Obedience, Power, and Violence

Is an ordinary person capable of committing heinous acts? After the Holocaust (1941-45), many questioned how Nazi soldiers were capable of such senseless murder. Did it take a certain type of person, or did there exist situational factors that enabled their behavior? This historical moment inspired a series of influential psychological studies. Milgram’s Electric Shock Study (1963-74), and Zimbardo’s Prison Study (1973) both provided strong evidence to suggest that situational factors played an integral role in enabling the unthinkable.

Milgram’s Electric Shock Study (1963-74). Stanley Milgram, who was then a professor and researcher at Yale University, conducted a study on obedience to authority. Participants were recruited under the impression that they would be completing a memory study. Upon arriving to the lab, participants arrived in pairs of two; they were asked to draw a slip of paper “at random” assigning them to either the role of “teacher” or “learner”. From there, the teacher and the learner were placed in separate rooms such that they could no longer see each other; instead, they would be communicating through speakers.

In the experiment, the lead researcher (i.e. the authority figure), dressed in a lab coat and hovering over the teacher’s shoulders, instructed the teacher to read off a list of word pairs to the learner in the other room, after which the learner would be tested. To test the learner, the teacher would state the first word of a word pair and give the learner four answer options. If the learner provided the incorrect answer, the teacher was instructed by the lead researcher to administer an electric shock to the learner [by the push of a button on a shock board]; for every subsequent incorrect response from the learner, the teacher was instructed to increase the shock by 15 volts. As the shocks became more and more painful, the learner began to beg the teacher to stop, informing them of their heart condition. The learner even went as far as to say that they felt faint and were medical danger. Despite their pleas and the teachers’ reluctance to administer additional shocks, the lead researcher instructed the teacher that they [the teacher] must continue. Against their own conscience, 65% of the teachers administered shocks up to 450 volts, a charge strong enough to be deadly, and the final shock on the board.

Unbeknownst to participants, the second “participant” was always an actor—a research assistant who was posing as another participant. In fact, both pieces of paper had written on it, “teacher” though the actor would always report that they were assigned to the role of the “learner”; this ensured that the actual participants were always assigned to the role of the “teacher”. Throughout the experimental procedure, there was no actual learner in the other room—only a tape recording. Though no harm was actually caused to any real learner by the electric shocks, this study raised numerous ethical concerns on behalf of the actual participants (i.e. the teachers). However, this particular study shed much light on the dynamics of power and obedience given its painfully realistic execution. Though individuals were psychologically, emotionally and physically uncomfortable with their actions, they nevertheless complied with orders from an authority figure, even when they thought that they were putting another individual in harm’s way.

Later studies, like one done by Burger (2009), not only replicated Milgram’s original findings, but showed that even when the teacher saw the learner, they were not any more defiant. In other words, they were just as likely to “shock” the learner as compared to when they were unable to see the model.

Zimbardo’s Prison Study (1973). Not long after Milgram’s first study on obedience, another psychologist by the name of Philip Zimbardo at Stanford explored the effects of situational factors on people’s willingness to perform violent acts. Like Milgram’s study, Zimbardo’s Prison Study raised questions of ethics. However, it too shed light on the factors that enable violent actions. Twenty-four psychologically and physically healthy male participants, with no known criminal record, were recruited from Stanford for a two-week long study. At a coin flip, participants were assigned to either be “prison guards” or “prisoners” for the next two weeks. Zimbardo, the principle investigator, posed as the superintendent of the prison, and even went as far as to re-arrange his lab space to mimic an actual prison. From there, the prison guards were given uniforms, batons and sunglasses, and the prisoners were to be stripped and searched. Thereafter, the prisoners were put in prison clothes and chains. The prison guards were instructed to deny the prisoners of their power and autonomy as they were being punished for their wrongdoings—”armed robberies”.

In just 35 hours, conditions became psychologically unbearable for the prisoners. With the fabricated percept of power (e.g. role, uniform and baton) and anonymity (e.g. sunglasses), the prison guards sexually harassed, socially humiliated and even socially isolated “bad” prisoners. Soon after, the “prisoners” threw a hunger strike in protest of the inhumane treatment from the prison guards. The conditions became so disturbing so quickly, that the study terminated after just six days. Though the prisoners [in reality] had done nothing wrong, and though the roles were assigned at random, the dynamic between the guards and prisoners [strikingly] resembled that in Guantanamo Bay— a military prison located on a U.S. Naval base—decades later. In fact, this particular study was funded by the U.S. Navy to examine the causes of the tense relationship between military guards and prisoners. One of the main causes became very clear: percept of power.

Police Brutality. The studied dynamics between obedience, power, and violence feels all too familiar as it relates to on-going discussions of police brutality. Though police brutality involves many other important factors, like that of race relations, we should remind ourselves that even the most ordinary of people are capable of committing violent acts under the percept of power. Moreover, ordinary folks are capable of acting against their conscience in the presence of authority. The field of Social Psychology constantly reminds us of the power of the situation. Given these findings, we need to ask ourselves the following:

·      How does our psychology play into real-life policing?

·      What does this say about any ordinary person joining the police force?

·      How can we change the situation (e.g. laws) to restore human dignity?



Burger, J. M. (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today?. American Psychologist64(1), 1.

Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973) A study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison. Naval Research Review, 30, 4-17.