Explanations of why people obey



  • It has been proposed that some individuals have peronalities which predispose them to oby
  • One such type of personality is the Authoritarian personality. This type was identified by Adorno in 1950. 

Those who posess this personality;

  • Have rigid beliefs
  • Are intolerant of uncertainty or change
  • Hostile to minorities but submissive to those in authority

This is a product of a strict and harsh upbringing

  • Milgram found that those who were highly authoritarian tended to give stronger shocks that those who were authoritarian. However, that explanation cannot account for the large percentage of participants who obeyed in Milgram's original experiment
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Legitimate Authority

  • We feel obligated to those in authority because we respect their credentials and assume they know what they are doing
  • Legitimate social power is held by authority figures whose role is defined by society. This usually gives a person in authority the right to exert control over the behaviour of others and others usually accept it 
  • This was demonstrated by Milgram in his original experiment. Authority conveyed by the legitimate researcher at a prestigious university impressed the participants and contributed to their high level of obedience
  • When the experiement was moved to a run down office block, the levels of obedience dropped
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Gradual Commitment/Foot in the door effect

  • Once people comply with a trivial, seemingly harmless request they find it harder to refuse to carry out more serious, escelating requests. This is explained by the desire to remain consistent
  • In Milgram's experiment, participants became locked into obedience in small stages. At the startm they were asked to give the learner a small shock of 15 volts. It then only went up by a small amount (15V) each time. 
  • Because each action was only a small step beyond what they had just done, it was difficult to back out. When Milgram went straight from 15V to 450V, obedience dropped to 10
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The Agentic Shift

  • Individuals move from operating on an autonomous level where they are aware of the concequences of their actions and behave voluntarily to the agentic level, where they seem themselves as the agens of authority and not responsible for their own actions
  • At this agentic level, people mindlessly accept the orders of the person seen as responsible in the situation
  • Milgram believed many of his participants were operating on the agentic level. They were also told the experimenter would take responsibility for anything that happened to the learner. 
  • In the variation where responsability was reduced furthur when another confederate flicked the switch, 92.5% continued to 450V
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