Authority and learning

A great deal of learning takes place in a social context, whether that be the family or the classroom or the work-group (hence social constructivism and situated learning). It is thus subject to social pressures which, while they may not appear directly relevant to the subject matter to be learned, influence underlying attitudes and perspectives affecting motivation, the value and priority to be given to academic work, and so on. This page refers to three classic studies in this area:

Defining the Situation

T S Eliot claimed that "mankind cannot bear very much reality" A correspondent points out that I am being disingenuous here (i.e. telling fibs) Eliot actually says "human kind" ("Burnt Norton" line 42 in the "Four Quartets", 1959): but why has it taken three years for someone to notice? Does it say something about the assumed authority of what we read on the web? (I thought of amending that on the grounds of sexism, but then my partner told me it was exactly right). Be that is it may, neither sex can bear much ambiguity or meaninglessness. Frankl built a whole school of psychotherapy ("Logotherapy) on "Man's (there it is again) search for meaning". John Keats spoke of the need to cultivate "negative capability" or the ability not to jump to conclusions, a theme later taken up by W R Bion. But this desire to find an "answer" is very strong, and can easily lead to inappropriate learning.

McHugh's (1968) fascinating and frequently amusing book recounts an experiment in which subjects were introduced to a supposedly new form of counselling. They were told that the counsellor who would be working with them was very skilled and very wise. They were invited to describe a problem or dilemma to the “counsellor”, whom they could not see and with whom they could only communicate by intercom., and to ask ten questions, each of which had to be capable of being answered with a “yes” or a “no”. After they had heard the answer to each question, they should reflect aloud on what they made of it, before formulating the next question. What they did not know was that the “counsellor” was simply an experimenter working down a predetermined list of randomly-generated “yes” and “no” answers. The transcripts of the “interviews” show how the subjects struggled to make sense of the answers they received, and how few of them realised or were prepared to concede that the entire process was meaningless. Moreover, a considerable proportion reported that the experience had been helpful in clarifying their problems! 

Logotherapy site

The source of "negative capability"

Negative capability in the psychoanalytic study of organisations

Obedience to Authority

Milgram (1973) took this issue a stage further in his famous or notorious sequence of experiments on “Obedience to Authority”. The stimulus came from reading the reports of Nazi atrocities and the "only obeying order" defence, but its generality was confirmed afterwards by the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam war, in which a platoon of American soldiers murdered an entire village of non-combatant children, women and men. (There is a more recent parallel in the incidents at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.) Such an atrocity is not uncommon in war, but that does not make it any more excusable, and Milgram and his colleagues were concerned about the psychological processes at work which would make young Americans act so much out of character and contrary to the values which they has been brought up with. Were they peculiar or personality-disordered in some way, or was there some feature of the social situation which had caused them to act so cruelly?

He devised an experiment—with several variations—in which a subject would be ordered to administer electric shocks of increasing severity to a stooge of the experimenter. The subjects were recruited through advertisements in the local press, in the name of a prestigious university, to participate in psychological experiments to do with learning. They received a small fee for their participation. On keeping their appointment, in most cases on the university premises, they were introduced to the “experimenter”, who was an official-looking figure in a white coat, and to another “subject”. The conditions were varied over the series of experiments, but in the simplest form the meeting between the two subjects was manipulated so that the real subject became the “teacher” and a stooge the “learner”.  The task was explained as being to study the effects of punishment on the capacity of the learner to learn a sequence of nonsense syllables. The punishment took the form of an electric shock, supposedly administered from a panel under the control of the “teacher”, who was guided and instructed by the experimenter (unknown to the subject, of course, there were no shocks, and the stooge was acting). The panel was calibrated in 15-volt increments to show the intensity of the shock administered, from “slight shock” through “very strong shock” to “danger: severe shock”. The high end of the scale was simply marked “XXX”. The maximum shock possible was 450 volts. Each time the stooge got his answers wrong, the subject was instructed, in standard phrases, to increase the shock. If he or she balked, the experimenter would respond with further standardised responses as appropriate, such as, “the experiment requires that you continue”, or re-assure the subject that “there would be no tissue damage”.

Before embarking on the experiments, Milgram consulted a number of psychologists and psychiatrists as to their opinion of what proportion of the subjects would be prepared to administer the most severe shocks. Their consensus was that a very small number—perhaps 0.1% of the subjects—of manifestly or latently psychopathic or otherwise disturbed individuals might go through with it, but the vast majority would not. Lay people estimated that perhaps 1% would go all the way.

In the event, in seven of the eighteen experimental conditions, about two-thirds of the subjects administered the most severe shocks. In five conditions fewer than 10% of the subjects went all the way, but all of these were variations in which the authority of the experimenter was discounted or undermined in some way.

One of the things which comes over most vividly in Milgram’s book, from the transcripts of the experimental sessions, is the distress of the subjects at “having to” obey the experimenter. They protested, trembled, sweated, and cried—but they still obeyed.

Ethical considerations mean that the experiments would never get clearance in academe nowadays, but the entertainment industry is not so squeamish. (And there are several high school re-enactments on YouTube).

Nowadays we live in an age which we fondly believe is less in thrall to authority. Nevertheless, the authority of the teacher in the classroom tends to be preserved, amplified by a culture of dependence, and this can all to easily lead to students playing at guessing what the teacher wants to hear (Holt 1970) and hence to surface learning. Denying that this is likely to happen because of our liberal intentions in the classroom is not enough.

The Stanley Milgram site

But here is an introduction to a revisionist take (Perry, 2013) on the whole series which suggests that some subjects saw through the whole thing, and that Milgram fudged his results...

On the My Lai massacre   ...and more than you wanted to know about Abu Ghraib

And in connection with that, do read up on the Stanford Prison Experiment (Zimbardo, 2007) which is highly relevant, but fortunately a little too extreme to apply to the classroom situation!

Group pressure 

The pressure which can be exerted even in relatively small groups has been vividly illustrated by another of the canon of classic experiments in social psychology. Asch (1955) primed a group of stooges to make an error at predetermined points in an exercise of estimating which of a group of three lines of varying length was the same length as a test line. One of the members of the group, however, was not a stooge, but an experimental subject. In the basic version of the experiment 32% of the subjects ended up disbelieving the evidence of their own senses about the length of the line and agreeing with the other members of the group (although this conceals substantial variations: three-quarters of the subjects conformed at least once, but only 5% did so every time). This basic figure could be modified by variations in the form of the experiment, as with the the Milgram study, such as the presence of an ally for the dissenting member in the group.

Again, Asch's series of experiments has provoked much discussion and further research, and dispassionate evaluation might not attach the same significance to the results as they attracted in the Cold War era: nevertheless subsequent research has tended to show much likelier conformity effects on matters of opinion than on factual questions.

Reproducing Asch's experiment: variable results

So what?

These and other experiments suggest that the classroom is an arena of heightened suggestibility. This is potentially a moral issue for teachers, but more to the present point is the extent to which it militates against the formulation of critical thinking and intellectual initiative in students, unless conscious and deliberate efforts are made to promote these qualities. The natural tendency of the system is always in the direction of Subject dominance and Learner subordination.

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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(up-dated 16 September 2013)