History Journalism

The Psychology of Obedience to Authority: Lessons Learned from the Holocaust

Nazi Germany was a true source of critical inquiry for academics worldwide. The work of Adorno et al. about authoritarianism through psychoanalytic theory,  and the work of Stanley Milgram about obedience influenced by situational factors are at the core of modern forensic psychology practice. Authoritarianism can be described as an attitude spectrum encompassing all types of prejudices, that is, xenophobia; as well as extreme ideologies in regards to discipline and traditions, that is, conventionalism (McAvoy, 2012). This essay seeks to explore the studies conducted by the mentioned above pioneers of forensic psychology during the post-war period in relation to the holocaust events. 

Xenophobic conventionalism was the main motivation driving the mass assassination of innocent people during WWII. This inspired Sanford to invite Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik and Levinson to join his psychological investigation project in the US, and they became a team often cited as “Adorno et al.” due to Harvard alphabetical referencing rules. They were interested in uncovering the unconscious psychopathology of war criminals, and this led them to create the F-scale (McAvoy, 2012). Based on psychoanalytic theory, they administered questionnaires and interviews to the masses in order to validate their hypotheses which drew a  correlation between extreme childhood trauma and overboard adult attitudes to authority (McAvoy, 2012). The trials being held at Nuremberg, Germany, were a powerful motivator behind social psychology research after the war (Bayard, 2012). Stanley Milgram studied Adorno et al.’s work meticulously and was interested in understanding authoritarian obedience and how it related to irresponsible cruelty. After watching the globally broadcasted trial of Adolf Eichmann in television during 1961, Milgram realised that ordinary people were capable of committing great acts of violence when following orders (Banyard, 2012).  Through systematic procedures and pressure from authoritarian figures, a death toll that today approximates seventeen million minority individuals was achieved. Homosexuals, dissenters, jews, activists, disabled people, and foreigners; all brutally discriminated against and murdered (Holocaust Encyclopedia, 2019). Milgram designed a social experiment in order to better understand the link between conscience, executive obedience, and authority in organised war crimes.  

Adorno et al. (1950, p. V) saw prejudice as a mental health virus: “Even a social disease has its periods of quiescence during which the social scientists […] can study it […] to prevent or reduce the virulence of the next outbreak”. They devised the F-scale with its subscales of ethnocentrism, politico-conservatism, and antisemitism (McAvoy, 2012). They used both, quantitative and qualitative methods: “Individuals were studied by means of interviews and special clinical techniques for revealing underlying wishes, fears, and defenses; groups were studied by means of questionnaires” (Adorno et al., 1950, p. 12). Tests had statements with predetermined scores that individuals could agree or disagree with. The interviews allowed the researchers to double-check whether a participant’s general demeanor matched the anti-democratic scores. Nevertheless, the overall study was not enough to determine the direction of the effect of authoritarianism, nor could this predict whether someone with the potential for fascism would actually act on their attitudes and join a fascist movement (McAvoy, 2012). “The modification of the potentially fascist structure cannot be achieved by psychological means alone. The task is comparable to that of eliminating neurosis, or delinquency, or nationalism from the world” (Adorno et al., 1950, p. 975). 

Social psychologist Stanley Milgram was impacted by such results. He modified the F-scale that Adorno et al. had created (Milgram, n.d.).  After witnessing the trial of ordinary-looking Adolf Eichmann, Milgram (1962) wanted to understand the difference between free and forced obedience in everyday life. He (Milgram, 1965, p. 57) reported: “In its more general form the problem may be defined thus: If X tells Y to hurt Z, under what conditions will Y carry out the command of X and under what conditions will he refuse [?]”. Questions like these had led him to design the base condition to test 40 normal-looking young males in 1962. They each would arrive at Yale University and would be greeted by an experimenter wearing a white coat. An actor played the role of fellow participant.  Everything was standardised, from the laboratory, to the confederates, and the apparatus (Banyard, 2012). Participants were asked to administer potentially lethal electric shocks to the actor playing learner. The electric shock machine looked realistic, but was only a prop. Milgram found that indeed normal people had the potential to harm with some pressure from an authority figure. Milgram (1963, p. 371) called this phenomena “destructive obedience in the laboratory”. He then administered the questionnaires to ratify the participants’ valence. 

