hierarchy
and obedience in the context of animals and eventually humans. Among other things, it is
structure that helps one group to survive. Group with structure (for example, division of labor)
is more likely to survive than one without. Structure can be questioned by the individual/s
who don’t see them self’s on the position in the hierarchy. It turns out that obedience is like a
potential structure that is inborn. But this is only one part of the story. Another (a significant
one) are the social influences that comes after.

The Cybernetic Viewpoint

From the viewpoint of cybernetic, the question arises: What changes occur when
autonomously acting individuals enters a group and starts behave as a part of a group in a
hierarchy, rather than an independent individual. Cybernetics gives a formal answer through
models. Milgram uses simple homeostatic model to talk about functioning of automata with
rules for purely individual behavior that need food from the environment. But, by bringing
automata together we need to add a rule in order for automata not eat each other. This is
inhibitory mechanism without specie could not survive. Milgram concludes with
psychoanalysis and that for human beings inhibitory mechanism is superego, a function that
prevents another function – Id.

Hierarchical Structuring

In this part, Milgram talks about coordination of automata and what mechanism are we
using for this purpose. The best way to do it is to make a hierarchy in a pyramidal form in
which each subordinate automata is superordinate to the one below in the scheme. But, all
automata are redefined, so that each subordinate automata ignore its inhibitory mechanism
when they need to be controlled by superiordinate one. In individual behavior, conscience is
the mechanism of control (superego), but in groups, that comes externally in the model of
followers and leaders. From the psychological point of view, for most of the group members it
is irrelevant where the individual in the hierarchy is. It is only for the element on the top that
we need additional psychological explanation.


Variability presence allows structuring to be efficient when local control is “put on

hold” and coordinating component takes over. Control shift from local unit to higher instances
are needed in structural hierarchy because in group is more effective when the least effective
member is prevented from influencing the group as a whole. Milgram talks about pilot-tower
control transition and military as examples of this mechanism. For Freud, individual puts the
ideal of the leader before his ego. This is for organizational reasons for which the coherence is
crucial feature. The idea is in the change that an individual must go through in order to
become a part of the bigger system. This is the possible solution to the question of brutality of
the individual in the concentration camps for example. Conscience (as internal mechanism of
control) “withdraws” in favor of external imputes of hierarchical structure.

The Agentic Shift

There are two modes of agent functioning: 1) autonomous or self-directed for internal
needs of automata and 2) systematic for needs of the group in which automata is integrated.
The mode in which automata is will determine its behavior. As for a human being, we can
notice a transition from autonomous to functional position in a social hierarchy by looking in
the alteration of his behavior. This different behavior puts an individual in a different mode or
state from one before becoming a member in the social hierarchy. Milgram defines the
agentic state (as a supposition to autonomy ) as 1) a state in which a person see himself as an
agent doing things that are goals of the higher member of the hierarchy – subjective
perspective; and 2) a self-regulating entity is internally modified so as to allow its functioning
within a system of hierarchical control.

11 The Process of Obedience: Applying the Analysis to the Experiment

Antecedent Conditions of Obedience


Growing up in a family is the first circumstances of an individual, where he experience

authority and moral imperatives. In obeying, child learns 1) what is moral and 2) to respect
the authority.

Institutional Setting

Next institutional system of authority that child encounters is school. In school, we see
double learning. Besides learning 1) from a curriculum he learns 2) how to function in an
organization. He perceives hierarchy (student -> teacher -> headmaster…) and what behavior
is accepted and what is sanctioned. After school the individual usually gets a civilian job or
join military. So again, he is confronted with structure, authority and training in obedience.
Milgram points out that what is specific for modern societies is impersonal or abstract
authority, workers are subordinated to rank, uniform, etc.

In all those circumstances, individual is being awarded when he complains with
authority and punished when he shows resistance. Milgram points out that the way that
hierarchical structure is reproducing itself is by promoting individuals from lower to higher
position in the hierarchy. In this way, individual internalizes the values of society’s structure.

Immediate Antecedent Conditions

First condition for going into agentic state is the perception of legitimate authority.
Authority is context depended (pilot has the authority only in the airplane). Figure of authority
has to be perceived as such by others in order to be one. In experimental circumstances,
experimenter fills the “authority gap” with introducionary questions and communicates that
he is the authority. So, there are already expectations of the subjects. The the appropriate signs
or symbols that communicate authority (experimenter clothes, police and military uniforms..),
etc. The idea is that authority is in the appearance.

