Authority Bias

2 min readJul 27, 2018

Would you administer a life-threatening electric shock to a complete stranger just because someone told you to?

In 1963, the Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted one of the most controversial and well known examinations into human behaviour.

It was designed to understand to what degree the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime were to do with people being obedient and unquestioning of those in authority.

It involved subjects being placed in a room next to a machine that appeared to control amounts of electric shock ranging from mild to extreme.

They were informed that they were the ‘teacher’ and, in a room adjacent to them, another person was the ‘learner.’ They were told it was their task to administer electric shocks to them.

Under instruction, they were told to raise the level of shock treatment incrementally. If they hesitated at any point, they were given a number of prompts to continue.

Incredibly, even as the electric shocks climbed higher and higher and (fake) cries of the person in the other room could easily be heard, 65% of participants administered a perceived 450 volt (considered deadly) shock when instructed to do so.


Milgram concluded it was as result of our inherent ‘authority bias.’

Because the people who were instructing the ‘teachers’ to administer the shock treatments were wearing doctor’s uniforms they were assumed to be in charge and, therefore, in control of the situation.

In effect, ordinary people will likely follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent person.

This has enormous implications for anyone wanting to deliver any message. Select your messenger carefully, because the delivery matters as least as much as the content.




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