Why People Follow Authority, Even When It’s Harmful

In the 1970s, Stanley Milgram conducted a groundbreaking series of experiments on obedience to authority that sent shockwaves through the world of psychology. His studies examined the extent to which ordinary people would follow the orders of authority figures, even if it meant causing harm to others. Decades later, the ethical dilemmas and psychological dynamics of obedience to authority continue to captivate researchers. Recent insights have shed new light on this age-old question, challenging the conventional wisdom about why individuals obey. In this blog post, we'll explore how a modern perspective called 'engaged followership' is reshaping our understanding of why people sometimes do what they're told, even when it goes against their own moral compass.

People will continue to give harmful electrical shocks when instructed by authority

One of Stanley Milgram's most famous experiments involved participants giving increasingly strong electric shocks to a person (actually one of the experimenters) when they answered questions incorrectly. What the participants didn't know was that there were no real electric shocks, and the person they were shocking was just pretending. Shockingly, many participants continued to give these fake shocks even when the person seemed to be in pain and begged them to stop. These studies revealed how much individuals can follow obedience to authority, even if it goes against their own sense of what's right. These experiments raised important questions about ethics and how people behave in social situations. Milgram described this phenomenon as a state where "the individual no longer views himself as responsible for his own actions but defines himself as an instrument carrying out the wishes of others."

Another explanation for why people will obey authority even when it's harmful

Recently, researchers have taken a fresh look at Milgram's classic studies on obedience to authority. Instead of just attributing people's willingness to harm others solely to obedience, a new theory called 'engaged followership' suggests that how much people identify with the cause they think they're supporting might explain their willingness to follow potentially harmful instructions.

A recent study conducted by Megan E. Birney and her colleagues at Staffordshire University explored this theory. They showed participants pictures of different groups of people and asked them to pick negative words from a list (like deceitful, stupid, arrogant, and lazy) to describe each group. Initially, the pictures depicted clearly unpleasant individuals, including members of the Ku Klux Klan. However, as the task progressed, the people in the pictures gradually became less offensive and more pleasant, with the task ending in a picture of a family enjoying a day in the park. Those who believed they were part of a 'hard' science experiment led by neuroscientists were willing to endure the challenging task for longer compared to participants who believed it was a 'soft' social science experiment, even though the tasks were the same in both cases. This study suggested that the perception of neuroscience as more scientific and important influenced people to follow instructions more willingly.

Milgram himself noted in his private notes that the high levels of 'obedience' seen in his studies might be partly explained by the fact that participants came to the lab to contribute to an important scientific project (understanding and improving human learning) rather than forming a relationship with the person receiving the shocks. Consequently, participants trusted the experimenter's assurances that their actions contributed to that scientific endeavour. They obeyed not because they were unaware that what they were doing might be wrong but because, despite their reservations, they believed they were doing the right thing.

Birney's research supports the 'engaged followership model of obedience to authority,' suggesting that people's willingness to follow authority figures can be influenced by their beliefs about the importance and seriousness of the cause they're supposedly advancing, even if the task is uncomfortable.

References:

Birney, M. E., Reicher, S. D., Haslam, S. A., Steffens, N. K., & Neville, F. G. (2023). Engaged followership and toxic science: Exploring the effect of prototypicality on willingness to follow harmful experimental instructions. British Journal of Social Psychology, 62, 866–882. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjso.12603

British Psychological Society Research Digest. (2024, January 3). Participants go further for hard science studies. https://www.bps.org.uk/research-digest/participants-go-further-hard-science-studies

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