Entry into the Authority System

Second condition for going into the agentic state is defining a person as the part of the
authority system. We can recognize an authority of a Colonel while he is shouting “Left face”,
but if we do turn left then we have defined him as authority figure for us and also defined
ourselves as subordinate to his command. There is a space of authority (a classroom,
laboratory, office..) and by being there voluntarily the individual have a feeling of obligation
and commitment into staying in this obedience roll. This voluntary is internalized basis for

Coordination of Command with the Function of Authority

A command that comes from the perceived source of social control has to be logically
linked to the general function of that social organization (military captain order a solder to run
with his rifle and not to embrace his girlfriend). Subjects believe that authority knows more
than them.

The Overarching Ideology

There is mechanism that is a function of legitimate justification of experiment.

Milgram writes about different institutions (church, business, school, military, government..)
and how they control subjects that see them as legitimate part of the world. Science use
ideology in the same way. Ideological justification is vital in obtaining willing obedience says
Milgram. Experiment is an authority system with experimenter, equipment, “mystic” science,
etc., and all that serves as ideological justification for subject to participate willingly. By this
account, experimenter not only can but should have authority and control.

The Agentic State

What are the properties of the agentic state, and its consequences for the subject?

There is a change in the subject self in the relation to the experimenter. He wants to
perform well before the central figure.

Process of tuning occurs in the subject. Information from the learners is lowered and
focus is on the authority figure (for example, in the office meeting, suggestions of the
colleagues can be ignored and at the same time, some of those suggestions, while repeated by
the boss is well heard with enthusiasm). This is natural, because person of authority has the
power to punish his subordinates so they quickly adapt to this mechanism. Because of this,
authority becomes something extra human, while other subjects are perceived sometimes as
obstacles and with lower significance. It is all about pleasing the authority.

Redefining the Meaning of the Situation

Here, Milgram talks about control and ideology. He thinks that every situation has a
kind of ideology. And what is more important, subjects accept that the meaning of the
situation is the interpretation of those of authority. Subjects accept that even their behavior as
a part of the defined situation is interpreted by authority figure.

Loss of Responsibility

The consequence of being in the agentic state is that a subject has responsibility for the
authority but have no responsibility for the content of authority demands. Individual in a sense
acquire different moral compass. When confronted with accusation of doing something
morally wrong, most frequent defense is that the individual was just doing his job. Subject
had a sense that there actions came from something external and not from their “the self”. It is
as the subjects think that their acts are product of authority motives. Superego is gone and
now, the action is evaluated in terms of how well did they performed in the authority system.
Those inhibitory mechanisms are not limited by conscience. This is why a normal person in
circumstances outside authority system feels bad about killing people, but in the army, when
confronted with an order to kill people he is not that distasteful.


In having a self-image, person has to be aware what others think about himself. Ego is
an important inhibitory regulatory source. In agentic state, because the motives are not the
motives of that individual, there is no need for self-image fulfillment. So, action could be
terrible but this self-image stops being a system of evaluation and prevention. Action is
without moral assessment for individual.

Commands and the Agentic State

Commands are triggers for action. Command consists of 1) definition for action and 2)
imperative for execution. A command leads to specific acts of obedience and obedience is a behavioral
aspect of agentic state.

Binding Factors

When the individual is in the agentic state, there has to be something that will give the
stability to the system and extend the state. Although the individual is assessing his space for
action he is in the inner struggle and in the end he continues to act in accord with
experimenter’s commands.

Sequential Nature of the Action

Initial act is the product of obedience and the purpose of experimenter’s additional
commands are perseverative. When subject is, for example, producing more pain to another
subject if he stops he will admit that this action was not justified in the first place.

Situational Obligations

Here, Milgram writes about social occasions as a behavior regulator. If subject refuses
to do what the experimenter demands he will break “the deal” and his obligations, as he see it.
Milgram mentions sociologist Erving Goffman and his idea of consensus of the participants of social
situation. Participants agree on the definition of the social situation and every disruption is viewed as
moral transgression. In refusing to obey the command of the experimenter, subject is violating the
experimenter’s self-definition. It is painful to show disobedience. Individuals tend to respect the
definition of the situation presented by another.


Anxiety could be defined as the fear of the unknown. One of the basic rules of social life is
respect of authority. Breaking that rule creates anxiety.