Stanley Milgram’s Theories on Authority and Obedience

Heavens Gate Heavens Gate and the Branch Davidians are a good example of Stanley Milgram’s theories. It shows how people respond and follow what authority says. Heavens Gate was a cult founded by Marshall Applewhite referred to as “Do” by his members. He convinced 39 people that he was dying of cancer and he persuaded them that if they followed him to death, a spaceship in the tail of the comet “Hale-Bop” would come and take them to the New World. To enter the ship they needed to leave their bodies. Applewhite made the thirty-nine members of the cult dress, talk, and look the same. He made them all wear the same clothes, he shaved everyone’s head, and made them refrain from using personal pronouns such as “he” and “she”. They were also not permitted to marry, have sex, drink, and had to give all their possessions to the cult. They packed their bags with clothes and each person carried $5 bills, quarters and their passport for their trip to the New World. On March 26, 1997, thirty-nine men and women affiliated with Heavens Gate committed suicide by ingesting a combination of Phenobarbitals mixed with applesauce and alcohol. Their obedience is evidence, of course, that they put faith into what Applewhite said. Palcowski 2 Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted a study focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. He was interested in how far people would go in following the orders of a person in authority. His experiment consisted of “teachers” who he recruited and “learners” who were students or actors. The teacher was asked to read a list of word pairs and to ask the learner to recite them back. If the learner got the correct answer, then they moved on to the next word. If the answer was incorrect, the teacher was supposed to shock the learner starting at 15 volts and going up to 450 volts, in 15 volt increments. Although the teacher thought they were shocking the learner, the learner was an actor and was never actually harmed. The results of Milgram’s experiment show that “two-thirds of this study’s participants fall into the category of obedient subjects, and that they represent ordinary people drawn from the working, managerial, and professional classes.” (Milgram 347-348) Ultimately about 65% of all of the subjects punished the learners to the maximum 450 volts. Some subjects stopped before reaching 300 volts. (348) The worried teachers questioned the experimenter, asking who was responsible for any harmful results. The experimenter took full responsibility; the teachers accepted it and continued. This experiment was very controversial. I think that Milgram’s experiments were remarkable and very helpful in understanding people. Stanley Milgram has taught us a lot about ourselves. He has helped us see that people in general are followers. Cults, racial groups, and gangs are a few good examples. His experiments show that most people will follow the leader. Palcowski 3 Some believe his experiments were unethical and unimportant. I thought his experiments were useless, too, until I found out that what he discovered helped us understand more about groups and how they think. Milgram’s experiments shows that people will follow a leader, if they believe in them. People with strong beliefs in an influential leader are usually condemned a sad fate chosen by the leader. In the case of Heavens Gate the fate was death. Willingness to die in the ultimate obedience a follower can offer a leader.


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Stanley Milgram’s Theories on Authority and Obedience. (2018, Sep 12). Retrieved from