The studies conducted by Adorno et al. (authoritarianism) and Stanley Milgram (obedience) gave forensic psychologists much detail in terms of personality, situational factors/influences, authority, and compliance in the system  (Byford, 2017). Monetary incentives were offered to participants in both studies: “This was the only way to insure that the staff of the Study would not be conscience-stricken” (Adorno et al., 1950, p. 26). WWII was a common theme in both approaches: “Gas chambers were built, death camps were guarded, daily quotas of corpses were produced with the same efficiency as the manufacture of appliances […] Obedience is the psychological mechanism that links individual action to political purpose” (Milgram, 1963, p. 371). Both experiments were carried out in the US, made use of pen and paper questionnaires, and included qualitative assessments; although the conditions, apparatuses, and  procedures were completely different. The results were controversial enough to elicit a lot of attention from the general public in both cases. Adorno et al.’s work was criticised for being based on psychoanalytic theory, and for the risk of acquiescence response bias (McAvoy, 2012). Milgram’s work got him in serious ethical trouble due to what he was able to uncover about his subjects; and how this impacted their real life, identities, and reputations (Banyard, 2012). Both teams reported their findings through writing, although Milgram also created a documentary about his experiment (Obedience, 1962). 

As it can be observed, there are many substantial similarities between Adorno et al.’s and Milgram’s experiments, even if these are different when it comes to structure. One preceded the next, and one added to the other. Authority and its relation to obedience can be better appreciated by drawing a correlation between the two approaches studied above. The results shed light on personality, and how adult behaviour can be a result of individual differences, as well as of contextual circumstances. Adorno et. al studied the master, and Milgram studied the slave. The general conclusion? Both sides are equally dangerous. 


Adorno, T.W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D.J. and Sanford, R.N. (1950) The Authoritarian Personality, New York, Harper.

Banyard, P. (2012)  ‘Just following orders?’, in Brace, N. and Byford, J. (eds) Investigating Psychology, Oxford, Oxford University Press/Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 61-95.

Byford, J. (2017) ‘The importance of replication’, in McAvoy, J. and Brace, N. (eds) Investigating Methods, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 47-82.

Holocaust Encyclopedia (2019) Documenting Number of Victims of the Holocaust and Nazi Persecution [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 2 April 2019)

McAvoy, J. (2012) ‘Exposing the Authoritarian Personality”, in Brace N. and Byford, J. (eds) Investigating Psychology, Oxford, Oxford University Press/Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 14-56 

Milgram, S. (n.d.). Modified “F” Scale, Opinion Questionnaire [Online]. Available at:|bibliographic_details|2089868 (Accessed 2 April 2019)

Milgram, S. (1962). ‘Free Obedience vs. Forced Obedience’ in Stanley Milgram Personal Papers [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 2 April 2019)

Milgram, S. (1963). ‘Behavioral Study of Obedience’, in Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, pp. 371-372 [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 2 April, 2019)

Milgram, S. (1965). ‘Some Conditions of Obedience and Disobedience to Authority’, in Human Relations, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 57-76 [Online]. Available at:|bibliographic_details|2082063 (Accessed 2 April, 2019)

Obedience (1962) Directed by Stanley Milgram [Documentary]. New Haven, Yale University. Available at: (Accessed 2 April 2019)

Journalism Science

The Developmental Trajectory: Theory of Mind (ToM)

