A Serious Challenge to the Milgram and Stanford Prison Experiments

“Authority allows two roles: the torturer and the tortured” – V for Vendetta, Alan Moore.

Picture: PaulR (CC)

A serious challenge to theories regarding human behaviour based upon the ground breaking Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments has been reported. Humans who choose to follow roles given them by authority figures actually relish the process more than was previously imagined, even when it involves gross acts of cruelty, according to The Telegraph:

Professor Stephen Reicher, Professor in the School of Psychology at the University of St Andrews, and Professor Alex Haslam of the University of Queensland, Australia, have published [a] paper in the journal PLos-Biology on the nature of tyranny and evil.


Professor Reicher said: “In short, people do harm not because they are unaware that they are doing wrong, but because they believe that they are doing right.

“It is this conviction that steels participants to do their dirty work, and that makes them act energetically and creatively to ensure its success.”

The study began when the two researchers ran their own prison experiment, which was broadcast by the BBC in 2002. This showed that people did not automatically slip into role.

They found the guards only acted tyrannically when they believed that harsh measures were necessary to create order.

More recently, Professors Reicher and Haslam have conducted a series of studies which revisit Milgram’s conclusions.

These show that people only go along with an authority when they believe that they are serving a greater good.

Paradoxically, they show that giving orders tends to undermine this belief and hence undermines obedience.


“Our own research shows that tyranny does not result from blind conformity to rules and roles, it is a creative act of followership that flows from identification with authorities who represent vicious acts as virtuous,” he said.

Professor Reicher added: “The fundamental point is that tyranny does not flourish because perpetrators are helpless and ignorant of their actions.

“It flourishes because they actively identify with those who promote vicious acts as virtuous.


Or, if you’d prefer to look at the original source, the findings are published on the PLOS Biology open access peer reviewed journal.

Nick Margerrison

I write on Disinfo for fun, I've been a fan of the company for years.

In the real world I'm a freelance TV/radio presenter. I've worked for LBC, Kerrang Radio, The Bay, Edge Media TV, Hallam FM and The BBC.

My podcast is here: http://thecultofnick.libsyn.com/

9 Comments on "A Serious Challenge to the Milgram and Stanford Prison Experiments"

  1. asshurtmacfags | Nov 23, 2012 at 4:27 pm |

    “Our own research shows that tyranny does not result from blind
    conformity to rules and roles, it is a creative act of followership that
    flows from identification with authorities who represent vicious acts
    as virtuous,” So simply changing the image of an act makes it okay? Under no scenario could you get me to go along with electrocuting my fellow human being because some suit told me it was for the best. Perhaps it isn’t that people think they’re being virtuous, it’s because there’s a complete lack of connection between their actions and the consequences of those actions.

  2. I don’t see how these conclusions contradict tthe Milgram and Standford Prison experiments… Either way you look at it, it requires people to carry out acts. The ‘conclusions’ drawn in these experiments can’t ‘prove’ the motivations of the actors in the experiments–just like I can’t prove conclusively _why_ Dahlmer hacked up and ate a bunch of boys. Only he knew that. I used to do things on ‘autopilot’ when I was younger, and it caused people harm around me. Now I’m more mature and I think more about the circumstances I’m in and I believe I cause less harm to those around me. Being more mindful of things, like the sadism involved in the capitalist mode of production, avails me with more information upon which to make key choices of what to consume in my life. Either way, it’s me acting on the ideas in my head, just like everyone else was in those experiments. Now how can I get a hold of these psychologists to explain this to them?

    Fucking academia–always thinking of more ways to undermine free will with grand theory.

  3. InfvoCuernos | Nov 23, 2012 at 6:38 pm |

    This makes sense. Most police that I have talked to outside of confrontation seem to put themselves in the role of a modern Knight or superhero, protecting the weak and innocent from “bad guys”. They justify every oppressive act with that self image playing in their head. Over years and years of re-enforcement via training, media, and peers, they can do things like pepper spray a line of peaceful demonstrators that are obviously not a danger to anyone without it bothering their conscience. Its also how prison camp guards could watch train cars full of jews get gassed and then go home to their families and call themselves good. Its two parts: seeing yourself as righteous, and seeing your enemy as subhuman. Once you can do both things, then you can commit any atrocity. Watch any episode of Cops and you’ll see it.

  4. BuzzCoastin | Nov 23, 2012 at 8:36 pm |

    “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.” John Dalberg-Acton 1870

    This corrupting power of power has long been known and
    little has been done to remedy this defect in human nature.

    • It’s immunity, not power. Elites that think themselves immune from the consequences of their actions are inherently corrupt. Elites that engineer society to ensure their immunity as is happening today corrupt themselves. This works until they get a reality check they and their societies combined can not cash..

      Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” is a case study of what happens to the elites that succeed in this process and are not replaced via revolution or invasion. We can’t ask the descendants of these elites for family history-based insights as to how this plays out, they passed into history after the societies they destroyed did. Or look into any good book on the fall of the Roman Empire.

      If it were just elites going lemming, they wouldn’t be missed. The tragedy is that they take their societies with them, thinking that their wealth can buy themselves and their descendants immunity from their actions. Nature always wins in the end.

      • BuzzCoastin | Nov 24, 2012 at 7:37 pm |

        Agreed, power is an illusion, but it’s an intoxicating illusion and with that illusion of power comes the illusion of immunity. All consequences are paid in full by the perpetrators in due time, but due time is often longer than one human generation.

        Nonetheless, elites are a side effect (byproduct) of the systems humans have created and I have met very few humans who can imagine living in a world not ruled by elites and their pigs.

        • Power by the wealthy over their fellow humans is no illusion.

          The idea that this wealth can buy exceptions to the laws of Nature that ultimately determine whether or not humans can survive in a specific place and time always is, no matter whether its soothsayers of thousand years ago or yes-men with degrees from reputable academic institutions whose current incomes come from telling their patrons what they want to hear IS an illusion.

          • BuzzCoastin | Nov 24, 2012 at 9:42 pm |

            > Power by the wealthy over their fellow humans is no illusion.

            if you have ever held a position of power
            corporate exec, coach, politician, cop or crossing guard
            you know power is an illusion
            what you perceive as the power of the elites
            is merely an effect of money & the acquiescence of the sheeple

            it’s also unfair to blame the elites for the present conditions
            and for exercising the illusory power we the sheeple have granted them

  5. Simiantongue | Nov 23, 2012 at 11:31 pm |

    “Nazis weren’t just following orders but ‘took pride’ in atrocities”

    Look at the photo in the telegraph article. Specifically the skull on his hat, subject matter and photo made me think of this.


Comments are closed.