Underlying Effects of Authority: Past to Present

Jennifer Patros, Andrea Abrahamson, Samantha MacIntosh, Shannon Potter
Michigan State University

Keywords: Stanford Prison Study, Shock Study, Abu Ghraib, Conformity, Obedience, Herd Mentality


A question that has puzzled psychologists for years is “Why do some people follow orders from their superiors even though the ethics of the request are questionable?” Dr. Stanley Milgram and Dr. Philip Zimbardo investigated this by creating the Shock Study and the Stanford Prison Study respectively. These studies have given people some insight as to why people commit certain actions because they are told to by authority figures. Although these two experiments are considered unethical today and not to be replicated, the same results are being reflected through reality television shows such as Survivor and a patient’s willingness to undergo a surgery that he or she would not normally consider undergoing.

Underlying Effects of Authority: Past to Present

An unequal balance of power in a group setting can lead otherwise normal human beings to behaving tyrannically. Social psychologists have attempted to understand why people follow orders from authority, even when the request may be deemed unethical. This human nature of obedience had influenced Philip Zimbardo to create the Stanford Prison Study, along with influencing Stanley Milgram to create his notorious “shock” experiment. Recent events such as the Abu Ghraib scandal and the popularity of reality shows can be better understood in light of these two studies.

In the 1970’s, the United States government funded an experiment to better understand the state of mind of prisoners in military prisons. The government-funded experiment was held at Stanford University and was run by Philip Zimbardo. This was the Stanford Prison Experiment, which simulated a prison-like setting in which the mental health of the students would be studied by professionals. Before starting the experiment, a group of students had been tested for their mental stability and the “24 college students” who were the most suitable were used in the experiment (Zimbardo, 2006b). These students were stable in the sense that they seemed dependable, confident in themselves, and did not have any prior mental illnesses. Zimbardo created a realistic environment for the prisoners and the guards. The experiment started with the help of the actual police and the arrests of the students in the roles of prisoners from their homes “without informing them that this ‘arrest’ was the beginning of the experiment they had agreed to take part in” (Savin, 1973, para. 2).

The arrests of the selected students started the realistic simulation that Zimbardo created. Zimbardo gave each of the acting prisoners a number to be identified by, clothing that didn’t fit, and chains around their ankles to give them the reminder that they were not free. The guards were dressed in khaki, given sun glasses to help break eye contact with prisoners, and they possessed batons to intimidate prisoners. Zimbardo was shocked at how within days the students couldn’t tell the difference between roleplay and reality.

Alexander Haslem, professor at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, and Steve Reicher, professor at the University of St. Andrews, stated that “people who share a sense of identity in a group demonstrate two social features. First, they do not lose the capacity for judgment; instead the basis for their decisions shift from their individual notion to their commonly held understandings. . . . Second, people’s responses vary depending on which group membership is most important to them in any given situation.” (Haslem & Reicher, 2005, para. 11). This was supported when Zimbardo split the students into two different groups, the prisoners and the guards. This explains how stable-minded students placed in the roles of guards could start humiliating and abusing the students in the roles of the prisoners. The prisoners rebelled and held strikes, which only pushed the guards to be more physical against them. The guards used fire extinguishers to control the prisoners and other inhumane tactics. After only a short period of time, some of the students had to be released from the experiment because of the stress being imposed on their mental state. Some of the students were faced with uncontrollable crying and depression. The experiment was cut short by a week.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is notorious because “Zimbardo was outstandingly successful at simulating the most destructive aspects of prison” (Savin, 1973, p. 147). There have been attempts to recreate this experiment, but the outcome has been nothing like that of the Stanford Prison Experiment. The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) tried to recreate a study like Zimbardo’s experiment, but some of the outcomes were different. Philip Zimbardo took a look at this study and why it was different. He talked about the guards in the BBC study quitting earlier because they couldn’t handle the way they were abusing the prisoners. The BBC experiment was made for television so each person had a microphone that took away from all the candid action that went on in the Stanford Prison Experiment (Haslem & Reicher, 2006, para. 3). Besides the Stanford Prison Experiment, there has been the Milgram Experiment and most recently, the horrific acts in Abu Ghraib, which raise questions of why people act differently under authority.

Stanley Milgram surprised the world and fellow psychologists with his “shock” experiment. According to Thomas Blass, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, Milgram’s fascination with obedience and authority started with the “continuing identification with the suffering of fellow Jews at the hands of the Nazis and an attempt to fathom how the Holocaust could have happened” (Blass, 2002, para. 18). Milgram decided to create his study to suggest that normal people will do evil things if they are commanded to do so by figures of authority. A person does not have to be considered evil to inflict harm on others, contrary to what is often believed. Milgram wanted to demonstrate how people in authority can be dangerous and how much power they can exert. The results of this experiment were not surprising. However, what was surprising was how far people were willing to go in order to please authority.

