Authority and Obedience – The Impact of Leadership, Power, Rank

In one of my review papers, Milgram’s experiment on authority and obedience was regarded in terms of the historical context, the impact on the science of psychology and the concept of the agentic shift. It shows the impact of leadership and the impact of power and rank on human beings.

Milgram’s studies, in 1960, and 1974 have had a tremendous impact and influence on the field of psychology, and the impact on ethical responsibility and respect. The outcome of these studies were that participants were capable of following the experimenter the whole way through till the bitter end. They handed over their responsibilities to authority and followed his orders.This result shocked the world on the one side and on the other side it has opened eyes in the field of psychology to see how human behaviors can change in certain situations. It has contributed enormously to our understanding of human, cognition.

It is important to point out, that this experiment was taken after the previous time of World War II. Adolf Eichmann was a German Nazi SS lieutenant and one of the major organizers of the Holocaust. He was managing the mass deportation of Jews in the World War II. He said, “ he had simply been carrying out others people’s orders “ ( Eysenck, 2009, p. 455). It demonstrated the link between obedience on authorities and loosing courage to take own responsibility to avoid harm. It also shows the influence of power on individuals, groups, society and what happens, if it will be abused by authorities. His researches appeared in a time of history where a significant change happened in the history of psychology, between 1960, and 1970. There was a breakthrough in the history of psychology, where the cognitive revolution, was described as a paradigm shift.

Milgram as a jew had the holocaust clearly in mind as the idea when we are talking about the agentic shift. Yet his research and follow-up studies years after providing evidence that this phenomenon is not only related to culture. It is a phenomenon in human beings and behavior in general.

In the years after the outcome of his experiment on authority and obedience, Milgram’s study, was analyzed and observed critically by different researchers. In follow-up studies carried out in the US, the connection was validated between authority and obedience in various environments. Some key studies have shown that this phenomenon of obedience related to authorities is still an issue in working fields. This includes doctor’s and nurses, teacher’s, students, private circumstances between parents and children and also in the context of cross-cultural environments. In Milgram’s research (1974) and in Blass methodological replications 35 years later, it’s shown that according to gender there’s no difference to be found between men and women.

The influence of authority, rank, and power in the relationship between doctor’s and nurses appeared in “a real-life study“(Eysenck, 2009, p. 458) of Hofling et al.(1966). Nurses followed the doctor’s orders, although their inner wisdom told them the order would have had negative consequences. The nurses didn’t follow their inner voice of consciousness and avoid acting.

In relation to gender difference between men and, woman Milgram (1974) found out, that it makes no difference. Men reacted, similar to women, in authority and obedience.
Some years later in a pivotal study by Band and Smith (1996), the investigation of power and obedience in a cross-cultural context showed a high percentage.“The percentage of totally obedient participants was very high in several countries“(Eysenck, 2009, p. 458).
In 1997 in a study by Lesar, Bricelad, and Stein the result of obedience between doctor’s and nurses was similar compared to the result in 1966.
It shows that nothing has changed over 30 years regarding obedience on authority and using of power and rank.It seems that these phenomena are still an ongoing issue in our society, today.

In the next part, it is considered, the concept of the agentic shift in Milgram’s years. It describes a handover of responsibility to an authority’s order or system. The participants became an “instrument of authority”(Eysenck, 2009, p. 458) where they didn’t react consciously anymore and where they lost their responsibility of acting and leadership of life.”Someone in the agentic state thinks “I’m not responsible because I was ordered to do it!”(Eysenck, 2009, p. 458). The autonomous state shifts to an agentic state. In Hofling’s study, the agentic study is described in situations where nurses obeyed to authorities and were following the hierarchy system in hospitals.As explained by Burger (2009)”Our culture socializes individuals to obey certain authority figures, such as police officers, teachers, and parents”.

Still today the theory of obedience to authority isn’t clarified completely. Although Milgram assumed, that every person has either a tendency on obedience to authority or to deny, he wasn’t able to deliver evidence on 100%. Instead of he described two functional states. The state of autonomy and the state of agentic. In Milgram’s experiment participants were shifted into an agentic state. They continued following the experimenter’s orders although their inner voice told them the opposite and they were hesitating. The experiment has shown that the test person was following the experimenter’s order rather than following the orientation of the victim’s pain. This is where the laborated state shifted to the agentic state. Although the participants were in an inner conflict more than 60% were capable of giving shocks until the highest intensity of 450 volts, which would have led to death in reality.

The issue of obedience to authorities is still found in today’s world and “only further research can provide the convincing means to sharpen theoretical understanding of destructive obedience”(Miller, 2009, p. 21). In the light of modern research, the agentic shift won’t appear in this scope as it has happened in the time of Milgram’s study. Burger’s (2009) “Replicating Milgram” is an improved example and a very useful study in social and personality psychology, as it includes both methodological and ethical dimensions.

Because of people are much more aware and conscious today.”Some people have argued that individuals these days are more aware of the dangers of blindly following authority than they were in the early 1960s”(Burger, 2009, p. 4). It shows that a shift has happened in the conscious mind in individuals, in parts of the society, globally and collectively. Consequently, a different approach to leadership is possible today and can make positive change happen.It’s called leading with more consciousness. As a leader and lover of justice and peace one need to be conscious of one’s impact, about the meaning of taking responsibility, the meaning of permission, deep democracy, vulnerability, intuition, compassion, and creativity. Leading with consciousness and from inside-out needs to be manifested.This topic “authority and obedience“, “power and rank“ is still an ongoing issue and is applicable to so many contemporary social, racial, globally justice concerns and work places. Therefore it is more than urgent to act in this midst of mess up and uncertainty in today’s world. To my point of view, all leaders and lovers of justice and peace are needed to get up and wake up others consciousness.

I hope investigations will continue.

Annabelle-C. Breuer-Udo is a Leadership Coach,Relationship Coach, Process Facilitator, Psychotherapist and TriYoga Instructor at Transformation from Inside-Out. Contact her for information about how coaching, process facilitation, and bodywork can transform your life and make your life feel better, make you achieve greater fulfilment in your relationships.


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Burger, J. M. (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today? American Psychologist, Vol. 64, No. 1, 1-11. doi: 10. 1037/a0010932
Blass, T. (1999). The Milgram Paradigm after 35 years: some things we now know about obedience to authority. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 1999, 29 ,5, pp. 955-978.
Baumrind, D. (1964). Some thoughts on the ethics of research: After reading Milgram’s “Behavioral Study of Obedience.” American Psychologist, 19(6), 421. doi:
Ludy, T. , Benjamin, Jr. , Simpson, J. A. (2009). The power of the situation.The impact of Milgram’s obedience studies on personality and social psychology. American Psychologist, Vol. 64, No. 1, 12-19. Doi : 10.1037/a0014077
Miller, A. G. (2009). Reflections on “Replicating Milgram (Burger,2009). American Psychologist, Vol. 64, No. 1, 20-27. Doi: 10.1037/a0014407
Brysbaert, M. , & Rastle, K. (2009). Historical and conceptual issues in psychology. Harlow: Pearson.
Eysenck, M.W. (2009). Fundamentals of Psychology. New York : Psychology Press.
Haslam, A. , & Reichler, S. (2011, September 1). Stanley Milgram taught us we have more to fear from zealots than zombies.

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