Explanations for obedience

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  • Explanations of obedience with reference to agentic state and legitimate authority
    • Milgram also offered social-psychological explanations for the levels of obedience he found in his studies. Such explanations concern the influences of others on an individual’s behaviour as opposed to external factors in the situation. Both of these explanations emphasise that the causes of obedience lie in social hierarchies.
    • Agentic state
      • A mental state where we feel no personal responsibility for our behaviour because we believe ourselves to be acting for an authority figure. This free us from the demands of our consciences and allows us to obey even a destructive authority figure.
      • Autonomous state
        • This is the opposite of being in the agentic state. “autonomy”- being independent or free. So a person in the autonomous state is free to behave according to their own principles and therefore feels responsible for their own actions. This shift from autonomy to “agency” is called the agentic shift. Milgram said this occurs when a person perceives someone else as a figure of authority. This other person has greater power because of their position in the social hierarchy.
      • Binding factors
        • Milgram then raised the question of why the individual remains in the agentic state. Milgram observed that many of his participants wanted to quit but were unable to do so. The answer is binding factors – aspects of the situation that allow the person to ignore or minimise the damaging effect of their behaviour and thus reduced “moral strain” they`re feeling. Milgram suggested a number of strategies that individuals use to reduce “moral strain”- shifting responsibility to the victim or denying the damage they were doing to the victims. 
      • Evaluation (AO3)
        • Research to support 
          • Blass and Schmitt showed a film of Milgram’ study to students and asked them to identify who they felt was responsible for the harm to the learner. Students blamed the experimenter rather than the participant. Students also indicated that the responsibility was due to legitimate authority but also due to expert authority. Therefore students recognised legitimate authority as the cause of obedience, supporting this explanation.
        • Limited explanation 
          • Agentic shift does not explain many research findings- for example why people choose not to obey. The agentic shift explanation also does not explain the findings from Hofling study. The agentic shift explanation predicts that, as the nurses handed over the responsibility to the doctor, they should have shown levels of anxiety similar to Milgram`s participants, as they understood their role in a destructive process. But ths was not the case. This suggests that agentic shift can only account for some situaions of obedience. 
    • Legitimate authority 
      • This suggests that we are more likely to obey people who we perceive to have more authority over us. This position is justified by the individual’s position of power within a hierarchy. In order to shift to the agentic state, they need to have perception that the other person has legitimate authority.
      • Destructive authority 
        • Problems arise when legitimate authority becomes destructive. E.g. Hitler. Powerful leaders can use their legitimate powers for destructive purposes. Legitimate powers for destructive purposes were shown in Milgram’s study, when the experimenter used verbal prompts to order participants to behave in ways that went against their consciences.
      • Evaluation (AO3)
        • Seen in real-life situations
          • History is littered with real-life examples of unquestioning obedience to authority no matter how destructive. This extreme obedience is fostered in the course of military training and is reinforced by the structure of military authority. Therefore this shows that the explanation has high external validity can be applied to real-life and can be used to explain real-life and can be used to explain real-life war crimes such as my lai.
        • Cultural differences 
          • A strength of the legitimacy of authority explanation is that it is a useful account of cultural differences in obedience. Many studies show countries differ in the way people are traditionally obedient to authority such as Kilham and Mann. They replicated Milgram`s procedure in Australia and found that only 16% of their participants went to the maximum voltage scale. On the other hand, Mantell found that 85% of German participants obeyed. Therefore, this shows that in some cultures authority is likely to be accepted as legitimate and this reflects ways that different societies perceive authority figures. These findings from cross-cultural research increases the validity of the legitimacy of authority explanation.


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