Psychology and Autocracy

A recent op-ed in the New York Times warned that would-be autocrats–yes, Donald, we’re looking at you–get very dangerous when cornered. As Trump finds it more and more difficult to live in the fantasy-land he has constructed, there’s no telling what he might do.

This caution is similar to worries I’ve heard expressed about the time period between the election and January 21st, when (hopefully!) a new President assumes office. Both concerns are valid–and we all need to recognize that the feckless Republicans in Congress are responsible for whatever happens.

A reference in that same op-ed made me think about the blind obedience of those Republican elected officials.

After noting the departure of ethical Executive Branch officials and their replacement with “an army of pliant flunkies and toadies at the agencies, combined with the always-enabling Mitch McConnell and an increasingly emboldened attorney general, William Barr,”  the author wrote

Three years ago, a friend of mine shrewdly pointed out that Trump’s election would be like one long national Milgram experiment, the famous psychological study from the 1960s that revealed just how susceptible people are to authority, how depressingly willing they are to obey even the most horrifying commands.

Readers of this blog undoubtedly remember learning about the Milgram experiment, (initially undertaken to investigate why so many Germans had insisted that they had participated in genocide because they were “just following orders.”)

Volunteers were told that they were participating in an experiment in which they would be “teachers” administering electric shocks when “learners” gave incorrect answers. In reality, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram was studying the willingness of people from a variety of backgrounds and a diverse set of occupations to obey an authority figure who ordered them to perform acts that were in conflict with their personal morality.

The fake electric shocks gradually increased to levels that would have been fatal had they been real. The experiment demonstrated that despite the discomfort and reluctance of most volunteers (and despite hearing the “learners” screaming in pain), a very high proportion of the volunteers continued to obey the authority figure’s instructions and administer the shocks..

Milgram himself summarized the experiment in 1974, in an article titled, “The Perils of Obedience”:

The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not.

The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation. Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

I’m still mulling over the applicability of the Milgram experiment to those we might consider Trump’s Republican “troops”–and what the results of the experiment might mean for America over the next few months.


  1. Combine autocrat with narcissism, mental incompetence, lack of any viable level of education and with billions of dollars of family money at his fingertips and you have Donald Trump; who would probably confound Stanley Milgram as to how this particular specimen could lure anyone to turn all control over to.

    “Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram was studying the willingness of people from a variety of backgrounds and a diverse set of occupations to obey an authority figure who ordered them to perform acts that were in conflict with their personal morality.”

    Those currently obeying Trump by “performing acts that were in conflict with their personal morality” began their shocking (pun intended) behavior under the leadership of Mitch McConnell and brought much of President Barack Obama’s administration’s progress to a standstill. They were first McConnell’s Republican “troops” and remain so; bringing the House Democrats to a standstill…with the help of SCOTUS and the placement of two of Trump’s lifetime members to “keep it legal”.

    Watch Trump when someone else is speaking; the blank look with puckered lips and his rocking back and forth are symptoms of an emotionally disturbed person. His “troops” need to be replaced; but McConnell, the true leader of those “troops” is the most dangerous enemy of this country. Without him, Trump would have accomplished none of his deconstruction of democracy, Rule of Law and denying his Oath of Office to uphold the Constitution and would have been impeached early on. Does anyone truly believe Trump has thought up all of the disastrous, destructive actions he has taken since January 20, 2017? He may be that evil but he isn’t that smart.

  2. While the Milgram experiment demonstrated the extreme in how the majority are willing to obey authority, we can see every day how the majority so willingly “goes along to get along” in our society of greed, racism, and narcissism.

    We know that pollution of every kind is destroying the planet, yet we use up our resources and toss the remnants away. We know that all should contribute to the cost of maintaining a decent society, yet many connive and cheat their way out of paying their fair share toward that maintenance. We know that our government has stolen children from their parents, holds them hostage to a political agenda, and yet the heartless among us wine and dine and play their days away. We know that the Catholic Church aided and abetted the crime of sexual abuse committed against thousands of children, yet millions continue to remain in that religion even as it turns its intolerance toward those who do not meet its definition of sexual purity.

    It takes moral courage to stand up to evil. Recent events in the streets indicate that some of that moral courage has been awakened. Let us each make sure that our own moral courage is vibrant and fully engaged.

  3. Co-dependent behavior is learned from the consistency of dysfunctional family that nurtures all the nuances of a mental health phenomenon in our nation. The father who pulls strings to protect his son from military service by influencing a doctor to basically lie to get his son off the hook spawns co-dependent behavior right into young adulthood. One of the symptoms of co-dependent behavior is a fear of abandonment. This will play into our wounded narcissist in chief’s determined obstinance to occupy The White House regardless of election outcome. When Lord of the Flies is your chief of staff, no wonder 1600 Penn has become an island of misfits.

