"...The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act."

~Stanley Milgram, 1974 (as quoted on http://www.stanleymilgram.com/quotes.html)


Stanley Milgram: Obedience at All Cost


Obeying Orders: Doing the Unthinkable

Above: Reverend Jim Jones, the influential leader of the People's Temple (image from:

In 1977, a group of nearly 1000 members of the People's Temple religious cult followed their leader, Reverend Jim Jones, to Guyana, South America. Less than two years later, Jones gathered the entire community around him and issued a call for each person's death to be performed in a unified act of self-destruction (Cialdini 92).

The first response was that of a young woman, who calmly approached the vat of strawberry-flavored poison, administered one dose to her baby, one to herself, and then sat down in a field, where she and her child died in convulsions within four minutes; others followed steadily in turn. Even though a handful of individuals escaped from Jonestown, and several others resisted, survivors claim that the majority of the 910 people who died did so in an orderly, willful manner, obeying their leader without question (Cialdini 92).


Obedience is the performance of an action in response to a direct order (Franzoi 547). Sometimes obedience serves a constructive purpose: society could not function if the majority of people disobeyed the law. Yet at other times, obedience can be violently destructive, as evidenced by the events in Jonestown (Wortman, Loftus and Weaver 608).

Above: The vat containing Jones' deadly concoction sits amid the bodies of his followers on November 20, 1978 (Source/AP, as cited on

What causes such blind obedience? This question was the focus of experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s. Milgram's research has shown that many "average, nice, people," who think they could never participate in brutality, will inflict severe pain on others if an authority figure tells them to do so (Wortman, Loftus and Weaver 608).

Social psychology is the scientific discipline that attempts to understand and explain how the thoughts, feelings, and behavior of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others (Franzoi 549). Social psychologists have shown repeatedly that our behavior is not just the result of our personalities and predispositions. Environmental factors, particularly the presence or absence of others, greatly affect what we think, say, and do. (Wortman, Loftus and Weaver 25). Even an aspect of social life that seemingly defies rational explanation is likely to be the subject of social psychological inquiry, such as the tragedy in Jonestown, and the results of the Milgram experiment (Franzoi 6).


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This website was created by Amy Kokot for International Relations 116, Mount Holyoke College, Fall, 2001