Power, obedience and the authority figure: two lessons from social psychology

Within the field of social psychology, power has been the subject of numerous studies, mainly due to the desire to understand and even explain frightening behaviors that have marked history.

Tekst: Mila Apostolova

Power is a notion that goes hand in hand with other terms. It is difficult to think of it without also bringing up concepts such as control, authority, and submission. Within the field of social psychology, power has been the subject of numerous studies, mainly due to the desire to understand and even explain frightening behaviors that have marked history. This text will focus on the power exercised by what we call an authority figure, and illustrate this power dynamic through two famous psychological experiments.

Authority figures are people surrounding us in our daily life, exercising their power regularly. A teacher has power over his students, parents over their children. A boss has power over his employees, politicians have the power over a government. When we think about it, social power is present in all areas of life. It manifests itself in different forms and degrees, but is always present. Thus, how can we explain the relationship between authority and power?

“What makes people obey”

In her 1958 essay What is authority, philosopher Hannah Arendt starts by defining authority as “what makes people obey”, and introduces the idea that the power that arises from authority is different in nature to the power based on physical force as well as the power of persuasion through argumentation. For example, if someone is able to make him/herself obeyed by others simply because he/she is stronger, then this person has no authority. The French philosopher Rousseau uses another example, stating that a criminal who points a gun at you has no authority, as you simply obey him because you fear for your life. On the other hand, argumentation and persuasion represent, according to Arendt, means of influencing other people’s thoughts and even decisions. However, the people involved in persuasion perceive their audience as equals, whilst in the dynamic of authority there’s inequality between the people. If you resort to argumentation, it implies that you are renouncing your authority, such as parents who want to justify their orders over their children, according to Arendt.

How does the dynamic of authority versus submission arise between people? Two famous psychological experiments have attempted to answer this question and have been remembered for their shocking results and what they might say about our society.

The Milgram experiment

Stanley Milgram’s experiment, conducted in 1960, is one of the most famous studies in the history of social psychology. The objective of the experiment was to evaluate the level of obedience to orders given, and whether obedience in certain circumstances would contradict the moral beliefs of the subjects. Three figures are involved in the experiment: a “student”, a “teacher” and an “experimenter”, in which the “teacher” is the subject of the experiment. The “student”, who is an actor, is attached to an electric chair and has the role of learning lists of words by heart. Each time the student gets the wrong answer he/she will, from the teacher’s point of view, receive electric shocks. The person assigned to be the teacher, must make the student learn the lists of words and inflict “electric shocks” on him/her when he/she is wrong. Finally, the experimenter is the one who manages the experiment and explains to the teacher what to do. He represents the authority and has an appearance that enhances this role, such as a white coat, a serious and confident attitude, good posture, etc. It is important to note that the electric shocks are not real, the student is in fact an actor and accomplice of the experimenter.

The teacher and the student are placed in different rooms separated in a way so that the student’s screams when receiving the “electric shocks” are audible. The electric shock had an increasing intensity of 15 Volts each time the student made a mistake, to a maximum of 450 Volts, which is known to the teacher, who administer the shocks, to be extremely dangerous and painful. The more the intensity of the shocks increases, the louder the student screams and consequently begs the teacher to stop and says he/she wants to get out and stop the experiment. The role of the experimenter is to instruct the teacher to continue despite the cries of the student.

Milgram’s experiment showed that it is possible to make a person act inhumanely by following orders, showing how submissive we can be, even to the point of forgetting our own morals

During the first experiments, 62.5% of the subjects continued the experiment until the end, meaning that they inflicted 450 Volts on the student three times. In other words, more than half of the participants were willing to kill or badly injure the student just because they were ordered to do so by an authority figure.

In summary, Milgram’s experiment showed that it is possible to make a person act inhumanely by following orders, showing how submissive we can be, even to the point of forgetting our own morals. The shocking results lead us to question ourselves on where this submission comes from and how we can explain it. One theory is that we are conditioned during our childhood to be obedient, and as adults we end up being more comfortable in general when we are in an obedient state rather than a reactive one. “Obedience is a very important social norm, it allows social groups to function. When you educate a child, this is one of the first things you teach him”, writes Peggy Chekroun, professor at Paris Nanterre university. But with Milgram’s experience, we realize that when obedience is so present in our education and society, it can sometimes lead to the worst.

The Stanford experiment

In August 1971, a Stanford University psychology professor named Philip Zimbardo recruited about twenty students to participate in what he called a “prison experiment.” He assigned them randomly to the roles of “guards” or “inmates” and gave military clothing and sunglasses to the ones who were chosen as guards, to give them a sense of power as well as anonymity. He then asked the inmates to wear chains on their feet and blouses without underwear, which he characterized as a humiliating costume, making those people feel helpless. The guards couldn’t call the prisoners by their name, they had to address them using a number. Zimbardo’s role was to observe the students in a fake prison – three offices in the basements of the psychology department turned into cells.

The experiment was planned to last two weeks, but had to be concluded after six days because of the dangerous consequences that emerged. Several prisoners suffered nervous breakdowns, the guards started torturing them psychologically and physically in many ways. Zimbardo’s initial hypotheses seemed to be confirmed, since the experiment demonstrated that certain roles create a dynamic of power and violence.

However, this study is currently being criticized and even discarded. In his essay Story of a lie, the French researcher Thibault Le Texier explains that while searching the archives of the experiment, made public in 2011, he found that Zimbardo didn’t just observe the participants. He also intervened by giving the guards a schedule and even ideas to punish the inmates. Another problem with this experiment is that no other scientist has tried to replicate it, which limits its statistical value. By comparison, the Milgram experiment has been replicated 780 times, testing different variables.

However, even if the Stanford experiment is biased, it remains an interesting study that demonstrates how human beings can act in a cruel way when given the right to do so. When Zimbardo was a professor, universities were marked by radical activism and the denunciation and criticism of the Vietnam War. In this strong political context, one of Zimbardo’s reasons to conduct such an experiment was to observe the extent to which sadistic behaviors and actions can go. He was specifically interested in the prison environment because of scandals arising at the time, reporting the brutality of American prison guards. However, later on it has become common for other researchers to connect the Stanford experiment to historical events such as the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, in an attempt to decipher some behaviors that keep repeating themselves throughout history.

Specifically, this experiment, as well as the Milgram experiment, are often cited in support of Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil, where she suggests that people can perform evil acts without having evil intentions, because they are just “doing their job”; they are following a role. This lack of consciousness and disengagement from the reality of evil acts are found in the Stanford experiment, where the participants conform to the social roles they are expected to play.


At 18 years old, the French poet Etienne de La Boétie wrote that “tyrants and leaders manage to keep us under the yoke because we need to submit”. He describes human beings to be not only accepting of dominance but also desiring it. The two experiments discussed here seem to agree with La Boétie’s idea that it is easy for few to have power and for many to obey. Our inability to revolt is considered a danger, not only because we lose our freedom but also because we steal it from others.         

The two experiments discussed here seem to agree with La Boétie’s idea that it is easy for few to have power and for many to obey.

What is the solution then, you might ask. According to La Boétie, if we want to improve our political and personal life we should focus more on small acts of resistance that can be made every day, instead of sacrificing all our energy solely on a “revolution”. He argues that big acts of resistance might lead to less freedom, because of the risk of falling under the control of another authority figure, and losing our individual power again. Thus, if we want to avoid a dynamic of authority on one end and obedience on the other, we should first and foremost distance ourselves from a passive approach to life.


Mila Apostolova (f. 2001): student i kognitiv nevrovitenskap ved Universitet i Oslo.