The Relationship Between Obedience, Authority And Personal Morality: Stanford Prison Experiment

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Building a Rationale


Obedience is a change of behaviour, resulting in acting in a particular way due to an order from an authority figure (Heinzen & Goodfriend, 2019, p.198). Stanley Milgram renowned in the field of social psychology conducted experiments (1963, 1965) that examined the relationship between obedience, authority and personal morality and provide a reference of extreme, detrimental obedience. Milgram’s experiment (1963) tested how far and willing to obey authority when it involved administrating an electric shock to another partaker. The procedure included forty participants between the ages of twenty to fifty which involved three roles, the learner (actor), teacher (subject) and the experimenter. The role of the teacher was to discharge an electric shock for every mistake the learner had made, increasing the level at each mistake. When the subject refused to administer an electric shock, the experimenter prompted the participant to continue. Results from Milgram’s study highlighted that even when informed of the dangers of discharging electric shocks and the ability to withdraw from the experiment, the majority of participants still adhered to authority with 65% of the participants committed to 450 volts and all continued up to 300 volts (McLeod, 2017). Milgram interpreted such submission was not gaining satisfaction from inflicting pain but rather enjoying the pleasure of “doing a good job” of satisfying the experimenter (Milgram, 1974, p. 75), halting themselves as liable for their actions and shift the responsibility of their actions towards another agent; known as the agentic state.

A great example is the Stanford Prison Experiment, as it displayed the relative ease of participants to conform and obey under a certain environment; “within hours…some guards began to harass the prisoners” (McLeod, 2018). McLeod states such obedience from the prisoners was due to deindividuation, a state that individuals allow themselves to be fully immersed in characteristics of a social group that results in loss of moral identity (Saul McLeod 2018). The results of the Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated the ability to expand on Milgram’s research as it remains an important study that conveys the variability of how a social situation can influence behaviour (Cherry, 2019).

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Many psychologists have attempted to replicate Milgram’s experiments. For instance, Dolinkski et al. (2017) replicated Milgram’s experiments with the aim to determine if gender was a variable that affected obedience and authority. The results expressed the majority of the participants (90%) obeyed authority and administered the highest voltage. However, refusal behaviour was displayed when the learner was a female, demonstrating participants were three times more unlikely to adhere to the commands of the experimenter. Although the results were ambiguous and unable to determine the variability of gender, the experiment highlights the significance of Milgram’s studies such as the agentic state and provides insight into further obedience studies (Dolinkski et al., 2017).

Milgram conducted his experiments numerous times, varying the procedure in order to identify the factors that affected an individual’s obedience. However, many have criticised Milgram’s studies as it appeared Milgram had a notion for confirmation bias. Russell (2018) states Milgram did not publish critical experiment condition overviews as originally promised such as Condition 24: Relationship (1965), claiming perhaps it did not correlate with his theory thus, resulting in a fear of criticism. “When it didn’t suit him, he ignored it” (Perry, 2012 as cited in Russell, 2018, p.102). Upon further findings, Gina Perry also uncovered multiple interferences. In particular, the experiment was halted only if the participant refused to resume the experiment after denying numerous attempts to continue, such as urging a participant to continue over fourteen attempts rather than the four Milgram had stated (Anderson, 2014, p.2).


Overall obedience studies have been consequential for the field of social psychology and as conveyed through the Stanford Prison Experiment and the calamitous obedience under the Nazi Regime, accentuating the agentic state theory individuals adopt when abandoning their moral identity. Furthermore, these examples highlight the conflict between obedience and individual morality and the consequences of such obedience. However, a critical question remains; can past experiences of destructive submission increase free will?

The hypothesis of this experiment is that participants will obey the commands of an authority figure repeatedly. To investigate the aim of past negative affairs of obedience is a factor to decrease levels of obedience to authority a replication of Milgram’s experiments is required. However, as Milgram’s (1963, 1965) research did not meet ethical standards, Dolinkski et al, (2017) ethical considerations will be implemented as well. Further requirements include a sample size identical to Milgram’s (40) including twenty females and twenty males between twenty to 50 years of age, with a similar ethnic background, socio-economic background, location and education. The procedure will begin similar to Milgram’s, the teacher (participant) will administer an electric shock when the learner (actor) gives the incorrect answer, increasing the voltage for each mistake. After the experiment, participants will fill out a survey with questions focusing on their experience, morality and whether they would partake the experiment exactly the same as they had. After filling the survey, the participants will repeat the experiment.

Much like Dokinski et al. (2017) and the Stanford Prison Experiment, this experiment can further expand Milgram’s research and provide further insight into behavioural studies and the field of social psychology. This experiment can be an example to determine if past experiences of obedience can increase free will. Furthermore, it could provide further comprehension of repeated obedience and uncover the understanding of such obedience such as real-life example, obedience displayed in the Nazi Regime.


  1. Andersson, T. (2014). Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments by Gina Perry. International Social Science Review, 89(1), 2. Retrieved from
  2. Cherry, K. (2019). Why the Stanford Prison Experiment Is Still Infamous Decades Later. Retrieved 17 July 2019, from
  3. Dolinski, D., Grzyb, T., Folwarczny, M., Grzybała, P., Krzyszycha, K., Martynowska, K. & Trojanowski, J. (2017). Would you deliver an electric shock in 2015? Obedience in the experimental paradigm developed by Stanley Milgram in the 50 years following the original
  4. Studies. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 8(8), 927–933. doi: 10.1177/1948550617693060
  5. Heinzen, T., & Goodfriend, W. (2018). Social Psychology (1st ed., p. 198). Sage Publishing.
  6. Mcleod, S. (2018). Stanford Prison Experiment | Simply Psychology. Retrieved 15 July 2019, from
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  8. Milgram, S. (1973). The Perils of Obedience, 75. Retrieved from
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