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Examining the Power of Authority during COVID-19 Pandemic

In 1963, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of controversial experiments on obedience, which revealed the extent to which people are willing to obey an authority figure, even if it meant causing harm to others. His work has since become a classic study in the field of psychology, and its relevance continues to be felt today in various contexts.  One such context is the recent COVID-19 pandemic, where consulting firms and professional bodies had been suspected of abusing their position of authority (through their expertise) to influence government decisions in order to fulfill self-interest(s).

Briefly; Milgram's experiments involved subjects who were told to administer electric shocks to a person in another room every time they answered a question incorrectly. In reality, the person in the other room was an actor, and the shocks were not real. Nevertheless, the subjects were led to believe that they were causing the person pain, and Milgram observed that a significant proportion of participants continued to administer shocks, even when the actor appeared to be in extreme distress - purely because somebody in a white coat (a perceived authority figure) implored them to continue when they showed signs of stopping.  And when the authority figure was removed, fewer participants continued administering shocks to the participants.​

These experiments demonstrate the effect of power and authority on the obedience of followers. Milgram argued that people tend to obey authority figures because of the social norms and expectations that surround obedience, as well as the belief that authority figures have greater knowledge and expertise.

The consequences of this kind of obedience can be severe. In Milgram's experiments, participants believed that they were causing harm to another person, and this caused them significant distress. In the case of one market-leading management consultancy (who will be referred to as KJ Consulting), the company's actions have been criticised for contributing to the UK's slow response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and for putting lives at risk by failing to provide adequate PPE.

Milgram's work on obedience highlights the need to question authority and resist the social norms and expectations that surround obedience, especially when they are imposed. It also reminds us that authority figures can be fallible, and that we should be wary of blindly following their directives. In the case of KJ Consulting, the company's actions should serve as a warning that we need to be vigilant in ensuring that those in positions of authority act in the public interest (or in the interest of their stakeholders) and are held accountable for their actions.


In conclusion, Milgram's work on obedience provides a useful framework for understanding the actions of companies like KJ Consulting during the COVID-19 pandemic. By recognising the power of authority and the social norms and expectations that surround obedience, we can better understand how these organisatons may able to exploit their position of authority to secure contracts with the UK government. We must also remember that blind obedience can have serious consequences and that we need to be vigilant in holding those in positions of authority accountable for their actions and decisions.  It is a message not only for organisations and stakeholders (to be weary of social forces that compel us to behave in certain ways) but also should provide leaders in business with an understanding of their own social responsibilities and the effect they may have inadvertently on the people they lead.

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