Beyond Obedience?

Written by: Stephen Gibson


Look in any social psychology textbook and you’ll see that obedience is defined as a form of social influence elicited in response to direct orders. New research on the most (in)famous studies of obedience has begun to challenge this definition.

obedience refers to a more diffuse process of subordination to authority through which we come to abide by social conventions

Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority are amongst the most famous – and controversial – studies in the social sciences.  As generations of psychology students have been taught, they supposedly show how ordinary Americans could be led into inflicting what appeared to be severe pain on another member of the public simply as a result of following orders from an experimenter.

In recent years, however, something of a revolution has taken place in our understanding of Milgram’s experiments.  Scholars have drawn on the treasure trove of material held in Milgram’s archive at Yale University in order to highlight a number of hitherto unknown aspects of his work.  My own research has focused in particular on the audio recordings of Milgram’s experimental sessions.  The ‘findings’ from the obedience experiments have typically been understood in terms of the proportion of participants in the various conditions who completed the experimental procedure without disobeying the experimenter’s orders. However, what has fascinated me is the much more complex and messy story to be told about how the experiments unfolded in practice.  What did obedience and defiance actually involve? How did some participants argue their way out of the experiments?  And how did the experimenter get many others to keep going?

Traditionally, the answer to this last question has been seen as uncontroversial:  the experimenter had a series of standardised prods with which to order participants to keep administering electric shocks to the victim whenever he made a mistake on a memory test. However, when we listen to the tapes of the experiments, it is clear that the experimenter didn’t stick to these prods.  Moreover, the prods – especially those that appear to be the most order-like – are actually pretty ineffective at getting participants to keep going.

The conclusion is therefore quite startling: participants don’t obey orders in Milgram’s obedience experiments. When the experimenter did issue orders, participants were able to disobey them quite straightforwardly; and those participants who went ‘all the way’ in the experiment didn’t actually need to be issued with orders.  This turns on its head almost 60 years of received wisdom about these experiments.

But does this mean that the experiments are not about obedience after all?  If we stick to the standard definition of obedience as social influence elicited in response to orders, then it certainly would.  However, we might be wise to look again at this definition. When we talk about ‘obeying the law’, we’re not typically referring to situations in which we’ve been given commands from a police officer. Rather, obedience refers to a more diffuse process of subordination to authority through which we come to abide by social conventions.

So how, then, did a large number of people find themselves going along with Milgram’s experimental procedure? In my book, Arguing, Obeying and Defying: A Rhetorical Perspective on Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Experiments, I argue that rather than being ordered by an authority figure, we might instead say that participants were persuaded by the situation: by the impressive experimental apparatus, by the attachment to a prestigious university, and by the implied authority of the scientific endeavour. No orders were needed when the experimental set-up did its job; and when participants were no longer persuaded by the set-up, the orders from the experimenter only made things worse: far from being a demonstration of the power of authority, they were a sign of its weakness.



Read more about: Arguing, Obeying and Defying: A Rhetorical Perspective on Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Experiments

Reviews and Endorsements for Arguing, Obeying and Defying: A Rhetorical Perspective on Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Experiments

‘Stephen Gibson’s superb book looks at social psychology’s most famous experiment. By closely examining what actually occurred, Gibson shows that Milgram’s obedience studies were not really about obedience. In focusing on Milgram, Gibson offers a sophisticated, original analysis of social psychology itself.’ Michael Billig, Emeritus Professor, Loughborough University

‘This book provides a wealth of new insights into classic studies and is a compelling read for all those interested in the psychology of obedience. Stephen Gibson invites us to reconsider what is often taken for granted as established knowledge, and makes an excellent case for a social psychology that focuses on the detail of social interaction.’ Chris McVittie, Queen Margaret University

‘In this exhaustively researched and carefully argued volume, Stephen Gibson provides a compelling reappraisal of one of psychology’s best-known experiments and the disciplinary practice of social psychology. He effectively demonstrates that the obedience study was not a demonstration of ‘blind obedience’, as is often claimed, but an exercise in rhetoric and persuasion.’ Ian Nicholson, Editor, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences

‘If you thought there was nothing more to be learned from Milgram’s obedience experiments conducted over fifty years ago, Stephen Gibson’s rigorous forensic analysis of the archived audio recordings of these infamous experiments challenges how we should view them. Using theoretical principles from discursive and rhetorical psychology, Gibson details the rhetorical and argumentative interactions that test the standard story told in textbooks. Invoking Protagoras’s maxim that there are always two sides to every story, Gibson also warns us not to summarily dismiss Milgram’s findings either. A must-read for all social psychologists and their students.’ Martha Augoustinos, University of Adelaide, Australia

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About the Author: Stephen Gibson

Stephen Gibson is a social psychologist based at York St John University. His research interests are in the areas of social influence, social identity, peace and conflict, citizenship and rhetorical/discursive psychology....

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