More than 50 years after Stanley Milgram conducted his famous experiments on authority and obedience, Darden ethics professor Bobby Parmar sheds new light on how people defy corrupt authority.
“We wanted to take another look at Milgram’s work to understand the mechanism behind disobedience,” he says, noting that an ability to spot unethical situations, and react, is vital to companies and society as a whole.
In 1961, Milgram, a professor at Yale, tested whether men from a variety of backgrounds would electroshock a stranger when commanded by an authority figure to do so. The majority of participants (64 percent) obeyed, administering shocks of increasing voltage throughout the experiment, even though the unseen person wailed from the next room and occasionally banged the wall. (No shocks were actually given; Milgram used actors and pre-recorded cries.) Slightly more than one-third of participants (36 percent) refused the orders; among these resistors, Milgram found no demographic pattern. In other words, no factor or combination thereof — age, occupation, education, marital status or military service — could be used to predict whether someone would follow or resist the immoral order.
A New Look at Resistance
But, by applying new analysis to Milgram’s data, Parmar has uncovered a previously unknown commonality among the resistors. After reviewing more than 1,000 pages of audio transcripts from the experiment, Parmar noticed subjects who ultimately disobeyed demonstrated distinctive speech patterns. They tested their assumptions, exercised “moral imagination” and speculated out loud about the consequences of their actions. (“Suppose he gets all these wrong, and I get up to a level where it’s going to be extremely painful?” asked one resistor.) The resistors were also quicker to personalize the issue and made more “I” statements. Said one resistor, “I can’t keep doing this to him” while another noted, “I don’t think I want to be part of this any longer.”
On the flip side, subjects who obeyed showed different verbal patterns. They dug into the procedural details of the task, which was to read word pairs and administer a shock if the unseen person could not correctly associate them (typical comments included “Do you want me to read these fast or slow?” or “Do you want me to write down the ones he gets wrong?”) The obeyers kept moral blinders on and read out word pairs, even as the “shocked” person cried out.
Does this mean that resistors represent a rare subset of people with a perfect moral compass and a strong backbone? Unlikely, says Parmar. Rather, resistors developed a moral understanding by asking questions, speculating and empathizing with “I” statements. Ultimately, they were able to override the authority’s instructions and make their own judgments.
“Disobedience emerges in [the] participant’s verbal construction of the issues,” Parmar writes. “Disobedient participants made the consequences of their actions and their personal preferences more salient through communication.”
Today, Milgram’s experiments seem crude — it’s clear that shocking a stranger is unethical. But in daily life, most people face choices in which there is a lot of ambiguity and the “problem” isn’t always apparent, Parmar notes.
“All of us are embedded in environments where we get conflicting orders, and often it’s not obvious what the right thing to do is,” Parmar notes, citing recent scandals like that at Wells Fargo, where employees opened bank accounts and credit lines under customers’ names without their consent. “A lot of us are on autopilot.” When you factor in a paycheck or status within a group, it can be easy to put on blinders.
To boost ethical decision-making, Parmar recommends managers:
- Seek out dissenting views on key issues.
- Question routine actions: Ask why something needs to be done (or not) and what purpose it serves.
- Speak up when business imperatives conflict with personal morals.
- Protect those on your team who ask questions.
- Consider data from multiple angles.
- Make ethical reflection and discussion a regular part of team work sessions: How does our strategy affect customers, community, employees, the environment? Who might gain under this plan? Who might suffer?
Bidhan L. Parmar is author of “Disobedience of Immoral Orders From Authorities: An Issue Construction Perspective,” forthcoming in Organization Studies.