People generally obey those they perceive to be in a position of authority. In fact, people are extremely reluctant to question anyone they perceive to be in a position of authority, even if, objectively, they know what they are being asked to do is wrong...
Perhaps the most well known of studies into the notion that people will obey simply if they believe someone to be in a position of authority was Stanley Milgram's experiment, 1963.
In 1963, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram designed an experiment to investigate obedience to authority figures, especially when it involved harming another person.
For the study, volunteers were recruited for a lab experiment investigating “learning”. The participants were 40 males, aged between 20 and 50, whose jobs ranged from unskilled to professional, from the New Haven area. They were paid $4.50 for just turning up.
At the beginning of the experiment, they were introduced to another participant, who was actually a confederate of the experimenter. They drew straws to determine their roles, half were “learners”, half were “teachers” – although this was fixed and the confederate was always the learner. There was also an “experimenter” dressed in a grey lab coat, played by an actor.
Two rooms in the Yale Interaction Laboratory were used - one for the learner (with an electric chair) and another for the teacher and experimenter with an electric shock generator.
The “learner” was strapped to a chair with electrodes. After he has learned a list of word pairs given him to learn, the "teacher" tests him by naming a word and asking the learner to recall its partner/pair from a list of four possible choices.
The teacher is told to administer an electric shock every time the learner makes a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger – severe shock).
The learner gave mainly wrong answers (on purpose), and for each of these, the teacher gave him an electric shock. When the teacher refused to administer a shock, the experimenter was to give a series of orders / prods to ensure they continued. There were 4 prods and if one was not obeyed then the experimenter read out the next prod, and so on.
Prod 1: please continue.
Prod 2: the experiment requires you to continue.
Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.
Prod 4: you have no other choice but to continue.
At the end of the experiment, when the results were counted, 65% (two-thirds) of participants continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.
Milgram did more than one experiment – he carried out 18 variations of his study.
The conclusion was clear and stark: ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of bringing serious harm to an innocent human being.
Milgram summed up his findings in the article “The Perils of Obedience”, 1974:
“The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.”
Bickman's New York study, in 1974, showed similar, if less distressing, findings.
In his study, three actors were dressed in various outfits – normal clothes, a milkman, and a security guard – and were instructed to ask passers by to carry out small but inconvenient tasks, such as picking up a paper bag that had been thrown in the street, or to give them a coin for the parking meter. Bickman found that the subjects were twice as likely to oblige when the experimenter was dressed in uniform. The milkman rated second, and plain clothes lagged in third.