The Resolve To Say No Vs The Etiquette Of Submission

I was wondering what could be the apt name for an article which draws heavily from Milgram’s experiment on the conflict between authority and personal conscience. Stanley Milgram called it the’ Perils of Obedience’

Lets us set the context for the article first.

Karl Adolf Eichmann, sometimes referred to as “the architect of the Holocaust”, was arrested and prosecuted in 1961. In his defense he said he was ‘following orders’-that he had abdicated his conscience in order to follow the instructions of his superiors. He claimed that he was merely a transmitter and testified that: “I never did anything, great or small, without obtaining in advance express instructions from Adolf Hitler or any of my superiors.”

Stanley Milgram, social psychologist at Yale University, Harvard University and the City University of New York, designed an experiment to find out ‘how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist”.

Here goes the experiment. (Portions adapted directly from – The perils of Obedience by Milgram)

Three people take part in the experiment:

1.         Experimenter

2.         Learner (victim) and

3.         Teacher (participant)

200px-Milgram_Experiment_v2(Source – Wikipedia)

In the basic experimental designs two people come to a psychology laboratory to take part in a study of memory and learning. One of them is designated a “teacher” and the other a “learner.” The “experimenter” explains that the study is concerned with the effects of punishment on learning. The learner is conducted into a room, seated in a kind of miniature electric chair, his arms are strapped to prevent excessive movement, and an electrode is attached to his wrist. He is told that he will be read lists of simple word pairs, and that he will then be tested on his ability to remember the second word of a pair when he hears the first one again. Whenever he makes an error, he will receive electric shocks of increasing intensity.

The real focus of the experiment is the teacher. After watching the learner being strapped into place, he is seated before an impressive shock generator. The instrument panel consists of thirty lever switches set in a horizontal line. Each switch is clearly labeled with a voltage designation ranging from 14 to 450 volts (the following designations are clearly indicated on switches : Slight Shock, Moderate Shock, Strong Shock, Very Strong Shock, Intense Shock, Extreme Intensity Shock, Danger: Severe Shock)

Only the “teacher” is an actual participant, i.e. unaware about the actual setup, while the “learner” is a confederate of the experimenter. The “teacher” (subjects) believed that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual shocks. In reality, there were no shocks. The learner, or victim, is actually an actor who receives no shock at all. The point of the experiment is to see how far a person will proceed in a concrete and measurable situation in which he is ordered to inflict increasing pain on a protesting victim.

Conflict arises when the man receiving the shock begins to show that he is experiencing discomfort. At 75 volts, he grunts; at 120 volts, he complains loudly; at 150, he demands to be released from the experiment. As the voltage increases, his protests become more vehement and emotional. At 285 volts, his response can be described only as an agonized scream. Soon thereafter, he makes no sound at all. In between he also explains his weak heart condition.

For the teacher, the situation quickly becomes one of gripping tension. It is not a game for him: conflict is intensely obvious, but each time he hesitates to administer a shock, the experimenter orders him to continue. To extricate himself from this plight, the subject must make a clear break with authority.

If at any time the subject indicated his desire to halt the experiment, he was given a succession of verbal prods by the experimenter, in this order:

1. Please continue.

2. The experiment requires that you continue.

3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.

4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted. Otherwise, it was halted after the subject had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession.


Before the experiments, Milgram sought predictions about the outcome from various kinds of people — psychiatrists, college sophomores, middle-class adults, graduate students and faculty in the behavioral sciences. With remarkable similarity, they predicted that virtually all the subjects would refuse to obey the experimenter. The psychiatrist, specifically, predicted that most subjects would not go beyond 150 volts, when the victim makes his first explicit demand to be freed. They expected that only 4 percent would reach 300 volts, and that only a pathological fringe of about one in a thousand would administer the highest shock on the board.

These predictions were unequivocally wrong. Of the forty subjects in the first experiment, twenty-five (60%) obeyed the orders of the experimenter to the end, punishing the victim until they reached the most potent shock available on the generator. After 450 volts were administered three times, the experimenter called a halt to the session. Many obedient subjects then heaved sighs of relief, mopped their brows, rubbed their fingers over their eyes, or nervously fumbled cigarettes. Others displayed only minimal signs of tension from beginning to end.

