What leads people to stand up against authoritarianism? Philip Zimbardo, Professor Emeritus from Stanford University and lead investigator on the Stanford Prison Experiment, talks with us about his new research into how social modeling influences the likelihood of disobeying unjust authority figures. His open-access article “On the dynamics of disobedience: experimental investigations of defying unjust authority“, co-authored with Piero Bocchiaro, was published in the journal Psychology Research and Behavior Management on July 13, 2017.

Defying Unjust Authorities - Phil Zimbardo
Defying Unjust Authorities - Phil Zimbardo
Defying Unjust Authorities - Phil Zimbardo Defying Unjust Authorities - Phil Zimbardo
@rwatkins says:
When Ryan and I spoke with Phil in March of 2018, he had been busy arranging a "Hero Roundtable" to be held on April 21 and 22 in San Francisco. So we asked what his plans were for the event.
@rwatkins says:
Phil's response made Doug and I curious if his experience with Institutional Review Boards – the committees which approve … or reject … research proposals involving human subjects – might have changed since his Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971.
@rwatkins says:
At the end of an episode from February on creating deceptive performance, Ryan and I invited listeners to contact us with questions that they might like us to ask Phil during our interview. Derek Bloomburg, a listener from Napier, New Zealand wrote: "Social psychology researchers often mislead people about the true nature of their experiments to get more realistic information about how people actually behave in the real world … outside of the lab. I'm interested in hearing Dr. Zimbardo's views on the use of deception in research, the ethics of doing so, and how his views may have evolved over his career."
@rwatkins says:
Doug and I were interested in learning what kinds of qualities Phil believes might differentiate those who defy unjust authorities from those who elect to submit to authoritarian injustices … as well as what suggestions he might have for encouraging people to defy unjust authority figures.
@rwatkins says:
Social modeling was the strongest predictor of people’s decision to disobey unjust authorities in Phil’s study. Through it, people are more likely to follow the lead of others, even if they’re complete strangers. Ryan and I wondered what might influence a person’s decision to disobey when they’re the “first” in a group to do so, instead of when they’re merely following the lead of someone who had already exhibited that courage.
@rwatkins says:
Phil and Piero’s study involved having a “naïve” participant interact with two confederates – or mock participants – as a fake researcher requested all three to behave unethically on his behalf. They found that people were more likely to defy unjust authority figures if the confederates dissented, but only if the dissenters were physically present with participants … not when participants were merely informed that some people had previously refused the researcher’s unethical request. In light of this, Doug and I asked Phil for his thoughts about the extent to which such "social modeling" might operate in online environments, such as on social media, in which people are not co-located with one-another.
@rwatkins says:
In a 1999 interview, Phil credited Milgram's study with revealing "how an authority figure can induce extreme forms of compliance in people who typically would never do [so]", and said of his own Stanford Prison Experiment that it shows "what an institution, an agency, can do to induce similarly dramatic transformations in behavior" (p. 6). Ryan and I asked Phil to tell us about what contributions he sees Milgrim's work as making to the field of social psychology.
@rwatkins says:
Phil’s study used a "Right Wing Authoritarianism" questionnaire to assess whether a preference for increasing uniformity and minimizing diversity could distinguish people who obey the requests of unjust authorities from those who do not. We were interested in finding out how he and the study’s lead author, Piero Bocchiaro, learned of the survey and what led them to choose it as a measure of people's willingness to submit to such unjust authorities.
@rwatkins says:
Though Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point introduced many people to the idea that context influences human behavior, this “context effect” has been much-studied in cognitive psychology over the past twenty years. Here Phil describes how the power of social situations can provide a context which leads people to say one thing, but do another.
@rwatkins says:
Heuristics – such as "I before E, except after C" – are mental shortcuts that can help speed up decision making, simultaneously reducing the cognitive load of doing so. However, heuristics can sometimes be wrong … the spellings of "weird" and "science", for instance, don’t follow the “I before E” rule of thumb. Doug and I began our conversation with Phil by asking for his thoughts on how heuristics inform our decision to obey or disobey authority figures. He framed his response by referencing two cornerstones of social psychology research: Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman's study of how cognitive biases associated with heuristics can impair our decision making … and Stanley Milgram's "Behavioral Study of Obedience", in which participants were led to believe that they had to administer electric shocks to a "learner", which – had they been real – would have been fatal.
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Websites and other resources


  • Obedience by Stanley Milgram:


  • The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015) Official Trailer:



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How to Cite

Watkins, R., Leigh, D., & Zimbardo, P.. (2018, April 17). Parsing Science – Defying Unjust Authorities. figshare. https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.6151133

Hosts / Producers

Ryan Watkins & Doug Leigh


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