Characteristics of Resisters to Unjust Authority

Not Everyone Obeys:

Personal Factors Correlated with Resistance to Unjust Authority

By Sharon Presley


Though the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments show that situational factors have an enormous impact on obedience, the fact remains that not everyone in the Milgram study obeyed. Even when confronted with the same situation in the baseline experiment, 35% resisted and broke off at some point. We also know that many European Christians resisted the Nazis in World War II by hiding Jews while many other Christians went along with the Nazis. What is different about those who resisted? If not the situation, then what personal factors played a role? An exploration of the personal factors involved in resistance can give us insight into how to encourage individual resistance to unjust authority.

Milgram (1974) found very little. In the baseline experiment, political party affiliation made no difference. He only found a handful of differences. Catholics were more obedient than Protestants or Jews. Those with higher levels of education were more defiant than less well educated. Those in the moral professions of law, medicine, and education were more defiant than those in the technical professions of engineering and the physical sciences. He also found that enlisted men were more obedient and the longer their service, the more obedient. However this was not true for officers. But all these differences washed out in further experiments. "I am certain that there is a complex personality basis to obedience and disobedience," he wrote, "but I know we have not found it" (Milgram, p 205). There are, however, some clues about personal factors in the research literature.

Attitude toward Authority

The most striking personal trait, not surprisingly, is attitude toward authority. Those who have a strong belief that authorities can sometimes be wrong are more willing to be defiant. Elms and Milgram (1966) gave the MMPI and the California F-Scale (Authoritarian Personality) to some of Milgram's subjects. The MMPI yielded no differences in personality traits. However, those who resisted in the experiment were significantly less authoritarian on the F-Scale. In Mantell's (1974) study comparing draft resisters to young men who volunteered for the Special Forces (Green Berets) during the Vietnam War, the resisters were also significantly less authoritarian on the F-Scale. The Green Berets were not highly authoritarian; their scores averaged in the middle range, similar to most people, but the resisters had very low scores. In my study of political resisters to authority, I also found that the resisters were significantly more likely to question authority than the nonresister political activist comparison groups (Presley, 1985). The resisters were also significantly more likely to reject the idea of having authority over others. The belief that it is appropriate to question and be critical of authority is thus one of the most important personal variables related to resistance.

Values and Moral Development

Another recurrent pattern is one concerning the centrality of deeply held moral values. Those who explicitly hold values that see human rights as universal, as higher than the laws or rules of particular institutions, are more likely to question authorities. People with such values understand that authorities can sometimes be wrong.

The Kohlberg (1976) Moral Judgment Scale is one important measure of the way in which individuals make their moral judgments. Kohlberg's theory is based on the concept of increasingly more cognitively sophisticated levels of moral development. The higher the score, the more internally based is the conscience and the more abstract and universal is the moral reasoning. Those at the highest stages recognize that universal principles of rights and justice are more important than what a particular law or what other people say is right. Kohlberg gave 34 Yale students who had participated in Milgram's pilot studies his scale. Those who scored at the stage of personal principle (the highest stage) were significantly more likely to have disobeyed than those at lower stages. Another study using the Moral Judgment Scale found that those who scored at the highest stages were significantly more likely to have participated in civil disobedience in the 1964 Berkeley Free Speech Movement (Haan, Smith & Block, 1968). Based on in-depth interviews of his participants, Mantell (1974) described the war resisters as asserting a morality that they considered superior to the prevailing morality. A study of Christians who rescued Jews from Nazis also found that a higher percentage of the rescuers than nonrescuers emphasized the idea that ethical values should be applied universally (Oliner & Oliner, 1988).

In my study using the Defining Issues Test (DIT) (Rest, 1976, 1979), which is based on Kohlberg's theory and stages, I found a similar link (Presley,1985). The resisters had significantly higher scores on the DIT than the conservative activist control groups. However, even though the overall scores of the resisters were higher, the differences from the liberals were not statistically significant. I speculate that, for complex reasons discussed in my article, there was an artifact that caused this lack of difference. In ongoing research of mine not yet published, the idea of conservatives being less willing to be critical of authority is supported, but further research is needed to see if there is a difference between liberals and more unconventional political views such as those espoused by the Greens, libertarians or anarchists. My research also examines the relationship between attitudes toward authority and need for uniqueness. Perhaps it is not surprising that, so far, I find a strong link. People who are willing to stand out from the crowd in social situations are apparently also likely to be more critical of authority, which would certainly make them stand out. Consistent with my findings, Mantell's (1975) war resisters were also characterized by a striking individualism and willingness to be different from the crowd in positive ways that were not mere rebelliousness.