  4. The Milgram experiment?

    So, Americans buy into the authoritative culture. Who knew?

    Factually, you are drugged and abused if you don’t follow the authoritarians in society. In some cases, you are literally being beaten into submission even though you will proudly exclaim your independence.

    The “novel” word is oppression. It says more about those in a position to oppress than those being oppressed. As indicated, it’s a moral violation but for some reason, society marches along in lockstep.

  5. Sometimes children learn from their parents what they should do. Other times children learn what they shouldn’t do. If there is any ray of sunshine over these past three years, it is that so many Americans seem to be disturbed by what they have seen. Now we will see what they will do about it.

  6. This is so bad, I’m at a loss for words that I haven’t already written. The cornered rat will lash out. The rat with the fake hair, the fake persona and the rotten brain will do things unimaginable between now and January 20th, 2021.

    It is my hope that Jim Mattis’ letter acted as cover for his military brethren to stand up and save our democracy from its greatest threat since the Civil War. They MUST not allow the wretched domestic enemy to destroy the Constitution. It’s part of the oath we all took when we donned the uniform of our country.

  7. A great time to give a huge round of applause to Bernie and AOC for (apparently beating Amy in KY) for the sake of hard left ideology and leaving us with Mitch when she had a decent chance.

  8. There has been much re-thinking among social scientists about the Milgram Experiment. His methodology and conclusion have been questioned. It seems a newer term “situationality” and the question of more variability are in the discussion. I think we need only to look at the reluctance of those ex-administration officials to speak and to act for information about where we stand as a country. I’d estimate we’re up to 150 volts.
    At starting place for more information on Milgram is an excellent article in The Atlantic in Jan. 28, 2015, by Cari Romm: “Rethinking One of Psychology’s Most Infamous Experiments
    In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram’s electric-shock studies showed that people will obey even the most abhorrent of orders. But recently, researchers have begun to question his conclusions—and offer some of their own.”

  9. “One of the symptoms of co-dependent behavior is a fear of abandonment. This will play into our wounded narcissist in chief’s determined obstinance to occupy The White House regardless of election outcome,” from Norris. What evidence is there that DJT is planning to defy a Biden win? Why perpetuate an unfounded thought?

  10. Kate beat me to the punch, and though I dare not question the conclusions drawn from the famous experiment Sheila discusses today, I will. I don’t know enough about this “famous” experiment, as in, were the subjects naive or aware, and if aware I think that herd mentality instinct could undergird one’s conclusion.

    Sheila alludes to the “we were just following orders” Nuremburg defense by some defendants for their hideous crimes, so perhaps it’s both Milgram’s conclusions and herd mentality at work, but at different points along the spectrum, as in, subjects start out in obedience to authority but as time goes on and since “everybody’s doing it” a certain righteousness that accompanies herd instinct takes over, thus rendering authority unnecessary.

    The foregoing is admittedly guesswork since I don’t know the controls that were used in the experiment (or anything else about it, for that matter), but unlike the hard sciences, it is possible that however replicable, conclusions from such experiments in the social sciences can be off the mark – or on. Color me dubious (pending further evidence).

  11. All of this is interesting but none of it is important. Just like the military and athletes have to maintain full attention on the current situation, eye on the ball or on the prize or on the battle objectives, we have to keep our eyes on November. There may be other critical focii after then but now the election must be won in order to save the republic and the Constitution.

    Blue no matter who.

  12. Sometimes the solution to a problem lies completely exposed in broad daylight within the explanation of the problem itself.

    For instance, deep in Sheila’s blog meant to introduce us to a deeper understanding of the problem of blind abeyance is this: “…relatively few people have the RESOURCES NEEDED TO RESIST AUTHORITY.”

    I would like to see an all out brainstorm devoted to creating those resources. I can storm up a few.

    Put non-removable teeth into the whistleblower laws.

    Create a special Congressional Medal of Courage to be awarded to major whistleblowers.

    Long-range, as a society we must teach respect and admiration for whistleblowers, as well as for those who have the courage to NOT GO ALONG.

    Stop teaching that the loner is inherently dangerous and is often the savior when shit hits the fan.

    Stop teaching that the weaklings who go through life fearful of rejection, addicted to social stroking, and in rapacious need for love and hugs are not only our model of normalcy but our most desirable heroes. They are not.

    Stop teaching that happiness is the absence of conflict; instead it is the willingness to enjoy a full range of emotional outcomes, from triumph and joy to failure and grief, and everything between.

