It’s not 'following orders', it’s 'following a cause'

1 Nov 2017
Professor Alex Halsam
Professor Alex Haslam

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘I was only following orders’, but how much truth does it contain?

Not a lot, according to University of Queensland School of Psychology researcher Professor Alex Haslam.

Professor Haslam has reviewed debates and arguments spanning decades, covering one of the most famous social psychology studies of all time – Stanley Milgram’s research into what he called ‘obedience to authority’.

“Milgram’s research in the 1960s put forward the idea that most normal, well-adjusted people would be prepared to kill an innocent stranger if they were asked to do so by a person in authority,” Professor Haslam said.

“The work is widely understood as demonstrating the destructive power of ‘blind obedience’ and these ideas are often reproduced by perpetrators when they say ‘I was only following orders’.”

Many psychology experts, Professor Haslam included, believe the story handed down from Milgram’s work is deeply flawed.

“It now seems that people do wrong not because they are ignorant, thoughtless, or blind, but rather because they believe that what they are doing is virtuous and even noble.

“Ironically, this means that if you actually order people to commit harm this does not increase their willingness to do so but decreases it.

“This not only applies to the behaviour of Milgram’s participants but also to that of his research assistants and the many writers and teachers who remain true to his obedience narrative.”

It’s not just academics and researchers who have supported Milgram’s view for decades, but also film documentaries and television dramas.

More recently though, academic scrutiny has cast doubt on the way Milgram’s work is understood.

“Participants respond to the requests of the experimenter because they identify with the scientific goals of the research and want to play their part in supporting and advancing those goals,” Professor Haslam said.

“Rather than being intellectually and emotionally disengaged, the behaviour of perpetrators appears to be based on a commitment to an underlying cause.

“Perpetrators are better understood not as passive dupes but as engaged followers.”

The review, undertaken with Professor Stephen Reicher of University of St Andrews, is published in the Annual Review of Law and Social Science.

Media: Professor Alex Haslam,, +61 7 3346 7345, Twitter @alexanderhaslam; Dani Nash, UQ Communications,, +61 7 3346 3035, Twitter @UQhealth.

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