Obedience to Authority May Depend on Physical Proximity


Scientists at SWPS University – formerly known as the Warsaw School of Social Psychology- recently investigated the causes of obedience in the famous Milgram study. They found that the experimenter’s physical proximity increases subjects’ compliance, whereas the learner’s physical proximity diminishes it.

In the early 1960s, American social psychologist Stanley Milgram developed an experiment that measured the willingness to obey an authority figure. Throughout the history of science, the experiment has been repeated many times on various social groups, both by Milgram himself and by other scientists.

Experiments in their original version were discontinued in the 1970s due to ethical considerations. The experiment has been reproduced in a milder form in recent years, highlighting the relevance of understanding human behavior gleaned from authoritarianism research.

450 Volts

In the original version of the experiment, the 40 participants were informed that the goal was to investigate the influence of punishment on a subject’s ability to memorize content. It was stated to them that two people would participate, one as a teacher and the other as a learner.

The subject was assigned the role of teacher. The subjects were unaware that the entire experimental procedure was staged, and that the claimed learner was an actor. The subjects’ role was to give the learner an electric shock every time they made a mistake in the learning process.

The experimenter instructed the subject-teacher to administer successive, increasingly stronger electric shocks to the learner upon each incorrect answer. When the shock was administered, the learners made specific sounds indicating the pain they felt.

Most subjects (over 60%, depending on the version of the experiment) obeyed all the experimenter’s instructions and finally pressed the 450 V button, the highest setting of the electric shock generator.

Milgram Explanations

For many years, scientists have been looking for other mechanisms that could explain the obedience of participants in the famous experiment.

“Milgram offered a simple and suggestive explanation for these results. He proposed that participants assumed the role of individuals who were subordinate to the experimenter and they did not feel fully responsible for their actions. Even though they experienced severe stress and tension, as they were aware of the fact that they were severely hurting another person, they were unable to walk away from the situation and refuse to continue with the experiment,”

said SWPS psychology professor Dariusz Doliński.

Doliński and Tomasz Grzyb proposed a theoretical model based on research to explain why subjects in the Milgram experiment behaved as they did.

“Our approach is based on the assumption that one must consider the relationship of the participant with the experimenter on the one hand, and their relationship with the learner on the other. Participants are in conditions of classical avoidance-avoidance conflict, when we are faced with two undesirable incentives and are forced to make a choice. The conflict is of such a nature that none of the choices is obvious and none is better than the other,”

said Professor Tomasz Grzyb, a psychologist from SWPS University.

Inner Conflict

On the one hand, the volunteers in Milgram’s tests did not want to injure the students, as demonstrated by their great stress, reluctance before pressing subsequent buttons, and doubts about whether they really needed to.

On the other hand, they did not want to injure the experimenter, who, to their knowledge, had planned the research, wanted to acquire valuable results, and had invested time in carrying them out. Furthermore, individuals received money from the experimenter immediately upon arrival at the laboratory, which may have greatly motivated them to reciprocate. It is a classic avoidance-avoidance conflict.

“So the participant had to somehow resolve this conflict, in which if he decided not to harm the learner, he would harm the experimenter, and if he decided not to harm the experimenter, he would have to harm the learner,”

said Doliński.

The researchers assumed that the relationship between the subject and the learner, and between the subject and the experimenter was significantly influenced by the staging of the experiment, which differed in its individual variants. A situation in which the experimenter and the subject are in the same room, and the learner in another, will be conducive to obedience.

Empathy and Proximity

The analysis of many variants of the Milgram experiment, as well as other studies on the importance of physical distance in molding reactions to the suffering of others, supports their assumptions. The research has demonstrated, among other things, that the areas of the brain responsible for empathy (mainly the anterior cingulate cortex) become more active when the physical distance between the participant and the person in distress is reduced.

SWPS University researchers decided to conduct their own study to confirm the model that showed the importance of staging in the Milgram experiment.

“Milgram did not conduct his research under conditions where the participant is placed in one room with the learner while the experimenter stays in another room. Such conditions are crucial from the perspective of our proposed model, as obedience of the participants should be lowest under those circumstances,”

said Professor Tomasz Grzyb.

In addition, the Milgram trials addressed here solely included male volunteers. Finally, Milgram performed several trials at various times and compared the results. The SWPS team aimed to undertake a single experiment in which they could change elements relevant to its spatial arrangement.

The designed study could also clarify whether the differences in subjects’ obedience observed in the various Milgram experiments were actually a consequence of physical distance, or due to other differences between the created conditions.

Obedience Lite

In the study by professors Dariusz Doliński and Tomasz Grzyb, the participants (160 people in total) were randomly assigned to one of the four conditions. 20 women and 20 men were examined in each condition. For ethical reasons, researchers used the obedience lite procedure, which involves stopping the experiment when the participant obeys the experimenter’s tenth command, i.e. presses the button marked 150 V.

In the first condition, the participant (teacher) and the experimenter giving them instructions were in the same room, while the alleged learner sat behind a wall. In the second condition, all three people were in the same room, whereas in the third, each person was in a separate room. In the fourth condition, the participant and learner were in the same room, while the experimenter sat in the next room.

In the two conditions where the experimenter was in the same room as the study participant, 69 out of 80 individuals followed all of the experimenter’s instructions. In conditions where the experimenter was absent, 59 out of 80 individuals were completely obedient.

In conditions where the learner was in the same room as the study participant, 57 out of 80 individuals followed all of the experimenter’s instructions. In conditions where the learner was absent, 70 out of 80 individuals were completely obedient.

Distance Impacts

The obedience ratio was highest in the group where the participant was in the same room as the experimenter and the alleged learner was in a separate room. It scored more than 9.8 on a 10-point scale, indicating that the experimenter’s instructions were followed exactly.

“Our experiment has demonstrated that the presumed avoidance-avoidance conflict is more often resolved in such a way as to avoid hurting the learner when he is physically present (i.e., he is in the same room as the participant). This is true particularly often when, simultaneously, the experimenter is not physically present,”

said Professor Doliński.

The findings suggest the need of taking into account the distances between the participant and the learner, as well as the distance between the participant and the researcher. This technique highlights the interrelated nature of these distances and their aggregate impact on participant behavior in Milgram’s tests.

The researchers emphasize that although the reactions of Milgram’s subjects were affected by various situational as well as personality-based factors, the model they proposed, along with empirical verification, is another important step in expanding our knowledge of one of the most fascinating phenomena of social psychology: obedience to authority.


Dolinski, D., & Grzyb, T. (2024). Obedience to authority as a function of the physical proximity of the student, teacher, and experimenter. The Journal of Social Psychology, 1–13. doi: 10.1080/00224545.2024.2348479