Authority in social psychology

Is Authority Good Or Bad? | Social Psychology

The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson- often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.

Obedience to Authority, Stanley Milgram

Authority is a well-researched and interesting topic in the field of Social Psychology. Primarily, it speaks about the effects that an authoritarian individual can bring upon their subordinates. Before taking a leap on how authority can affect us, let us first understand a little bit about social psychology and its importance.

 Social Psychology is a part of psychology that deals with human interactions and their effects on an individual level. It deals with the concept of social cognition, organizational behavior, conformism, authority, discrimination, etc. The way humans behave and their perceptions of other humans are of utmost importance in terms of studying Social Psychology.  It provides clarity and reasoning as to why we do the things we do.

Authority over obedience
Image by TukTukDesign from Pixabay

Authority – A part of Social Psychology

Feeling hurt when someone is spilling hate towards us is one such example. We don’t smile and hug people who say mean things to us. On the contrary, we lash out or move away from them. In short, other’s actions affect our behavior towards them. And sometimes- in a negative downward spiral.  That is why we see so many relations fail in our personal life.

Similarly, here we are interested in the way we react- when an authoritative person orders an innocent person to do a crime for them. The effect it has on them is our concern of understanding. Such research and knowledge help avoid behavioral errors that our humankind is prone to (as our history books suggest).

Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University conducted a scientific experiment on Authority. And the results of the study shook the entire psychology community. It became one of the most eye-opening experiments done in social psychology.

Milgram Experiment- A Study on Authority

A group of 40 male volunteers (age group- 20 to 40, broad career spectrum from unskilled to professional) took part in the experiment. Experimenters told them that it was scientific research on memory. And the student for the test, introduced as a part of the volunteers, was an actor.

Milgram experiment setup
Milgram Experiment Setup, Courtesy: Expiring frog at en.wikipedia, under CC BY SA (

The test setup included 2 rooms- the student sat in one room with electrodes attached to his arms. In the adjacent room, there was an electric shock generator (voltage levels ranging from 15V to 450V). The electric shock generator was not connected to the electrodes attached to the student (teacher volunteers were unaware of the fact). 

It was made sure that Milgram (as an authority) was respected among the teachers and the teachers in return followed the set of rules given by Milgram for the experiment to work.

The rules of the experiment were simple. The teacher had to ask a question to the student with Milgram as an authority (head researcher of the experiment) observing him. Each time the student would give a wrong answer, the teacher had to give a shock to the student (who is sitting in the next room) with an increased voltage level from the shock generator.  The student would shout and scream every time the teacher increased the voltage level (as part of the act).

Results of the Milgram Experiment

The results showed that the volunteers continued to give shock even when the student shouted and cried and pleaded to stop the experiment. Though some volunteers were hesitant at first, they continued to give a shock when Milgram as an authority took full responsibility for any dire consequence.

65% of the volunteers continued till the highest level (450V) and everyone continued till 300V.

Milgram Experiment Results
Milgram Experiment Results, Courtesy:

The study results clearly showed that people can be influenced by authority easily and can do worse things possible if asked to. This also explains why terrible incidents like holocaust happened in the past.

People may not have bad intentions or psychopathic behaviors, but when manipulated by negative influences they can obey to do worse things imaginable. This revelation is quite disturbing for our human society in general. And the painful human sufferings from the past are evidence of it.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.

– Obedience to Authority, Stanley Milgram

One side of the story

Though authority can negatively influence our humanity as seen from the Milgram experiment, it can affect us in a positive way too. Authority is both good and bad. It depends on the authoritative person’s perspective.

Someone with evil motive can influence a large group of followers. So can a Good Samaritan like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King who influenced us in a positive way. We must not be afraid of or look down upon authority.  Actually, it is quite the opposite.

Famous historical figures who were brilliant leaders displayed a sense of position and dignity. They gave reasons good enough to come up as legitimate commanders and be followed by millions of people.

Though the Milgram experiment focused on the negative side of authority, we should not form a cynical viewpoint on one of the most important subjects of social psychology. Here, we need to study authority through an unbiased lens.

Reasons Why Obedience Cannot Win Over Authority

Authority can influence millions of people
Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

We cannot question the authority in itself. But can obedience be?

Why innocent and wise people commit heinous crimes when asked to do so? Well, we can somewhat attribute our willpower and conformity to it.

If someone sees wrongdoings around him, most of the time, he will conform to it despite knowing the activities to be immoral. People conform to ideas and behaviours to fit in to the society for the fear of being socially left out.

Also, to speak against an established authority requires an immense courage. There is no doubt while confronting a commanding person- some whimper, few whines, and many freezes on the spot. We see such behaviors almost every day in an office setting between a boss and his juniors.

However, one significant reason why we as humans did such terrible things like holocaust in the past is the dispersion of responsibility. This factor played a vital role as we see in the Milgram experiment. Milgram took the responsibility of the experiment and the teachers continued to give shocks.

When the person in authority takes complete or partial responsibility of the acts, the followers obey the instructions without hesitation. They don’t have to ask their inner moral compass for what is right and what is wrong. They keep doing the wrong for the sake of it.

Milgram himself wrote in his book ‘Obedience to Authority’ –

The disappearance of a sense of responsibility is the most far-reaching consequence of submission to authority

Leaders over Followers

Wonder why there are so fewer leaders and more followers among us? Look around you. You will be amazed to find that most people like to follow. And, be told what to do than to be doing their own. And it is an added bonus if somebody else takes responsibility for their actions.

We fear to do our own. And we don’t like taking responsibility. And the reason is psychological.

Most of our human mind is framed in such a way that we don’t like to take responsibilities for our own actions. We prefer herding in a community and follow a group. On the other hand, a leader in a group, community or society takes the responsibility off our shoulders for the work we do (doesn’t matter whether it is good or bad).

We can always blame “He told me to do so”, “I didn’t do it by myself”, “She is the one to blame”, etc. etc.  Heard them more time than you want, right? Because- this reflects our basic human psychology. Exceptions in the form of Leaders do exist in our world but they are much fewer in numbers as compared to the Followers’ population.



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Trisha Nandi

A spiritual seeker and a psychology geek. That's me!

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