Think again Stanley

Since Stanley Milgram first published his classic study on obedience an enormous number of people have offered comments and reinterpretations of his work. Perhaps the most recent come from Alex Haslam and Stephen Reicher (famous for their adaptation of Zimbardo’s prison study). Haslam and Reicher suggest that there are several problems with the concept of the agentic shift. For example, how does this explain why subjects were less likely to obey in the run down office? Logically we might expect an increased agentic state (and higher obedience) because the relative authority of the experimenter was greater in a less prestigious environment.

Haslam and Reicher use a different explanation – social identity theory. They argue that the degree to which we obey someone depends on the extent to which we identify with them. The more you identify, the more you obey. They use this to explain Zimbardo’s experiment and also the obedience of guards in the Second World War. They may have been ordinary people (as Hannah Arendt proposed) but the reason for obedience was less to do with an agentic shift and more because they identified with the Nazi movement and believed it to be right.

The importance of this interpretation is that it may lead us to understand obedience to unjust authority better, in terms of identification rather than lack of autonomy.