The developmental trajectory is the progressive continuum through which a human ability develops in life (Hewson, 2015). For instance, research suggests that theory of mind (ToM)–  the ability to attribute mental states (e.g. false beliefs) that differ from one’s own to other people begins to develop around age 4- and becomes more complex/sophisticated with maturity (e.g. second order beliefs; Hewson, 201).  “It’s not until age 7 that we get what looks more like an adult [moral] response” (The Open University, 2019a). Furthermore, it is believed that when mentally disordered offenders (e.g. schizophrenes; Davey)- and those with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD; Lyndsay et al., 2018)- fail to understand other people’s mental states, they have a ToM deficit resulting either from childhood trauma which thwarted the normal developmental trajectory of executive functioning skills (Davey, 2018; Hewson, 2015); from biological/neurodevelopmental disorders such as Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD; Mugno et al., 2018; Lyndsay et al., 2018), and/or from personality disorders such as psychopathy (The Open University, 2019b); therefore these people need special support tailored to their needs in adulthood to help them be independent, and to find happiness. Sometimes these needs are of criminogenic nature (Barker et al., 2017; Harkins et al., 2018), and this is why those lacking ToM are given attention and protection to prevent the potential escalation of maladaptive behaviours (Ward and Willis, 2018; Schug et al., 2018); as well as the risky methods for coping with stress (Taylor and Reeves, 2017). 


Barker, M.J. and Cooper, T. (2017) ‘Mindfulness’, in Vossler, A., Havard, C., Pike, G., Barker, M.J. and Raabe, B. (eds), Mad or Bad? A Critical Approach to Counselling and Forensic Psychology, London, SAGE Publications, pp. 238-250. 

Davey, G. (2018) Psychopathology, West Sussex, British Psychological Society and John Wiley & Sons, pp. 236-558. 

Harkins, L., Ware, J. and Mann, R. (2018) ‘Treating Dangerous Offenders’, in  Davies, G.M. and Beech, A.R. (eds), Forensic Psychology: Crime, Justice, Law, Interventions, John Wiley & Sons Ltd, pp. 547-570. 

Hewson, C. (2015) ‘Mindreading’, in Turner, J., Hewson, C., Mahendran, K. and Stevens, P.  (eds), Living Psychology: From the Everyday to the Extraordinary, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 15-56.

Lindsay, W.R., Taylor, J.L. and Michie, A.M. (2018) ‘Interventions for Offenders with Intellectual Disabilities’, in Davies, G.M. and Beech, A.R. (eds), Forensic Psychology: Crime, Justice, Law, Interventions, John Wiley & Sons Ltd, pp. 603-628. 

Mugno, A.P., Malloy, L.C. and La Rooy, D.J. (2018) ‘Interviewing Witnesses’, in Davies, G.M. and Beech, A.R. (eds), Forensic Psychology: Crime, Justice, Law, Interventions, John Wiley & Sons Ltd, pp. 203-223. 

Schug, R.A., Gao, Y., Glenn, A.L., Peskin, M., Yang, Y. and Raine, A. (2015) ‘The Developmental Evidence Base: Neurobiological Research and Forensic Applications’, in Crighton, D.A. and Towl, G.J. (eds), Forensic Psychology, 2nd edn, West Sussex, British Psychological Society and John Wiley and Sons Ltd, pp. 115-128. 

Taylor, P. and Reeves, A. (2017) ‘Self-harm and Suicide’, in Vossler, A., Havard, C., Pike, G., Barker, M.J. and Raabe, B. (eds), Mad or Bad? A Critical Approach to Counselling and Forensic Psychology, London, SAGE Publications, pp. 268-281. 

The Open University (2019a) ‘TED Talk: Rebecca Saxe’ [Video], DD210 Living Psychology: From the Everyday to the Extraordinary.  Available at  (Accessed 21 September 2019).

The Open University (2019b) ‘8 Theories of mindreading difficulties’, DD210-19J Week 4: Mindreading Difficulties – Examples from clinical psychology [Online]. Available at  (Accessed 22 October 2019).

Ward, T. and Willis, G.M. (2018) ‘The Rehabilitation of Offenders: Good Lives and Risk Reduction’, in Davies, G.M. and Beech, A.R. (eds), Forensic Psychology: Crime, Justice, Law, Interventions, John Wiley & Sons Ltd, pp. 663-682. 


Book Review: Ted Bundy: Conversations With a Killer

Because simply watching the docuseries on Netflix is not enough, I decided to read the book by Michaud and Aynesworth (2019) which contains the transcripts from conversations with Theodore Robert Bundy, also known as the All-American Boy (Loftus and Ketcham, 1991).