When the very first experiments were carried out, Yale undergraduates were used as subjects, and about 60 percent of them were fully obedient. These findings were immediately dismissed as having no relevance to “ordinary” people, asserting that Yale undergraduates are a highly aggressive, competitive bunch who step on each other’s necks on the slightest provocation. However even on ordinary people the experimental outcome was the same.


To quote Milgram “The most fundamental lesson of the study is that ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority. A subject, who has neither ability nor expertise to make decisions, especially in a crisis, will leave decision making to the group and its hierarchy. The group is the person’s behavioral model.

The essence of obedience is that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred, all of the essential features of obedience follow. The most far-reaching consequence is that the person feels responsible to the authority directing him but feels no responsibility for the content of the actions that the authority prescribes. Morality does not disappear — it acquires a radically different focus: the subordinate person feels shame or pride depending on how adequately he has performed the actions called for by authority”.

I think the Milgram experiment points out how conveniently we put our conscience to rest in trying times. Examples of corporate scandals drive the point.

In the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room director Alex Gibney digs up previously unheard tapes of Enron’s brokers laughing on the telephone as they manufacture the California energy crisis to drive up energy prices that will benefit Enron. “Let ’em use candles,” and “Burn, baby, burn!” are phrases which brokers use referring to Blackouts and forest fires which will artificially jack up energy prices.

Are the brokers oblivious of the suffering of the ordinary people? Or

Having taken orders from the management they lose their sense of what is right and wrong.

The fact remains very few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority. And if the order comes from two or three layers from the top we tend to be mere implementers and rarely decide based on conscience. This behavior also explains how employees in a company often don’t question decisions of the top management and thus ordinary employees, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process”.

Also when the time comes to take a strong decision, we are unsure and dilly dally with indecision. Like the 60 % of the teachers who could not say “No” to the experimenter, we are not able to take decisions which are consistent with our moral standards when faced with someone perceived as authority.

Hence obedience is not always good. We have to say No at the right time.



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6 Responses to The Resolve To Say No Vs The Etiquette Of Submission

  1. Narayan says:

    Great Analysis… This is indeed true in all organizations, in almost all levels of management.
    – Narayan

  2. Ankita Srivastava says:

    That is quite a shocking revealation..
    A lot has to do with the way kids are taught in school, to obey the teachers/ elders and basically earn the “good kid label” as long as one conforms. The pressure to “belong” generally forces one to abandon ones own beliefs and follow the crowd, especially when one is younger.

    Guess, the responsibility is with parents and teachers alike to inculcate the confidence to think for oneself, judge for oneself. Its as much a question of confidence in oneself as it about a sense of judgement.


    • lateralviews says:

      Ya . I think there are two lessons.
      1. Many a times we don’t question authority because we think we are mere implementers.
      2. The individuals who did not give in to external prodding and refused to comply are the ones who are decisive and resolute. Hence the age old quote, when in doubt, DONT.


  3. Niharika says:

    Was going through the article and couldn’t help but comment.

    I beg to differ from the opinion quoted.It might hold true in certain cases that employees blindly follow what is dictated by their superiors because of a lack of will on their part to think differently.However i am certain that an equal number of employees follow their bosses orders because they would imagine that their bosses would be privy to more information than they themselves are and hence would be in a position to evaluate a situation better.

    In the experiment quoted above, it could be entirely possible that the ‘teacher’ assumes that the ‘experimenter’ has access to certain information, say research about the threshold of pain that a human body can endure and would not voluntarily put another human being at risk and so continues with the experiment.

    Hence the outcome could be because of a lack of free flow of information rather than any other reason.


  4. lateralviews says:

    You have to look at the context in which the experiment was conducted. A Nazi war criminal in his prosecution said – he was just taking orders. Similarly in the experiment -Quote Conflict arises when the man receiving the shock begins to show that he is experiencing discomfort. At 75 volts, he grunts; at 120 volts, he complains loudly; at 150, he demands to be released from the experiment. As the voltage increases, his protests become more vehement and emotional. At 285 volts, his response can be described only as an agonized scream. Soon thereafter, he makes no sound at all. In between he also explains his weak heart condition Unquote. Now certainly shocks are not good for the patients health. Hence even if the experimenter has more information, does it mean the teacher can relinquish his judgement ?


  5. Sudhansu says:

    Shocking results…Loved the blog…

    Is there also a correlation between the Aggression levels of the boss and that of the sub-ordinate..

    Somewhere, is it a true representation of the cascading authority and what are the controls and the check-tolls gates…push in here when u come across one…

    Warm regards

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