Sunday, 24 March 2013

Obedience to Authority

I recently bought a collection of essays by Walter Lippmann that includes 'Liberty and the News' and 'A Test of the News'. The collection also includes a preface by the great American scholar of modern journalism, Robert McChesney. I read again 'Liberty and the News' immediately after the British Parliament accepted new press regulations, and the essay reads as relevant today as it did in 1920 when it was first published. It is essential for anyone wishing to know about the dilemmas of modern journalism and who seeks to understand debates about the freedom of the press.

My friend, colleague and mentor Philip Taylor used to say that no student should graduate with a degree in Communications Studies without having read Walter Lippmann and Harold Lasswell. When together we re-designed the First Year undergraduate module, History of Communications, we made sure that both Lasswell and Lippmann featured prominently on the reading list. Certainly for the few brief years we were responsible for this module, all the First Year students in the Institute of Communications Studies were required to read these giants of their field.

Students often ask me my recommendation for the most useful or influential books to read. On propaganda, there is a huge bibliography, and Jacques Ellul's Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes (first published in 1962), a sophisticated theoretical discussion that is rooted in the author's sociological approach, must be close to the top. Let no-one say there is no theory of propaganda: Ellul is evidence of the contrary. It is not an easy read, and certainly I had to take my time with it when I first tackled it during my PhD - but the reader's patience and hard work will be rewarded.

However, there is another book that I recommend to students of communications and politics. I first read it in my First Year of  Political Studies - two years before commencing my own PhD on propaganda - where it was on the bibliography for the course called Explanations in Political Science. We also read Karl Marx, Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke among others, but no other book spoke to me as this one. I re-read it as part of my own research and still believe that, despite being a treatise on psychology rather than communications, it is an indispensable and convincing discussion of how propaganda and persuasion work. It provides an essential backdrop for understanding why men continue to commit the most atrocious acts in the name of a higher cause.

The book to which I refer is Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority, published in 1974, though the results of his experiments were first published in the early 1960s. The experiments he conducted are well-known and controversial and raised many ethical questions at the time: they involve persuading members of the public to administer electric shocks to other participants (actors in on the experiment) if they answer a question incorrectly. The subject is instructed to increase the power of the shocks (of course, this is all fake) and the actor screams in agony. The premise of the experiment is to determine how far someone will go in obeying authority, even when he protests about the harm he thinks he is causing a fellow human being. The participant is persuaded to do so through the manufacture of legitimacy: this is a scientific experiment, and is being conducted by men in white coats carrying clip boards within a laboratory setting. The scientist is the authority figure. As Schiller (2005: 158) notes, people 'have learned that when experts tell them something is all right, it probably is, even if it does not seem so.'

I suggest Obedience to Authority is one of the greatest studies of propaganda which turns on familiar and accepted symbolism - how many television advertisements for washing powder or toothpaste feature men in white lab coats holding clip boards - and therefore the creation of trust and legitimacy. To be effective propaganda must be rooted in a particular social setting; we may not feel comfortable doing the things we are asked to do, but if we can be persuaded that it is for a greater - and legitimate - cause (national security, the advance of science) we are more likely to participate.
As a psychologist Milgram helps us to understand why we are so vulnerable to persuasion. Perhaps we are uncomfortable with the experiments because they reveal something about human nature, our psychological vulnerability and our willingness to engage in disturbing acts even when we know it is wrong to do so.

Participation in the experiment even changed the way the subjects acted and thought about themselves. During the Vietnam War, Milgram received a letter from a subject who had taken part in the experiment:

While I was a subject in 1964, though I believed that I was hurting someone, I was totally unaware of why I was doing so. Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority… To permit myself to be drafted with the understanding that I am submitting to authority's demand to do something very wrong would make me frightened of myself… I am fully prepared to go to jail if I am not granted Conscientious Objector status. Indeed, it is the only course I could take to be faithful to what I believe. My only hope is that members of my board act equally according to their conscience… (Milgram, 1974: 200).
'I was only following orders' is a useful get-out for individuals who have committed some of the world's worst atrocities. But it is wrong to to think that this is what Milgram teaches us. Rather Obedience to Authority reveals the complexity of the human mind that is capable of processing much more than 'instructions'; within particular social settings and contexts we are persuaded rather than instructed, and such persuasion may be as much non-verbal as it is verbal (why else do we think that a picture paints a thousand words?). Symbols and stereotypes provide easy cues about how to think or behave towards certain people or in specific situations. 

However, there is reason for optimism. The overt and covert resistance demonstrated by some of the subjects in Milgram's experiment confirms that men are still capable of acting as agents of their own behaviour and can, like the conscientious objector quoted above, exercise choice; and this is comforting. in the information age with our addiction to mobile phones, the internet and virtual interaction, it is more important than ever before to teach media literacy so that we may preserve ability to choose and not have our choices decided for us.

As Albert Einstein said, 'The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything'. Above all, Milgam's experiments are a warning to those who watch and do nothing.


Lippmann, Walter (2010). Liberty and the News. New York: Dover.

Milgram, Stanley (1974). Obedience to Authority. New York: Harpercollins.

Shiller, Robert (2005). Irrational Exuberance (2nd ed.). Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.