Jerry Burger: Why You Obey

Leading social psychologist Jerry Burger joins Tim to talk about landmark experiments on human obedience conducted by Stanley Milgram, and how decades later Jerry did a similar study that only validated Milgram’s earlier disturbing findings. Jerry describes his own research project in 2006 that re-affirmed some of the conclusions from a landmark obedience research project from 45 years earlier. Will people do what they’re told even if it harms someone else? We find out.

Milgram Experiment

Any student of history knows that during World War II, the Nazis exterminated roughly 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. They did it in a number of horrific ways.  It all started with the creation of a system of concentration camps, staffed by obedient Nazi and German troops.

The horrors that happened in those camps are well documented.

In the post-war interrogations and trials of Nazi officers and other Germans involved in war crimes, one refrain kept coming up. “I was just following orders.” “I just did what I was told.”

No one questioned. No one objected. Everyone obeyed.

In 1961, an American psychologist at Yale named Stanley Milgram pondered a question. Could nations other than Germany conform to authority in the same way?

Would Americans conform to authority in the same way, or would there be differences?

So, he decided to conduct an experiment.

He created a reason for test subjects to participate. The cover story was that this would be a learning project.

He recruited 40 men between the ages of 20 and 50.

Volunteer participants in the study were told that they would be paired up with another participant. They would be assigned to teach the other participant certain things, and then they would question the other participant. If that participant got an answer wrong, the volunteer teacher would deliver punishment in the form of electric shock. That’s what these unsuspecting participants were told.

What they didn’t know was that they were the only ones in the study who didn’t know what was going on. The person they were supposed to be teaching – the learner – was in on it. The volunteer teacher’s fellow instructors were in on it. The only ones who didn’t know that the electric shocks were fake was the person assigned to be the teacher, the person assigned to press the buttons to deliver those electric shocks.

What Milgram wanted to find out was, how long would it be before the teacher in the study would stop and reject orders to punish his fellow participant.

Jerry Burger is a psychologist and researcher who was intrigued by the Milgram experiment and would later conduct a similar one to compare his results with Milgram’s.


About this Episode’s Guest Jerry Burger

Jerry BurgerJerry Burger is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Santa Clara University. As a scholar, he is best known for his work on the psychological processes underlying deplorable and inhumane acts like atrocities and genocide. His research in this area was the subject of a New York Times editorial and was featured in a 60-minute broadcast of ABC News’ Primetime and in the Discovery Channel documentary, How Evil Are You? His presentations on this topic include an invited address before the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France.

Retirement has allowed Jerry to start what he thinks of as his second career as a fiction writer. His short stories have appeared in several literary magazines, including one selected for the Best American Mystery Stories 2020. He also has published a novel, The Shadows of 1915 (Golden Antelope Press) which examines the generational effects of the 1915 Armenian genocide. More information about his academic and writing careers can be found at