In the experiment, the subjects initially thought that they were participating in a study concerning the correlation between learning and punishment. The subject, known as the teacher, watched the learner being strapped into chair in front of a shock generator. The learner was “treated with electrode paste ‘to avoid blisters and burns’” (Zimbardo, 1991, p. 67). The learner also mentioned that he had a heart condition, but was reassured that the shocks would not cause any serious tissue damage but may be painful. There were 30 switches ranging from 15 volts to 450 in increments of 15 volts. On the panel of the generator, the ranges were labeled from “slight shock” to “severe shock” (Milgram, 2006, p. 380). An experimenter told the subjects to administer a shock through the use of levers to the learner every time the learner incorrectly answered a word-matching task. The shocks increased every time the learner committed an error.

The learner, however, was a confederate (a participant aware of the format of the study) who never received actual shocks. The results of the experiment were that sixty-five percent of the subjects continued to obey the experimenter’s request and deliver shocks reaching up to 450 volts (Blass, 2002, para. 4-6). Milgram’s experiment was controversial throughout the world and set forth the need to set ethical standards while conducting studies.

According to S. Alexander Haslem and Stephen D. Reicher, “group members cannot resist the pressure of their assumed stations and . . . brutality is the ‘natural’ expression of roles associated with groups who have unequal power” (2005, para. 8). People who share a sense of identity in a group still have the ability of judgment, however their reasoning for the decisions they form derive from group viewpoints (Haslem and Reicher, 2005, para. 14). The subjects continued to obey the experimenter due to “‘binding factors’ that lock the subject into the situation” (Milgram, 2006, p. 383). These factors include politeness, upholding the promise to assist the experimenter, and the awkwardness of withdrawal from the experiment. Also, the subjects did not assume that they were responsible for the actions they committed. They believed that the responsibility of their actions during the study would be attributed to the experimenter.

This experiment illustrated that individuals are inclined to follow orders expressed by authority even if the order is not something they necessarily felt was moral or appropriate. In hospitals, every person is under the authority of a higher-ranking official. The results of Milgram’s experiment should serve as a warning to physicians to be concerned about patients tendency to consent to treatment solely because they view their physician as an authority figure. As a result of these power differences, patients often undergo treatments ranging from taking prescribed medication to invasive surgeries that they would not normally undergo. According to Eric J. Cassell, professor at the Cornell University Medical College (2005), “Sick people do not do things primarily because they have single-mindedly reasoned their way to decisions based on appraisals of the relevant information, but because an authority helps them to decide” (para. 7). To overcome this, physicians present their patients with different options of treatment and have them decide which option is best. Both the Stanford Prison Study and the Milgram Experiment were created to raise awareness on the negative effects that power has on people. Unfortunately, abuse of power is still occurring today.

In early 2004, videotapes, photographs, and other documents surfaced of American military personnel torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, a prison located in Baghdad, Iraq. Among the torturous events included prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation, sexual and cultural humiliation, and use of attack dogs towards the prisoners. There has been an enormous amount of controversy over this topic, and the main question people ask is what made ordinary American soldiers torture the enemy prisoners at Abu Ghraib? Dr. Philip Zimbardo explains another question that has arisen. “Should these few Army reservists be blamed as the ‘bad apples’ in a good barrel of American soldiers, as our leaders have characterized them? Or are they once-good apples soured and corrupted by an evil barrel” (Zimbardo, 2006a, para. 2)? Researchers have found that there may be more behind the soldier’s motives than expected.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a normal person can become “brutal” and “abusive” because of the “unequal balance of power in a prison setting” (between guards and prisoners) and the only way to avoid this unequal balance is for the “institution to be under a good sense of leadership and oversight” (Fiske, Harris, Cuddy, 2004, para. 13). The lack of leadership over the prison guards at Abu Ghraib was only one of the many factors that may have contributed to the mistreatment of the prisoners.

Not only in Abu Ghraib but around the world, individuals tend to assimilate in groups with people who they perceive to be similar to themselves (Fiske et. al, p. 1482). Not only were the prisoners of a different race than the guards of Abu Ghraib, but they were also of different cultures, language, status, and religion. Because of these differences, group discrimination was a key factor leading to the abuse of the prisoners. One of the most basic principles of psychology is that people prefer their own group of people, similar to themselves, and associate bad behavior to “outgroups,” people unlike themselves (Fiske et al, p. 1482). In the case of Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prisoners were seen as an “outgroup” by the American soldiers causing the soldiers to see the prisoners as inferior.

