Obedience to Authority: Milgram and Birthmother Coercion

If a person in a position of authority told you to deliver three 450-volt electric shocks to a person who had been in distress but was now non-responsive, would you do it?

Most of us would answer: No. Without any hesitation or equivocating, we would answer NO. We would not deliver three 450-volt shocks to a person once crying out for help who has now fallen silent.

How about if a person in a position of authority told a perfectly capable and competent mother (who happens to be single for whatever reason) to hand over her perfectly healthy (and darling) baby girl to complete strangers, would she do it?

While most of us would say NO, yet again. However, Stanley Milgram’s controversial yet ground breaking experiments in the 1960’s about obedience to authority figures indicate otherwise. His research shows, in fact, the vast majority of us would comply with the demands of authority figures, even when we voiced our concerns and protestations. His studies asked the question, “How far will people go to appease those they believe to be an authority figure?” His findings show the majority of us will go pretty far even when we believe it to be harmful and even when it is against our own moral and ethical code.

Many are already familiar with Stanley Milgram’s social psychology experiment about obedience, but as a refresher, here’s a brief video in which Milgram explains the purpose and design of the study:


Milgram’s study has gone on to be replicated thousands of time, across many cultures, age groups, ethnicity, and genders by numerous researchers. Here are some of the main conclusions drawn from the Milgram obedience to authority studies.

    • Compliance to demands are dramatically increased with the authority figure is physically present.
    • Many participants believed the experiment to be safe because it was sponsored by an authoritative institution, and therefore willingly participated.
    • Participants assumed the authority figure/experimenter had a certain level of competence and expertise from. Due to this belief, they continued delivering the shocks.
    • The shocks given to the learner were said to be painful, but not dangerous.

During the debriefing portion of the study, many participants reported they were in a state of extreme conflict. However, they continued to be compliant to the authority figure even though they were highly stressed, agitated, hesitant, and confused as to what they should do.  The mere presence of an authority figure giving directions on what they “must do” was enough to make them do something completely contrary to their own moral code.

One of the fundamental lessons of Milgram’s study is that,  “…relatively few people have the resources to resist authority. A variety of inhibitions against disobeying authority come into play and successfully keep the person in his place.”  (Stanley Milgram, 1974. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper & Row, p. 6).

These study findings can be applied to coercion within the process of a single expectant mother making an adoption plan. How many social workers, adoption counselors, and ecclesiastical leaders tell single expectant mothers it is “essential” or “part of God’s plan” to give her baby to more qualified people? How many times is a single expectant mother told there is “no other choice” if she ***truly*** loved her child, because adoption is all about love, right? How often are single expectant mothers told adoption *might* be somewhat painful, but it isn’t dangerous to them or their baby? How often do adoption agencies and religious groups assert their authority by using their credentials as evidence they know what is best for a mother and her baby? Most importantly, how often – especially in these days of open adoptions – are potential adoptive parents physically present in the delivery room or at the hospital (with the social worker) within hours of delivery, asserting their position of perceived authority and reinforcing the compliance of the newly delivered mother, simply by being physically present – even if they never say a word?

All of those things have been shown to increase compliance to the demands of an authority figure. In my estimation, all of these practices are coercive regardless of the motivation or intent of the authority figure. It is the outcome of the practice that defines it as coercion, not the motivation of the authority figure.

Just as the participants in the Milgram study did not have a gun held to their head to assure their compliance, no one has to hold a gun to the head of a birth mother to get her to sign the papers to voluntarily terminate her parental rights. Sometimes, all it takes is the social worker to show up at the hospital to shove the papers into her hands while she is still hooked up to an IV. Sometimes, all it takes is a bishop assuring a mother she is doing the “right thing.” Sometimes, all it takes is sitting across the desk from a judge, having him tell a mother what a wonderful gift she is giving the adoptive couple. The mother might be highly conflicted and hesitant about signing the papers and find herself in a state of high stress and agitation. However, she still signs them, even though it goes against every moral code she possesses and the fibers and sinews in her body scream at her not sign the papers

So why does she sign them? Because, according to Milgram, there is a person of authority from a venerated social institution, urging her on, tell her that adoption is “essential” to her daughter’s well-being and success in life, and assuring her though it might hurt for a while, adoption will do no long-term damage done to her or her child.

And so she picks up the pen, leans forward and signs the papers that forever sever her legal relationship with her beloved and precious daughter. Then in a daze, numb to all around her, she carefully lets herself out of the judge’s chambers and collapses in the courthouse elevator.