Why Obedience?

The experiment’s relevance to genocide

In October 1963, the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology published a 9-page article written by Milgram, titled “Behavioral Study of Obedience,” which highlighted his obedience experiments. “By his fourth sentence he was already referencing Nazi death camps and their ‘daily quotas of corpses,’ implying that the Holocaust was something his 9-page paper would help the world understand” (Baker, 2013). Milgram was especially attracted to obedience research studies due to the impact of the atrocities of World War II. He drew parallels between the behavior of the subjects he saw in the lab to the willingness of ordinary Germans to slaughter the Jewish people and other minorities during the Holocaust. It was not that Milgram thought there was something wrong with the Germans, but instead there was something wrong with humanity and he wanted to try and find the answer to this problem.

German Nazis during WWII (Photo Credit: Becket Adams)


A participant of Milgram’s experiment (Photo Credit: Saul McLeod)

What did they expect to find?

What Milgram and other thought they would discover versus what they truly discovered

Milgram was certain that very few participants would actually carry out the orders of the experiment (to 450-volts). “So he was surprised when 26 of the 40 (65 percent) individuals who served as teachers in the initial experiment administered the full 450-volts to the presumably helpless learner” (Forsyth, 2010, p. 244). Only a few predicted that anyone would give a shock greater than 180-volts. A panel of psychiatrists, college students, and middle-class adults were asked by Milgram to make predictions about the results of the experiment. “Most people, including both experts and laypersons alike, were surprised by the level of obedience Milgram discovered in his research” (Forsyth, 2010, p. 247).

Experiment Results (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Ferida Osmanovic


While choosing images of a genocide for this project, I stumbled upon an image of a woman, Ferida Osmanovic, who had hung herself in the woods while fleeing from Srebrenica. At first this image seems serene though slightly strange because she is so close to the tree. It’s only until we notice that her feet are suspended that we realize she is dead. It’s a haunting image, and sadly the only one her family has of her (Martin). I’ve decided to include her image in my discussion of Srebrenica to highlight the experience the women had during the fall. They weren’t among those killed in this instance of Serbian violence, but violence against women was happening all over the country. Ferida represents the fear the women and children felt as they were being transferred by Serb forces. She had no idea if she was going to be let go, taken to a rape camp, or killed. She chose to take her own life instead of finding out her fate. Her story helps us see how terrible the situation was for everyone, not just those who died, and her image is the only one I have of victims where they actually look human. I believe that adding her story to that of the 8,000+ victims shows us that this wasn’t the only case of violence and that men were not the only target.