Pavlov's Couch

A Psychology Student's Mental Experience

Obedience to Authority by Stanley Milgram

Cover of the book Obedience to Authority by Stanley MilgramStarting in 1961 American psychologist Stanley Milgram started a series of experiments which were to become some of the most famous and revealing in history. After the Nuremberg Trials a lot of people were asking how the Nazis could have carried out the atrocities they did, and a common defense presented by those on trial was “I was following orders”. It was hard to believe, however, that people could really commit such heinous acts simply because they were ordered to. Milgram’s experiments showed that not only can the presence of authority easily influence people to bypass their moral judgements and inflict harm on others, but that the capacity and mechanisms for this exists inside each one of us.

This book, published over ten years after the experiments, is Milgram’s chronicling of the experiments, the results, the analysis and conclusions he drew, and some of the critical reactions it provoked. It is also very readable, which I have found is unusual for a book written by a psychologist. There is no excessive jargon or academic writing style, just plain language and good explanations.

Personally I found the book fascinating, and while I already knew about the famous experiment I was unaware that quite so many variations had been carried out and covering such a wide sample of the population. I would say this book should be required reading for just about everyone, not just psychologists, as it teaches us a lot about our own obedience to authority and by learning the lessons here we can learn to question and challenge authority when appropriate.

If you find this book interesting you may also like:
The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil – Philip Zimbardo
Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century – Lauren Slater

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