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Working Toward the Experimenter: Reconceptualizing Obedience Within the Milgram Paradigm as Identification-Based Followership

Research output: Research - peer-reviewArticle



Stephen David Reicher, Alex Haslam, Joanne Smith

School/Research organisations


The behavior of participants within Milgram’s obedience paradigm is commonly understood to arise from the propensity to cede responsibility to those in authority and hence to obey them. This parallels a belief that brutality in general arises from passive conformity to roles. However, recent historical and social psychological research suggests that agents of tyranny actively identify with their leaders and are motivated to display creative followership in working toward goals that they believe those leaders wish to see fulfilled. Such analysis provides the basis for reinterpreting the behavior of Milgram’s participants. It is supported by a range of material, including evidence that the willingness of participants to administer 450-volt shocks within the Milgram paradigm changes dramatically, but predictably, as a function of experimental variations that condition participants’ identification with either the experimenter and the scientific community that he represents or the learner and the general community that he represents. This reinterpretation also encourages us to see Milgram’s studies not as demonstrations of conformity or obedience, but as explorations of the power of social identity-based leadership to induce active and committed followership.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)315-324
JournalPerspectives on Psychological Science
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 2012

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