Another indication of the important role of values found in my study was the difference between the resisters and nonresisters on one item in the Attitude toward Authority scale in the survey (Presley, 1985). Among the questions the participants were asked to agree or disagree with was "Conscience is a better guide to conduct than whatever the law might say." Resisters were in agreement with this item, averaging close to 4 on a 5-point Likert scale where 5 was total agreement. The difference from nonresisters was significant (their average was around 3). My interpretation is that the word "conscience" did not mean quite the same to the nonresisters as the resisters. The resisters, in my view, thought of "conscience" in the positive Kohlbergian sense. I speculate that the nonresisters not only placed more faith in the law but were more hesitant about the conscience of others, while the resisters focused on their own consciences. Whatever the actual motivations may be, the role of universal values in the schema of the resisters seems clearly indicated.

Other studies of real life resistance hint at a complex link to deeply held religious values. Though simply being religious per se is hardly enough--the all too well-known head-line-making hypocrisy of some religious leaders or politicians who espouse religious values, to say nothing of the complicity of many Christians in Nazi Germany, show us that merely claiming religious values does not guarantee moral behavior. Nevertheless, several studies and accounts (London, 1970; Hanser, 1979; Oliner & Oliner, 1988) have found a moral and religious basis for resistance to Nazis in World War II. Though many Christians who rescued Jews did not feel they were doing anything especially heroic, the studies suggest that these resisters had a deeper than usual commitment to their beliefs. Members of the White Rose resistance group within Nazi Germany itself, inspired by the example of the outspoken and courageous Bishop Galen, felt that it was their Christian duty to resist the Nazi outrages through clandestine leafleting (Hanser, 1979). In Oliner and Oliner's (1988) study of Christians who rescued Jews from the Nazis, one of the people interviewed said "The way I see it, it was not my work--it was God's work" (p. 229). As another example, citizens of Le Chambon France felt that helping Jews was simply the right thing to do (Rochat & Modigliani, 1995).

A little-know study that partially replicated the Milgram experiment showed a direct link between religious attitudes and obedient behavior (Bock & Warren, 1972). Those who scored either extremely high or extremely low on several measures of religious beliefs were the most resistant. Those with moderate levels of beliefs were the most obedient. The researchers, puzzled by an outcome exactly opposite from their hypothesis, interpreted this as possibly indicating that the two extremes had arrived at strong commitments that made them less vulnerable to outside influences. Though Milgram did not comment on this study, he did describe one of his subjects, a teacher of Old Testament at a major divinity school, who broke off at the 150 volt lever when the victim begins to protest. He interpreted this as "Not repudiation of authority but substitute of good--that is, divine--authority for bad" (Milgram, 1974, p. 49). Someone who actually teaches religious values might be more likely to have the kind of strong commitment that Bock and Warren spoke of. This is reminiscent of Jefferson's famous statement "Resistance to authority is obedience to God" as well as Martin Luther King, Jr.'s belief that we are all created equal in the eyes of God and we should answer to that higher law when it is in conflict with society's laws. King is considered an exemplar of the highest state of Kohlberg's scale.

Those with little religious commitment may have a different kind of commitment, not to religious authority but to other ideals. In my study, the resisters were characterized as either having no religious affiliations (many were atheists) or affiliations that were outside the religious mainstream (e.g., Unitarians, Quakers; both religions downplay the role of authority in their religious structures) (Presley, 1985). In the US, where most people believe in God, it takes courage to be an atheist. Those willing to defy conventional religious attitudes might very well be more willing to stand up to other kinds of authority. As I discussed above, they are also more likely to have levels of moral judgment in which moral rights are universal and abstract. Their commitment, therefore, may be to these higher moral principles.


Level of education also plays a role, albeit a weak one. In Milgram's study, the more well-educated subjects were more resistant in the baseline experiment. On the other hand in the famous Zimbardo prison simulation study, most of the subjects were college students who, in this mock prison setting, easily fell into unquestioned social roles that resulted in harm to some of the participants (Zimbardo, 2007). Clearly education is only one of many factors that may play a role in resistance.