This book provides real insight into Bundy’s psychological discourse, and it can be observed that his superego mainly served as a reminder not to get caught. He could not control his impulses, and this is why he left such a high death toll. His moral degeneracy can be appreciated in his described thinking process, where he expresses how he felt it was not difficult at all to maintain such secret life hidden away from the consciousness of those who were part of his personal circle: “I became expert at projecting something very different. That I was very busy. It is clear now, I think, that a huge part of my life was hidden from everyone – secret, as it were. It didn’t take much effort” (p. 16). One thing that can be noticed throughout the conversations is that Ted Bundy had a form of self-serving bias which was compounded by his belief about what he called the psychological “condition”. He expressed his states of narcissistic melancholia mixed with helplessness in relation to what can be described as his criminogenic, sadistic needs and the satisficing of these. He expressed that at times he would lay with the corpses he created until these were putrid.

What I find particularly difficult to comprehend when it comes to studying Ted Bundy as a prototypical psychopath is that at times some of the statements he made about his experience posited that he had the capacity to feel fear, which goes beyond the scope of primary psychopathy: “I thought I was going to die every night the first few days I was in jail back in October of 1975. I was scared to death! Daily. I thought they were going to kill me” (p. 23). Was he saying the truth? I don’t know. However, some of his other statements did reveal his malignant personality, such as when speaking about the way in which he perceived his victims as objects: “Except he is not killing a person. He is killing an image” (p. 65). Whose image? is the question I have. Psychodynamic theorists would of course instantly say that perhaps he wanted to recreate the image of the woman who he had the most contempt against, his own mother.

Bundy truly believed that this “condition”- as he called it- was to blame for all of his behaviour; nevertheless, unable to meet the M’Naghtan rules, he was not found to be eligible to claim criminal insanity and even prominent expert witnesses and forensic psychologists such as Elizabeth Loftus (1991) describe having been disturbed by his sophisticated mannerisms and inappropriate body language and responses to contexts. In other words, Bundy had a theory of mind (ToM) deficit, and a surplus of self-esteem. Moreover, his construct of reality was based on self-justifications and false beliefs. The way in which he described his “disease” in third person was as follows: “what’s happening is that we’re building up the condition and what may have been a predisposition for violence becomes a disposition. And as the condition develops and its purposes or its characteristics become more well defined, it begins to demand more of the attention and time of the individual” (p. 71). Such cluster of personality traits and behaviour is classed in the DSM-5 as antisocial personality disorder (ASPD).

What’s interesting is that Bundy describes having been influenced by his peers’ concepts of the attractive woman when choosing his victims. This was perhaps the case because as a malignant narcissist, his desire to have complete control over such beautiful images meant that he needed to kill them in order to control everything about their interaction. According to Bundy he murdered his victims because he wanted to leave no living witness of his sexual atrocities. As the moral imbecile that he was, he even washed some of his victims’ hair and did their make up in order to have sex with their corpses until the rotting nature of death made it impossible to do so. This shows the utter perversion of this individual, and this is synthesised by his own words: “A certain amount of the need of that malignant condition had been satisfied through the sexual release. That driving force would recede somewhat, allowing the normal individual’s mental mechanisms to again begin to take hold” (p. 90).

What makes this a great book is that it is made up of transcripts mainly and this allows the reader to see the pathetically perverse side of Bundy that is so easily forgotten when watching his charming ways on camera right until the evening before he was finally executed in 1989. It truly feels like talking with this serial killer. A truly recommended reading for anyone interested in this particular case study or in understanding antisocial personality disorder more deeply.


Michaud, S.G. and Aynesworth, H. (2019) Ted Bundy: Conversations with a Killer, London, Mirror Books.

Loftus, E. and Ketcham, K. (1991) Witness for the Defense: The Accused, the Eyewitness, and the Expert Who Puts Memory on Trial, New York, St. Martin’s Press, pp. 61-91.


