The Milgram experiment is a classic and shocking study that showed that many people would continue administering electric shocks they believed were hurting someone if an authority figure encouraged them to. But many people don’t think they would’ve listened if they were involved in the original experiment, despite numerous replications. A study published in Personality and Individual Differences seeks to explore how narcissism functions in believing that oneself would’ve obeyed for a longer or shorter period of time than others.
In the classic Milgram experiment, over 60% of participants continued to obey the authority figure and administer electric shocks to someone they believed to be in a significant amount of pain.
“Milgram’s experiment itself was groundbreaking and inspired by the events of World War II: psychologists wanted to find out how such atrocities as concentration camps could have come about, and whether a special personality (e.g. authoritarian, according to Theodor Adorno) is required to fulfill orders to commit war crimes or murder other people,” explained study author Roksana R. Zdunek, a doctoral student at Jagiellonian University in Poland.
These results were shocking, and people found it hard to believe that obedience to authority was that common. Most people believe they would’ve withdrawn or refused in this experiment earlier than others, which is an example of the better-than-average effect.
“Milgram showed that virtually anyone would obey orders that essentially lead to killing other people,” Zdunek told PsyPost. “On the other hand, people, as a rule, like and need to be convinced of their moral superiority, and the thought that one would be able to commit crimes such as during the World War II is mostly unacceptable to the average person.”
“We wanted to see how people with different forms and levels of subclinical narcissism (a trait that each of us has to a greater or lesser extent) would behave in this experiment,” Zdunek explained. “We focused on two forms of grandiose narcissism: 1) agentic, which describes people who consider themselves particularly competent, intelligent, better than others in agentic domain, with a tendency to disregard and sometimes even despise the values of the communal domain, and 2) communal, a relatively young construct that characterizes people considering themselves particularly prosocial and moral.”
Zdunek and her colleagues recruited 348 participants from a community sample aged 17 to 87. Participants completed measures on demographics, communal narcissism, agentic narcissism, and social desirability responding. Next, the participants watched a video on Milgram’s experiment and completed a better-than-average effect measure, answering what they believed the average person would do in this situation and what they themselves would do. Additionally, in this step they indicated any prior knowledge of Milgram’s classic experiment.
Results showed that overall, people believed they would’ve withdrawn from the experiment earlier than their peers and being familiar with the experiment only made the better-than-average effect stronger. When it comes to narcissism, people high in communal narcissism also showed the better-than-average effect and believed they would’ve quit the experiment earlier. But people high in agentic narcissism predicted that both themselves and their peers would withdraw from the experiment later. This is consistent with communal narcissists having favorable self-views but not negative views of others, and agentic narcissists not attempting to project a socially desirable image.
“Although people in general believe that they would oppose the authority’s directives to harm another person earlier than would others (which means that they feel morally superior) this is not the case for all,” Zdunek told PsyPost. “High communal narcissists indeed seem to need to feel morally superior more than others, they express it more strongly. In contrast, and most interestingly, people high in agentic narcissism are less likely to do so. On the contrary, they seem to be aware (and proud?) that they are capable of committing more cruelty.”
“The results of this study seem to be especially relevant due to the fact that we are now living in a time of war between Russia and Ukraine, which makes the issue of atrocities and obeying cruel orders as topical as several decades ago.”
This study took steps into understanding how the better-than-average effect would function for narcissists in regard to the classic Milgram obedience study. But like all research, it has limitations. One such limitation is that measures were self-report, which could leave results vulnerable to lower accuracy. Additionally, there are reliability concerns about the self-deceptive self-enhancement scale used.
“Future work should examine also informant reports, and could test our findings longitudinally,” Zdunek explained. “Our results raise the possibility of altruism among communal narcissists, which might lead them (more than low communals) to speak up and resist authority. Further research could scrutinize this hypothesis.”
“The question of the authenticity of people with high levels of communal narcissism is also an open topic and various studies have yielded mixed findings (e.g., the results of 2018 study by Yang et al., suggests that they are not authentic). Ours also shows that a more direct explanation of their behavior is the need for social approval – something that could be further investigated.”
The study, “Grandiose (communal and agentic) narcissism and predicted (dis) obedience in the Milgram paradigm”, was authored by Roksana R. Zdunek, Anna Z. Czarna, and Constantine Sedikides.