Overall, the research does not show gender differences in rates of obedience. Milgram (1974) found none. The follow-up partial replications were mixed but the consensus is that gender is not an important variable (Blass, 2000). In a recent partial replication of the Milgram experiment, Burger (2009) failed to find gender differences either. Though women have been viewed by many in the past as more deferent to authority, the complex factors that go into individual decision-making, even if some are gender-related, add up to a washout for the averages. Students of history who understand how obedient men have been to the authority of kings, tsars, emperors, heads of state, and politicians over the centuries can hardly be surprised at this outcome.


What are some general implications of this research? First of all, in spite of the overwhelming effect of situational variables, there are personal factors that make a difference. Not everyone meekly obeys. If we make explicit the connections between moral values and resistance to unjust authority perhaps we may help awaken nascent moral leanings that could make people less vulnerable to the commands of unjust authority. This suggests that we should strive to educate others about the lessons of the Milgram and Zimbardo studies, not just in psychology classes but in any class or social situation in which social values are discussed. We should talk to individuals whenever it is appropriate, both in conversations and clinical practice. If these conversations draw the connection between the admonition to avoid harm to others (many people would theoretically agree) and the practical consequences of that moral value, it may help more people focus on what is really important. Many people compartmentalize their thinking, as the Milgram experiment so dramatically shows. Gently prodding the wall of the compartments may tear down some of the walls.

If teaching children empathy makes a difference, teaching them about appropriate critical thinking about authority may also be useful. If we teach them to think about whether what the authority is saying or doing is harmful or good and encourage them to realize that authorities are not always right, it may help encourage them to be thoughtful about authority later on. Talking to them about the Milgram and Zimbardo studies, about Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi and other good role models may also give them cognitive support for more thoughtful attitudes toward authority. Because we know that children learn from what we do as well as what we say, we should model good values of compassion and thoughtfulness about authority ourselves.

Another suggestion is to encourage values education in families and schools. Most people think sending their kids to Sunday school or to other religious education is enough. It is not. Developmental research shows that talking to one's children about moral values that include empathy pays off. Children whose parents teach them empathy have higher levels of moral judgment than other children (Hoffman, 1976). Don't just say: "Do this--why? Because I said so." Explain to them why hurting others is bad and caring is good. For most of the rescuers in the Oliner and Oliner (1988) study, the language of care dominated--"I did it out of sympathy and kindness," and "I could not stand idly by and observe the misery that was occurring" were typical comments (p. 168). In Mantell's study, 80% of the families of resisters were characterized as nonviolent and tolerant. "For the most part," writes Mantell, "it seems the resisters' concerns for standards--justice, proper treatment, consideration--was an outgrowth and reflection of their parents' concerns" (Mantell, 1974, p.49). Further indication of the power of explicit parental teaching comes from studies of the rescuers in World War II. "My father taught me to love God and my neighbor, regardless of their race and religion" said one of the Christians rescuers in the Oliner and Oliner study (p. 165).

Values education programs such as values clarification and character education have had some success in schools, elementary as well as high school, though not without controversy (e.g., Cottom, 1996; Gauld, 1993; Mosconi & Emmett, 2003) These programs usually involve encouragement of fairness, decency, and kindness to others rather than particular partisan values. One resource for such programs can be found at Unfortunately only some schools have had such programs. Some of the programs and curricula material that can be found on the Internet have a religious base; some do not, particularly values clarification. Unfortunately, few, if any, programs are going to teach children to be critical of authority and the law. Parents are on their own with teaching that attitude.

Encouraging more schools to have such programs, as well as curricula that teach critical thinking might help create a better environment. But in today's school climate, it will be an uphill battle. There are some resources that can help. The Center for Critical Thinking, Sonoma State University (, for example, offer workshops on teaching critical thinking at every grade level from kindergarten through college. Philip Zimbardo's website, is also an excellent resource for ideas about how to resist unjust authority.

The research on personal factors in resisting unjust authority gives us hope that we are not all sheep. Some people do say no. If we model critical thinking about authority ourselves and encourage others to do the same, we may be able to contribute to a world in which more people say no to unjust authority.


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Copyright 2010 Sharon Presley





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