Milgram and Zimbardo: Creative Evil Rather than Blind Obedience?


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Zimbardo studied the effects of prison roles. Image by Ken_Mayer.

Reassessing the Milgram and Zimbardo Experiments

In their essay, Drs. Haslam and Reicher  claim that rather than demonstrating blind conformity, these two classic studies demonstrate 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.”  

In support of their statement, Haslam and Reicher point out that when Milgram’s study was conducted at a commercial establishment, rather than Yale, participants’ willingness to administer shock lessened.

Additionally, the authors point to the “debriefing” sessions conducted by Milgram after the study where it was apparent that subjects identified with the researcher noting “one typical participant responded, ‘Continue your experiments by all means as long as good can come of them. In this crazy mixed up world of ours, every bit of goodness is needed.’” 

While Zimbardo’s prison experiment has been interpreted to imply that people “conform unthinkingly to the toxic roles that authorities prescribe without the need or specific orders,” Haslam and Reicher’s remind us that  “not all guards acted brutally.  And those who did used ingenuity and initiative in responding…” 

Many “guards” created ways to punish the wayward “prisoners” that included sleep deprivation, physical demands and humiliation, actively shaping their responses.  In other words, the people participating exercised choice in both studies.

Implications of the Zimbardo and Milgram Studies According to Haslam

In an exclusive interview with Dr. Haslam for Decoded Science, Dr, Haslan explained, “we don’t think people really do ever conform blindly to authority.”  Rather, people are active participants in their responses.  Rather than authority itself, it is the identification with that authority and the desire to actively push forward the goals of authority that is problematic.

Haslam explained to Decoded Science, “obedience engenders none of  the dynamism and passion that really drives tyranny forward. For that you need  identification.”  He continues “we identify five steps that allow people to recast evil as  virtue:

 Step 1:  Identification – creating a cohesive ingroup

 Step 2: Exclusion – placing targets outside the ingroup

 Step 3: Threat – the  outgroup as endangering the enactment of ingroup identity

 Step 4: Virtue – representing the ingroup as (uniquely) good

 Step 5: Celebration – eulogising inhumanity as the defence of virtue

When asked by Decoded Science “What top-down internal checks and balances could public and private entities (government, business) employ to ensure that ethical roles are  internalized? Dr. Haslam replied, “it is possible to champion alternative models of identity that resist the  move towards tyranny — that is by challenging practices of exclusion, threat,  virtue and celebration.” 

Authority: Us vs. Them

“What is the model of “us” and “them” that is informing our  behaviour?” asks Dr. Haslam.  It is a question all of us should ask.  Authority is persuasive, but ultimately, we as people, are responsible for choosing our actions.


Haslam, S.A., Reicher, S. Contesting the ‘‘Nature’’ Of Conformity: What Milgram and Zimbardo’s Studies Really Show. (2012). PLOS Biology. Accessed November 24, 2012.

Zimbardo, P. Stanford Prison Experiment. (2011). Accessed November 24, 2012.

Leithead, A. Stanford Prison Experiment Continues to Shock.  BBC News. (2011). Accessed November 24, 2012.

Migram, S. Milgram Basics. Accessed November 24, 2012.

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