    There must be more…

  13. Gerald, I found your comment to be bizarre. And, to be honest, it really bugged me. (It reminded me of people who claim the earth is flat and think the fact that they don’t know any physics is part of the reason they see this but us poor educated people cannot.) I don’t understand why you would bother questioning the results of an experiment about which you admit you know nothing, and, worse, offer other possibilities for the conclusion. Note that your suggestions about “herd mentality” and “following the crowd” have nothing to do with this experiment. A 2-minute review of the experiment would have shown you this.

    If you are trying to say that the interpretation of experimental results may always be reviewed and reconsidered, then yes, that’s absolutely true. It’s equally true that different people can consider results and come to different conclusions.

    My simple suggestion is that before one offers an interpretation of something, anything, one should some knowledge of, or do at least a little research about, that thing. One should have a basic understanding first. Otherwise, why would anyone bother to listen to that person at all?

  14. John H – You make a good point. Bizarre may indeed be a good criticism of my offering today since I admittedly know nothing of the experiment, and I may stand corrected for trying to set up alternatives to the conclusions reached by Milgram. However, I think conclusions reached are not per se a part any experiment itself and are subject to critiism by those such as me who are ignorant of the experiment’s assumptions, whether the n is naive etc. My commentary today makes no authoritative pretense; it involves admitted guesswork on alternative onclusions only – idle chatter for a Sunday morning.

  15. The most significant insight that Milgram’s experiment brought to light was not that people were just following orders of an authority figure. It was that they were informed at the beginning of the experiment that the experiment was extremely important. They were motivated to serve a higher purpose.’ That so many people have drunk the Kool-Aid provided by a man serving no purpose other than his own needs is even more terrify g to man than the explanation that they were “just following orders.” Many people can do the same thing but be motivated to do those things for entirely different reasons. It is important to learn what that motivation is to understand their actions.

  16. To me, but I don’t know if the experiment was designed to study it, there is a worldview spectrum from liberal to autocratic and paradoxically the more autocratic people on it are both loyal followers and authoritarian leaders.

  17. Definitely trump’s “dog whistles” to his troops will be a factor in election, especially if he loses. Why people suspend critical thinking, especially to false authority figures that aren’t authorities about anything is crazy! They just hold political power. People respond to power, or perceived power? If trump loses, and his ‘troops” are called to physically rebel, and Potus is still commander-in-chief, US armed forces might be involved? Who would be in charge? Governors control national guards, so States would have own strategies. Would #3 rile the troops so much that martial law would be invoked. Again, who would be in charge?

  18. Well,
    People want to be led! They want to follow, and, because of that desire, it makes it dangerous when you have one who really wants to lead a bunch of followers. I would venture to say, there are more followers in this country than leaders, or more followers than those that refuse to follow! And, I’m not just talking about the right, I’m talking about the center, and the left. It doesn’t take much to get people motivated to follow, because fear is the driving factor. Fear leads people towards the unacceptable. I’m not talking about somebody breaking into your home, I’m talking about the mob mentality, the mob working as an organism made up of a bunch of single cells. A mindless bunch of drones following commands.

    What happens when there is a new Queen in the hive? The young Queen dispatches the entrenched Queen, and then proceeds to control the hive. When one president is dispatched for whatever reason, elections or impeachment or retirement or whatever the case may be, the executive privilege that has been shown to that former president, can be taken advantage of by the next president. Precedent has been set, possession is 9/10 of the law so to speak. So, you see how much the right is pushing these changes, but they’re not playing the long much as they are shoving things in one direction, kind of like a kid being pushed on a swing, that swing could come back and hit you right in the chops and knock you out. So, this thing will probably get extremely nasty, and probably spill some blood. But then, I believe there’s going to be some retribution to be had. And it will not be pretty. Like I said, there’s no foresight, and what these guys are doing right now. They’re living in the present and not looking down the road.

    What’s good for the goose is definitely good for the gander so to speak. And the wailing and moaning will be deafening.

  19. In Trump’s case, he likes to select people whose wish to control others includes no aversion to and perhaps an enjoyment of inflicting pain.

    Before he became President, an interviewer asked Trump how he wish to be remembered. He said he wanted to be feared. He picked an Attorney General who apparently feels the same. He picked Jim Mattis for Defense Secretary in part because he liked his nickname — “Mad Dog”. Earlier in his administration, Trump picked several military leaders for several high-level positions – likely because of their reputation for no-nonsense leadership. But the military does have a code of conduct for duty-honor-and country which is alien to Trump and did not include the unethical infliction of pain of which Trump is fond.

    Trump apparently also is ill-equipped to determine degrees and propriety of pain. In a legal dispute with his own family, his retribution was to remove his nephew and family from Trump company health insurance when their newborn infant was in intensive care. How evil does one have to be to take vengeance on a critically ill infant?

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