Are we scared into obeying authority?

I’ve often wondered what leads us as humans to obey authority. Is it because we feel obligated to help someone whenever they ask? Is it just a moral sense of correctness? Or is it the looming fear of what will happen if we disobey authority that lures us into obeying it? Personally, I’ve always questioned the correlation between fear and authority. It seems a little ironic, since authority figures are supposed to serve as role models and sound boards, not people we should be afraid of. However, a little fear now and then is good, because sometimes a lack of fear can lead to a nonchalant attitude and lack of respect. Nevertheless, I’m still curious to know how much, if at all, authority affects fear.

To start off, we have to look at both the null hypothesis and alternative hypothesis of the situation.

NULL HYPOTHESIS: Fear does not cause us to obey authority.

ALTERNATIVE HYPOTHESIS: Fear causes us to obey authority.

If the alternative hypothesis is true or a false positive, then we have two causalities to observe, still noting confounding variables and the effect of chance.

Direct: Fear causes obedience

Reverse: Obedience causes fear

Since this is a relatively vague question, I wondered if I would struggle with finding scientific evidence to use as a base for my blog. Thankfully, I thought back to my junior year of high school, where we spent a week discussing the Milgram Experiment in my theology class. This experiment was conducted by social psychologist Stanley Milgram at Yale University.

Milgram’s first study included 40 local men from New Haven between the ages of 20 and 50, from all different socioeconomic backgrounds. Milgram recruited his participants through a newspaper advertisement, paying each man $4.50 for showing up to the testing (McLeod). These guinea pigs were told that they were involved in an experiment studying the effects that consequence had on a person’s learning ability. In reality, they were being deceived, as the study was actually testing the participant’s obedience to authority. When each man arrived, he was introduced to his partner in the study, and the two drew straws to decided who would administer the test and who would take it (McLeod). One participant was actually a hired actor, fixed to always draw the learner straw (Encina). So in this case, the hired actor would be the control in the experiment. We also have to take note of a few confounding variables that could affect the outcome of the experiment, like the difference in ages of the participants, as well as their jobs and education levels. The $4.50 incentive for participating is also a third variable.

In the experiment, the blind participant would ask the actor simple questions, and was required to give increasingly dangerous electric shocks to him each time he answered incorrectly. Beforehand, the researcher would sample a 45-volt shock to both participants, alerting the deceived participant of what his counterpart would be experiencing. The actor was actually never hooked up to the shock machine, but was given a list of cues to follow as shocks supposedly increased, in order to worry the innocent subject (Encina).


shock range image found here

Naturally, the participants would become increasingly uneasy as time went on, for fear of hurting the man on the other side of the experiment. With any hesitation, the experimenter would use intimidating commands to insist that the participant go on with the experiment, no matter what (Encina). Personally, I don’t believe I could continually increase the shocks, especially after experiencing the 45-volt shock and understanding how it felt.


experiment layout found here

As a hopeful human being, I assumed that a large number of participants would refuse to continue the experiment; however, to my surprise, a shocking 65% of participants administered the final 450-volt shock, and 100% went to at least the 300-volt mark! How insane! If this was the only study conducted, then we would not be able to conclude anything based on a lack of insufficient evidence. However, over time, Milgram conducted 18 variations of his experiment using 636 different people, producing startlingly similar results with each conclusion (McLeod). Could these different experiments be treated as a meta-analysis?


graph found here

Critics called bias on this experiment, since it only included males. They also had a bone to pick with the ethics of the experiment, because it was highly based on deception (McLeod). Although this experiment seems slightly unethical, I don’t think I could brainstorm any other effective way to test the alternative hypothesis. Besides that, we learned in class that science is anti-authoritarian, so who are critics to tell Milgram his experiment was conducted incorrectly? He was simply practicing science in the correct manner. There is not only one right way to test something.

My thought process sees enough evidence to reject the null hypothesis. When two-thirds (65%) of participants obey authority all the way until the end, there is no possible way to conclude that this correlation is due to chance.

When we think about it, the situation is actually frightening. These participants allowed authority to cloud their moral judgement out of fear. It may sound extremely corny, but researching my original question, “Are we scared into obeying authority,” has proven to me that a strong moral compass is an incredible necessity. If humans were more assured in standing up against authority when authority was immoral, then would we have been able to avoid disasters such as genocides, wars, and dictatorships? What do you think SC200…would you be pressured into giving that 450-volt shock?

P.S. If you have time, I highly recommend watching this modern version of Milgram’s experiment, conducted by Derren Brown on the British show, The Heist. It’s 10 minutes long, but it gives a great visual as to what Milgram’s original experiment looked like.

Leave a Reply