Personality as a Predictor of Obedience

by Sydney Engelstein, Kenyon ’18

Society values certain kinds of personalities over others. Being a kind parent and a high achieving student, being low in aggression and high in mental health. A new study, however, has shown that the type of personality that creates these desirable traits can also lead to “destructive and immoral obedience” in the right situations. Begue, Beauvois, Courbet, Oberle, Lepage, and Duke created an extension of the famous Milgram experiment, designed to see if certain personality types were more susceptible to blindly following authority.

The Milgram Experiment was a famous test run to determine whether Nazi war criminals had only committed the atrocities of the Holocaust because of an intrinsic human obedience to authority. In the test everyday people were built up towards thinking they were giving another person life-threatening electric shocks while the experimenter, the symbol of authority in his professional looking lab-coat, told them that it was all part of the test and they had to go through with it.

Begue et al.’s experiment was similar but took the guise of a TV game show where the authority figure was the host. The 76 participants taken from Paris and the surrounding communities ranged from 25 to 55 years old and had never heard of Milgram’s experiment before (those who had were excluded from the study). The participant was brought on to the show and told they were a participant for a pilot episode which would not be aired and that they would not be able to win money (in one of the scenarios some of the contestants were told that their episode would be aired though they wouldn’t be able to win any money, but the results were not significantly different). The other contestant on the show was secretly planted by the researcher, and the selection was rigged so that the true participant would always be “the questioner”, while the plant would be “the contestant”. The questioner asked the contestant multiple choice questions based around word recall, and were instructed to give them increasingly high intensity shocks each time an answer was wrong.

As the fake shocks rose in voltage, the contestant (who had been taken to a separate room) began to make pained noises and finally stopped responding at all. The experiment ended when the questioner either made it through all 27 questions (which would require thinking they had administered two 460 volt shocks to the unresponsive contestant) or they refused to go on with the game even after receiving all five “prods” from the game show host (“go on with the questions”; “go on, don’t let yourself get upset”; “the rules say you must go on”; “go on, we are taking all responsibility for this”; and “you can’t make him lose; what will the audience think?” ).

8 months after the experiment, each of the participants was sent a survey that did not connect itself to the game show to determine personality traits on the scale of the Big Five (Openness, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, and Neuroticism), as well as questions on political orientation and political activism.

As Begue et al. had predicted, participants with high levels of agreeableness and conscientious were more likely to go through to the highest level of shocks. Agreeableness is related to conformity and compliance, which leads to the positive social behaviors of not upsetting others or breaking social norms. Conscientiousness is a factor in goal-oriented thinking, self-discipline, a sense of duty, and a desire for achievement. These are all positive personality trait that generally are considered desirable in a person. This research is showing, however, that personality traits that would ordinarily help a person be well adjusted and successful may hide a darker side when put into certain situations.

On the political scale, the more “right wing” the participant defined themselves as, the more likely they were to conform to authority and administer the higher level shocks. In women, the higher the level of political activism they had participated in such as strikes, protests, or petitions the less likely they were to continue shocking the contestant until the end.

Generally good personality traits can turn bad in the right circumstances, just as generally bad traits can sometimes be good. It is the impulsive person who doesn’t think twice before acting that leaps out to push a stranger away from the front of a speeding car. And sometimes it is the attentive parent who gets along well with others and fits in who would listen if an authority told them to hurt someone. Our personalities are who we are. But still, with people who are conscious of their actions and actively make their own moral decisions humans of all personalities can keep the horrors of the past from ever repeating.


Bègue, L., Beauvois, J.-L., Courbet, D., Oberlé, D., Lepage, J., & Duke, A. A. (In press). Personality predicts obedience in a Milgram paradigm. Journal of Personality. doi:10.1111/jopy.12104

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