How can we explain the psychological processes that make people obey an authority figure?
Milgram (1974) argued that people will, in an obedience situation, pass all responsibility for their actions to the authority figure. He said that people are in an autonomous state when they are taking responsibility for their own actions, but they move into an agentic state when they pass this responsibility to the authority figure. The shift from an autonomous state to an agentic state is called the agentic shift. When Milgram’s participants were debriefed after the original electric shock experiment (Milgram, 1963), many reported that they knew it was wrong to deliver dangerous electric shocks, but that they felt the experimenter was responsible and not them. At the Nuremberg trials, many Nazi soldiers defended their actions by saying it was not their fault as they were just following orders.
If people start small then it is easier to do something bad. In Milgram’s original electric shock experiment (Milgram, 1963), participants started by administering a 15 volt shock which was small and relatively harmless. The shock levels gradually increased in 15 volt increments and did not become dangerous or particularly painful until several shock had been administered. Had participants been asked to deliver just one large stick, it is less likely that they would have done so, but since they had started small it was only a little step to the next shock, and another little step to the one after that and so on. People gradually commit to doing bad things. Perhaps Nazi soldiers gradually committed to their actions against the Jews by moving from name calling,…