Artificial minds, proprioception and episodic memory: the differences between human and computational intelligence

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (n.d.a), the adjective “artificial” originates from 14c France meaning “not natural or spontaneous”, and it began to be used in the English language from 16c to describe “anything made in imitation of, or as a substitute for, what is natural”. The etymology of the noun “mind” is rooted in late 12c, when the word “mynd” was used to describe “that which feels, wills, and thinks; the intellect” (Online Etymology Dictionary, n.d.b); a derivation from the Old English word “gemynd” which encompassed the concepts of memory, conscience, intention, and purpose among other things. This essay explores the concept of “artificial minds”, some of its psychological perspectives and what all this reveals about human minds. 

What is an artificial mind? Based on the above explained, if the word artificial has for centuries carried the meaning of imitation and substitution for- in this case- human nature; it is not surprising that some people have reported feeling afraid about the possibility of robots taking over the world (McDonald, 2019). Assuming that machines think in the same way as humans is like anthropomorphising (ascribing human qualities to nonhuman animals; Hewson, 2015). Yasemin J. Erden defined this phenomenon as  “problem of other minds” in her chapter of Living Psychology: From the Everyday to the Extraordinary (2015, p. 109), where she posed the question “how do you know that the author of this chapter is a person?”. Her name is written as the author of the chapter, and the paragraphs are written in a meticulously eloquent manner. The content is highly specialised. Yet, the reader is invited to question all this, and to consider the possibility of her identity being robotic. Once her name is searched though, it can be seen that she is human, as well as a philosopher at St. Mary University in London (Google, n.d.). Nevertheless, her question should not be underestimated in any way, as there exist bots that can rigorously write essays for humans (Essaybot, n.d).

If mind is software and body is hardware (Computational modeling of the brain – Sylvain Baillet, 2016), does that mean that the two work independently? Descartes initially questioned whether matter (body) was the result of mind (imagination). He stated “I think, therefore I am”, claiming that body was a manifestation or hallucination of thought (Erden, 2015, pp. 111-112); and eventually evolved his perspective to say that mind and body are connected specifically through the pineal gland of the brain. Under the same token, dualist theorists believe that the strongest evidence for the existence of mind as a separate entity from brain is the concept of qualia- coined by Chalmers (1996) as cited in Erden (2015)- which encompasses the subjective, first-person experience of the individual. Erden illustrates this concept with an analogy of eating and enjoying chocolate (2015), explaining that one thing is to understand how the body absorbs and digests chocolate, and another thing is to enjoy the taste of it. Could a bot understand the experience of enjoyment? After all, not even some legislators seem to understand the concept of enjoyment in relation to- for example- human rights law (United Nations, n.d.; ECHR, 1950).

In contrast, materialist theorists claim that specific parts of the human brain are responsible for intelligent functions such as the processing of sensory inputs (stimuli), and the creation of responses (outputs; Erden, 2015, pp. 115-117). But, what is meant by intelligence? The answer to Alan Turing’s question (1950) cited in (Erden, 2015, pp. 120-121) “can machines think?” depends on the way the words “mind” and “thinking” are used (Erden, 2015, p. 122). For instance, the intelligent nature of human memory is highly complex (Prosecution Witness Janeen DeMarte Explains Why She Does Not Believe Jodi Arias’ Memory Fog Story, 2013). Could a machine learn to absorb, encode, store, and retrieve information similarly to a person? In order to understand this, Naoyuki Sato and Yogo Yamaguchi (2010) from Japan reviewed computational models of the hippocampi, the two organs of the brain mainly responsible for the formation of episodic memory (remembering what, where, and when). Their (Sato and Yamaguchi, 2010) evidence suggests that when the hippocampal system is damaged, the ability for self object-space processing is lost. Nevertheless, they state that more brain regions are involved in the process, and that models which can take into account more than one brain region simultaneously need to be developed. 

