10 stepping stones to mindless obedience

In a previous post I introduced the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments as possible explanations for the poor quality of care at Mid Staffs Hospital and questioned whether it was caused by bad apples, bad barrels or bad barrel makers.  In this post I summarize a piece by Philip Zimbardo, author of book – The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil, on the  lessons from the Milgram studies.  Zimbardo draws on the Milgram experiments to explain the ten the characteristics of a situation that can lead good people to carry out, support or tolerate evil acts.


Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/sculpies

The Milgram Experiments

Milgram conducted the infamous obedience to authority experiment involving an fake electric ‘shock generator’ with 30 switches. The switch was marked clearly in 15 volt increments, ranging from 15 to 450 volts.

In addition to the numerical label the increments  were also labelled with “slight shock,” “moderate shock,” “strong shock,” “very strong shock,” “intense shock,” and “extreme intensity shock.” The next two anchors were “Danger: Severe Shock,” and, past that, a simple “XXX.”

The learner (actors) were asked a series of questions.  The teacher (participants) were told to administer an electric shock every time an answer was incorrect and were instructed to treat silence as an incorrect answer and apply the next shock level to the learner.

In response to the supposed electric shocks, the “learner” (actor) would:

  • 75 volts – begin to grunt
  • 120 volts – complain
  • 150 volts – ask to be released
  • plead with increasing vigor,
  • 285 volts – let out agonized screams
  • yell loudly and complain of heart pain
  • 330 volts – fall totally silent

If at any point the teacher hesitated to inflict the shocks, the experimenter would pressure him to proceed with statements, such as “The experiment requires that you continue.”

Amazingly, sixty-five percent (65%) of the teachers were willing to progress to the maximum voltage level – 450 volts.

The study showed that ordinary citizens, like you and I, could be seduced to engage in apparently harmful behaviour.

Zimbardo’s ten stepping stones

Rather than focusing on why people engaged in the act of inflicting harm (bad apples), Zimbardo’s analysis of the experiment focuses on the characteristics of the situation.

So what are the ten stepping stones to mindless obedience?

  1. Existence of a prearranged contractual obligation, verbal or written (Milgram’s study subjects publicly agreed to accept the tasks and the procedures
  2. Meaningful roles for people to play (“teacher,” “learner” are value laden and invoke stereotypes)
  3. A set of basic rules and insistence that they must be followed (instructions given by a researcher in the lab coat)
  4. Replacing unpleasant reality with desirable rhetoric (from “hurting victims” to “helping the experimenter”)
  5. Creating opportunities for the diffusion of responsibility (the researcher in the lab coat said he would take responsibility for anything that happened to the learner)
  6. A small, seemingly insignificant first step (the initial shock was only a mild 15 volts).
  7. Success gradual steps (each increment was hardly noticeably – “Just a little bit more.”)
  8. Inconsistent, therefore confusing, authority figures – (a researcher who changed from “just” and reasonable to “unjust” and demanding and then irrational).
  9. High exit costs (allowing verbal dissent but insisting that the experiment must be completed).
  10. A cover story – a “big lie” to justify the action (participants were told they were contributing to science that would help improve people’s memory)


Zimbardo notes:

“In the future, when you are in a compromising position where your compliance is at issue, thinking back to these ten stepping-stones to mindless obedience may enable you to step back and not go all the way down the path—their path.

“A good way to avoid crimes of obedience is to assert one’s personal authority and to always take full responsibility for one’s actions. Resist going on automatic pilot, be mindful of situational demands on you, engage your critical thinking skills, and be ready to admit an error in your initial compliance and to say, “Hell, no, I won’t go your way.”


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