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Just Following Orders – Obedience Experiment


In the Milgram Experiment, a well known study from 1961 Stanley Milgram conducted a psychological experiment to find out how far men would go when ordered to inflict pain on innocent people. He set out to explain the psychology of genocide. The study was inspired by the trial of German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Stanley Milgram

Presumably the experiment was an attempt to understand how seemingly ordinary men could traumatize fellow human beings and cause extreme pain and death as occurred between 1933-1945 in Nazi Germany.

Milgram wanted to answer the question: “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?”

“The experiment found, unexpectedly, that a very high proportion of subjects would fully obey the instructions, albeit reluctantly.”

Milgram summarized the experiment in his 1974 article “The Perils of Obedience”. PDF Here

The Experiment

Three individuals took part in each session of the experiment:

  • The “experimenter”, who was in charge of the session.
  • The “teacher”, a volunteer for a single session. The “teachers” were led to believe that they were merely assisting, whereas they were actually the subjects of the experiment.
  • The “learner”, an actor and confederate of the experimenter, who pretended to be a volunteer.


It was predicted that only a very small fraction of ‘teachers’ in the experiment (the range was from zero to 3 out of 100, with an average of 1.2) would inflict the maximum voltage.


65% (26 of 40) of the experiment participants administered the experiment’s final massive 450-volt shock and all of the participants administered shocks of at least 300 volts. While the subjects were uncomfortable doing so they inflicted the shocks nonetheless.

The Experimenter – The Stanley Milgram Story 2015


Just Following Orders

‘Just following orders’ falls under the category of Superior orders, also known as the Nuremberg defense. It is used in a court of law to claim that a person should not be considered guilty of committing actions that were ordered by a superior officer or official.

A person who refuses to follow orders that conflict with their ethics is referred to as a conscientious objector.

Conscientious Objector

The earliest recorded conscientious objector was Maximilianus, a Christian saint, martyr, and son of an official connected to the Roman army. He was conscripted into the Roman Army in the year 295 at the age of 21. He said he could not serve in the milarty because of his religious convictions. He was executed for this and was later canonized as Saint Maximilian.

Many conscientious objectors have been executed, imprisoned, or penalized when their beliefs led to actions conflicting with their society’s legal system or government. The legal definition and status of conscientious objection has varied over the years and from nation to nation. Religious beliefs were a starting point in many nations for legally granting conscientious objector status.

An early recognition of conscientious objection was granted by William the Silent to the Dutch Mennonites in 1575. They could refuse military service in exchange for a monetary payment.

The Nuremberg Trials

The Nuremberg trials were a series of 13 trials carried out in Nuremberg, Germany, between 1945 and 1949. The purpose was to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, The defendants included Nazi Party officials and high-ranking military officers along with German industrialists, lawyers and doctors. They were indicted on charges including crimes against peace and crimes against humanity. The Nazi leader Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) committed suicide and was never brought to trial. The trials were controversial at the time but today the Nuremberg trials are seen as a milestone toward the establishment of a permanent international court, and an important precedent for dealing with future occurrences of genocide and other crimes against humanity.

The Nuremberg Code

The trials established the Nuremberg Code which is still relevant today.

It served as a blueprint for today’s principles that ensure the rights of subjects in medical research. Because of its link with the horrors of World War II and the use of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps for medical experimentation, debate continues today about the authority of the Code, its applicability to modern medical research, and even its authorship.


The Tenth Level – 1975 Movie with William Shatner

Inspired by Stanley Milgram’s obedience research, psych professor Stephen Turner studies why people follow orders and hurt others. He is alarmed to see how much pain the students can be goaded to inflict in the name of science.”


Shot in 1975. The material was considered so controversial that none of the major CBS sponsors wanted to run their ads during the movie, so it languished on the shelf for nearly a year.”

The Milgram experiment raises an important question:

In what ways has the abuse of power contributed to a climate of fear within society?

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment
  2. https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/nuremberg-trials
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscientious_objector
  4. https://youtu.be/aveWmuULIl4


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