The third key factor in why the “seemingly normal” American soldiers tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib is the stress and lack of training the soldiers received (Cookson, 2004, para. 12). According to Alessandra Stanley, author of “The Darkest Behaviors, in the Name of Obedience,” many articles and documentaries conclude that “ill-trained soldiers were under enormous pressure to set up the kind of conditions that would best extract information from the prisoners, but were not given clear guidelines how” (Stanley, 2001, p. E5). The soldiers assigned to the position of prison guards at Abu Ghraib were also told that the survival of their comrades on the front lines depended on whether or not they could break the prisoners for vital information, causing them to use methods of threat such as attack dogs.

The events that took place at Abu Ghraib have an uncanny resemblance to the two classic psychology experiments performed over thirty years ago. The American soldiers at Abu Ghraib were given power over the prisoners by their superiors, and because of this granted power and feeling of superiority, morals and emotions seemed to have left the picture, much like in the experiments. Both the Milgram Study and the Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrate that ordinary people can commit unconventional acts while under the influence of authority, much like the soldiers of Abu Ghraib.

Although some people are still unaware of the Abu Ghraib scandal, society today is viewing abuse of authority in their everyday lives without even knowing it. In the past decade the new fad for television has been the reality television series. Viewers seem to be fascinated by real-life drama. They seem to crave the understanding of how the mind works and are drawn in by shows that depict these workings. Many people watch the shows because of the viciousness seen in some of the shows’ participants. Some might wonder what causes ordinary people to behave this way. Others question whether or not these shows are ethical due to the breech of privacy and the infliction of adversity to provoke such actions. The producers of these shows hide cameras throughout the subject’s homes and videotape them around the clock. Producers also divide the subjects into groups and give them challenges, encouraging them to create adversaries and formulate plots against opposing subjects.

Philip Zimbardo believes that reality television shows “[promote] the worst aspects of human behavior and the wrong human values” (Mason, 2001, para. 2). Studies such as Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment have provided psychologists with more observations supporting the theories that an unequal balance of power in a group setting can lead otherwise normal human beings to behave tyrannically. Reality television illustrates this. It places ordinary human beings into group situations for the purpose of setting up conflict so that the subjects lash out at each other, creating the drama necessary to catch the attention of viewers.

Zimbardo’s prison study showed that “circumstances can distort individual personalities” (Alexander, 2001, par 2). Reality shows such as Survivor, The Real World, and Big Brother set up similar group situations to alter the mindset of the individuals in these shows. The subjects begin to focus on group dynamics and power rather than personal beliefs and morals. It is believed that “individuals lose their capacity for intellectual and moral judgment in groups” leading to the conclusion that “groups are inherently dangerous” (Haslem & Reicher, 2005, para. 2). It is the impulse of the subjects to work towards the group dynamic, causing members of the group to be “more vulnerable to irrational acts that may benefit the group” (2).

Different studies conclude that “tyranny is a product of group processes, not individual pathology” (Haslem & Reicher, 2005, para. 4). For this reason, some may view the setup of reality television as unethical as the Stanford Prison Experiment is considered today. By magnifying the underlying causes of adversity seen in these shows, it is obvious that the shows are made to provoke a “tyrannical group dynamic” (5). Steven Blader and Tom Tyler, both professors of psychology at New York University, believe that the individual does not lose his or her rationality, but rather, their rationality “gets altered to fit the needs of the group” (2). This explains why, in the reality television series, there are many outbursts and violent acts toward other subjects in opposing groups.

Past studies such as the Stanford Prison Experiment, the Milgram Study, and, more recently, Abu Ghraib, have helped give evidence that despite a moral personal nature, when given the opportunity, anyone can act irrationally and violently, taking advantage of someone’s authority (Alexander, 2001, para. 2). What is worrisome is how these effects can alter a person’s rationality and how this can be viewed by millions as part of cable television entertainment. Zimbardo’s and Milgram’s studies are now both seen as unethical and are not to be replicated. However, it seems that they are being replicated to a certain extent. Today, most people do not realize the similarities between these two circumstances.

Over time, there have been many attempts to solve the mystery of why individuals act differently under a sense of authority and the effects of group identities. Beginning in the 1960’s with the Milgram Study, college professors, psychologists, and doctors have been trying to answer this same question. In the 1970’s, the curiosity continued on with the classical psychology experiment, the Stanford Prison Study. This mystery has even been seen in times of war. Apparently “normal” soldiers have been caught torturing enemy prisoners, at Abu Ghraib. And now in the everyday lives of Americans, they even see individuals changing under authority in reality television shows.


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