According to Milgram’s experiments, 80% of people would submit to authority? Not so easy

Are we mainly sheep? And would there be only a brave minority to resist? This is essentially the content of viral posts on Facebook that have been viewed almost a million times. Based on the experiment created by Stanley Milgram, it is confirmed that “80% of the population does not have the psychological resources to defy an order of authority”, regardless of its illegality.

“As a result, the Post estimates that only 20% have the ability to think critically. “And to claim, ‘That explains that.’ “It explains the number of sheep injected with a product that has never been used in the general population,” supports one user in his comment, when others recall that the Milgram experiment does not lead to this conclusion.


The experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s – there were more than twenty protocols – cannot be reduced to this simplification. During his experiments, the American psychologist ordered a sample of 1,000 people to make a man suffer for so-called scientific learning research.

Every time this student (actually an actor) made a mistake in a word association exercise, people had to give him an increasing (simulated) electric shock in increments of 15 volts. Among the various protocols, at most 65% – not 80% – of participants agreed to go to 450 volts, a potentially fatal shock. These experiments have become a classic of social psychology and have since been conducted in a dozen countries including Australia, South Africa and France. Between 1967 and 1985, submission rates in other studies ranged from 28% to 91%, according to an article by Thomas Blass, a professor of social psychology at the University of Michigan.

“A kind of state in which the individual is subject to authority”

His research led the Yale University psychologist to conceive, in a book of the same name published in 1974, of submission to authority’s commands, since it is not their responsibility,” explains Laurent Begue-Shankland, professor of social psychology at the University of Grenoble, who himself conducted such a study in France.

Stanley Milgram shows in his essay that authority is ultimately responsible for the situation. He speaks of an “agent state” where “the individual is an agent of a higher authority and evades responsibility,” summarizes Laurent Begue-Shankland. Milgram wanted to understand how ordinary people could be tricked into committing atrocities like those committed by the Nazis during World War II.

A controversial interpretation

The words of the aforementioned viral post “make no sense” outside of the experimental context created by Milgram, believes Laurent Begue-Shankland. “You only have to change one element of context to get different rates,” he says. We absolutely cannot extrapolate this statistic to other topics in other contexts. For example, the 65 percent compliance rate occurs when the subject does not see the victim, only hears it. It drops to 30% when participants are required to hold the victim’s arm to receive the electric shock and to 21% when instructions are given over the phone.

While the phenomenon of obedience was established, Stanley Milgram’s interpretation of it was challenged by later studies. “We can say that people are sensitive to directives from authorities, that they have a deep tendency to think about them and sometimes to obey them,” asserts Laurent Begue-Shankland. But we are not robots and many parameters play a role. »

methodological flaws

In 2013, Australian psychologist Gina Perry wrote a book exposing the flaws in Milgram’s methodology. In the interview below timeShe believes it is “extremely difficult to draw any conclusions” from these experiments.

“Instead of blindly submitting, as Milgram seemed to think, they try to negotiate their participation, arguing with the experimenter (the one playing the role of the scientist in the white coat), adds Laurent Begue-Shankland 20 minutes. They try to avoid hurting the victim and sometimes try to cheat so they don’t get shocks. They are actively involved, and while they obey, they ultimately obey far less blindly than Milgram seemed to believe. »

In addition, by studying Milgram’s archives and records, it was found that participants believed they were responsible for what they had done. Laurent Begue-Shankland said they were “very relieved” after learning the experiment was a simulation brain and psycho.

New perspectives like the robot fish

2014 in the scientific journal Plus oneResearchers have dissected the conditions of these experiments to determine their degree of importance, between the legitimacy of authority, more or less authoritarian interventions by the scientist, proximity to the person receiving the shocks. “Although the meanings [des expériences] remain elusive and continue to fuel disagreements, attempts at clarification remain important,” they said.

Therefore, to open up new perspectives, Laurent Begue-Shankland renewed Milgram’s research in 2021 with his experience with the robotic fish, he said confronted with animals. Our emotions, our prejudices, our ambivalences. In a new protocol, he asked almost 750 participants to administer a toxic product to a fish (actually a biomimetic robot) 12 times in order to determine its harmfulness in the context of the development of a new drug. At the end of the sixth dose, the fish had a 50% risk of death, of which the participants were informed.

The role of perceived authority

In this way, he was able to work through the role of personality traits: people with low empathy or for whom there is a strong hierarchy between groups of people are more inclined to distribute more toxins to fish. The main goal was to find out how far a person is willing to go in the name of scientific research. “It may seem like a subtlety, but in reality, assuming that the individual being influenced by authorities is not acting totally against his will, there is a certain legitimacy that he grants him,” he specifies.

This idea could be explored using a sheet suggested to the participants in the preamble to the experiment. And all while being conditioned: In the Proscience condition, they were asked how important science was to them. In the critical science condition, they were asked to write down what they disliked about science. “People initiated in a pro-scientific way will go further,” notes Laurent Begue-Shankland. What modulates submission to authority is the perception participants have of the ends of the experience, of the goal, and not just of the immediate pressure of authority that would stand blindly at the source of obedience, he concludes.

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