'Nie wieder Krieg' :: Keiner hat das Recht zu gehorchen

Keiner hat das Recht zu gehorchen

A psychological observation on the obedience to authority and its consequences (1961)

At the end of World War II the world was shocked by the many cruel facts concerning the killing of over six million European Jews, plus Roma, Jehovah`s, homosexuals, disabled and other people of whom the German regime wanted to free its country. Many philosophers, scientists, politicians and other people wanted to know how something as horrifying as this could have happened. And especially how hundreds of thousands of people could have collaborated directly, or indirectly in this genocide.

In the decades after the war several experiments were done to answer that question. The one chosen in this canon is The Milgram Experiment of 1961. In this experiment the social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, designed a situation to find out how far people will go in torturing others under pressure of authority. In the first experiment three men were included: the experiment leader in a white coat; a participant who was told that he would be participating in an experiment about the consequences of physical punishment on learning habits; and  an actor playing the part of the learner. The following procedure took place: The participant had to ask the ‘learner` several questions, each wrong aswer had to be penalized with a shock, administered by the participant. The participant couldn`t see the ‘learner`, but he could hear him yell when the shocks became more severe. At the end of the experiment, when the shocks were over four hundred volts, the ‘learner` pretended he was unconscious. The given shocks were fake, as was the reaction of the ‘learner`. The participant wasn`t aware of this, of course. 40 psychiatrists were asked by Milgram, before the experiment would take place, to make an assessment of the percentage of participants who would go as far as 450 volts. They all agreed that no normal person would do such a thing. Their assessment was, that at most one percent of the participants would do such great harm to another innocent person. The outcome of the experiment however, gave an unbelievably high percentage. Two thirds of the participants had given the learner 450 volt, knowing what fear and pain, ultimately leading to unconsciousness, the shock would cause.

This was of course a shocking result. Milgram repeated the experiment 18 times in the next two years to figure out if race, culture, sex, or other situations, would affect the results. But all over the world the high percentage of 65 appeared to be stable. The Milgram experiment has been criticized by people all over the world, especially for ethical reasons, but the method is correct. And so, even though we may not want to know our own dark side, we have to accept the assertion of Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt. She concluded in 1951, after evaluation of the Eichmann trial, that people are able to participate in cruel actions under pressure of authority  even though they are "terribly and terrifyingly normal".


Off we go


  • Blass, T. 1991. 'Understanding behaviour in the milgram obedience experiment: the role of personality, situations, and their interaction.' Journal of personality and social psychology, 60, 398-413.
  • Laender, J. de. 2004. Het hart van de duisternis: psychologie van de menselijke wreedheid, Leuven: Davidsfonds.
  • Milgram, S. 1963. 'Behavioral study of obedience.' In: Journal of abnormal and social psychology, 67, 371-378.
  • Vogelsang, P. & Larsen, B.B.M.. 2002. The Danish center for Holocaust and Genocide studies. Retrieved march 4 2007 from http://222.holocaust-education.dk/holocaust/hvadhvemhvor.asp
  • Zimbardo, P. 1971. The Stanford prison experiment: a simulation study of the psychology of imprisonment conducted at Stanford University. Stanford: Stanford University press.
  • Zimbardo, P. 2007. The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. Stanford: Random House.

Further reading


Wilhelm Wundt
World War II

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