Why do we obey authority? Mr. Milgram goes to Liberia.

There are few bigger questions in politics than why human cooperate (or not), and what society and the state have to do with it.

Whether it’s obeying the law or making public goods, we think of the authorities play as enforcers—giving people incentives and punishments to cooperate. But the fact is: people often cooperate without actual sanctions or even the serious threat of it. People respect the rules and follow authority without always needing to be forced into line.

In his shocking shock experiments, Milgram showed us that humans are built to obey authority. Why, how much, and under what circumstances must be one of the most important unexplored questions in the discipline. Maybe because of Milgram.

One of my students and collaborators, Rob Blair, tackles this. He’s on the political science job market, in CP/IR. Job market paper here. And website and CV.

Rob takes Milgram to the jungle, literally. In scattered villages in Liberia, where competing authorities keep a fragile peace, he uses lab experiments in the field to look at which authorities–from chiefs to peacekeepers–influence people to cooperate and why. Don’t worry, there are no electric shocks. Just contributions to public goods.

The punchline is that legitimacy and exposure to authorities each shape the degree of obedience. And more exposure to peacekeepers might not have the effect you think.

This kind of work is important not just because we have so little micro evidence on these traditionally macro topics, and not just because we have such a poorly defined idea of “legitimacy” and how to measure or influence it. Also, too much of the evidence we do have is from college students playing games in a campus lab or (worse) professional game players on Mechanical Turk. Doing the same in dozens of isolated, sometimes volatile villages is as important as is is difficult.

See the paper for more. Here’s also some of our preliminary conflict prediction work (more exciting stuff to follow soon) and here’s our experimental work on promoting property rights and reducing violence around land.

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