This is why one of the biggest challenges in computational modeling is to equip artificial minds and robotic bodies with proprioception (Erden, 2015), the human ability to position one’s body within timespace and context. Understanding such computational complications elucidates the everyday complexity of human nature (including perceptual, sensorimotor abilities; Erden, 2015). For humans, working their way from point A to point B in timespace can be relatively straightforward, and if uncertainties or anomalies arise, these can be dealt with successfully (e.g. avoiding an obstacle). However, with no hippocampus and no cognitive map on which to rely; robots find it overwhelming to understand the where, when, and what of situations; especially when it comes to unexpected contingencies or events. John McCarthy and Patrick Hayes (1969) cited in Erden (2015) called this phenomenon the frame problem. As a consequence, psychologists such as Aaron Sloman (The Open University, 2019b) have placed their emphasis on the computational modelling of the human information processing system. Erden (2015, p. 124) defines this framework as computational theory of mind (CTM), and the most advanced artificially intelligent robotic inventions are equipped with proprioceptive sensors which allow them to compute and interact with the world around them more competently (Erden, 2015). Nevertheless, Margaret Boden from the University of Sussex in England states that to model some mysterious processes such as creativity is difficult, because humans do not always understand how they do what they do (The Open University, 2019a). 

To summarise, the concept of artificial minds has helped cognitive scientists understand the complex functions of everyday living in humans. Machines can indeed think, they just don’t think in the same way as humans. Human intelligence and its neuroscientific structure is not easy to model in full magnitude, and not all functions are clear enough to warrant replication. The human mind remains somewhat mysterious, and subjective experience remains an area for further research. Could this be what is meant by the philosophical latin concept of DEUS EX MACHINA?  (GOD FROM THE MACHINE). The future is uncertain. 


Computational modeling of the brain Sylvain Baillet (2016) Youtube video, added by Serious Science [Online]. Available at (Accessed 29 October 2019).  

Council of Europe, European Convention on Human Rights, as amended by Protocols Nos. 11 and 14, ECHR, (4 November 1950) [Online]. Available at  (Accessed 28 October 2019).  

Erden, Y. J. (2015) ‘Artificial minds’, in Turner, J., Hewson, C., Mahendran, K. and Stevens, P.  (eds), Living Psychology: From the Everyday to the Extraordinary, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 109-146.

EssayBot (n.d.) How It Works [Online]. Available at (Accessed 28 October, 2019)

Google (n.d.) “Yasemin J. Erden” Search Results [Online]. Available at (Accessed 28 October, 2019).

Hewson, C., Ramsden P., and Turner, J.  (2015) ‘Animal minds’, in Turner, J., Hewson, C., Mahendran, K. and Stevens, P.  (eds), Living Psychology: From the Everyday to the Extraordinary, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 63-99.

McDonald, H. (2019) ‘Ex-Google worker fears ‘killer robots’ could cause mass atrocities’, The Guardian, 15 September [Online] Available at   (Accessed 28 October 2019).  

Online Etymology Dictionary (n.d.a) Artificial (adj) [Online]. Available at (Accessed 28 October, 2019).

Online Etymology Dictionary (n.d.b) Mind (n) [Online]. Available at (Accessed 28 October, 2019).

Prosecution Witness Janeen DeMarte Explains Why She Does Not Believe Jodi Arias’ Memory Fog Story (2013) Youtube video, added by PK Report [Online]. Available at (Accessed 29 October 2019).  

Sato, N. and Yamaguchi, Y. (2010) ‘Simulation of Human Episodic Memory by Using a Computational Model of the Hippocampus’, Advances in Artificial Intelligence, Japan, Future University/ Brain Science Institute, pp. 1-11 [Online]. Available at (Accessed 29 October, 2019). 

The Open University (2019a) ‘5.6 Margaret Boden: artificial intelligence’, DD210-19J Week 5: artificial minds [Online]. Available at  (Accessed 28 October 2019).

The Open University (2019b) ‘5.3 Aaron Sloman: AI and cognitive modelling’, DD210-19J Week 5: artificial minds [Online]. Available at (Accessed 29 October 2019). 

United Nations (n.d.) Human Rights Law [Online]. Available at (Accessed 28 October 2019). 

Science Visual Theory

Antisocial Behaviour & Psychopathy


Juni, S. (2014) ‘Diagnosing antisocial behavior and psychopathy’, Journal of Criminal Psychology. Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 4(1), pp. 76–96