Explanations of why people obey

  • Created by: ClaryFray
  • Created on: 13-04-15 21:10

Gradual Commitment

Participants have already given lower-level shocks, it becomes harder to resist the experimenter's requirement to increase the shocks as the experimenter continues

In reality, no actual shock is given more than 15 volts of the previous level

It became difficult for Milgram's participants to subsequently change their minds due to having committed themselves to a particular course of action (i.e. giving shocks)

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Agentic Shift

Agentic shift is central to Milgram's explanation of obedience

Agentic state: Condition a person is in when he sees himself as an agent for carrying another persons wishes'

Autonomous state: The state when a person sees himself acting on his own'

Milgram argued that people shift back and forth between agentic state and autonomous state.

Uopn entering the heirarchy of authority, Milgram claimed, the individual no longer views himself as acting ot his own purposes, but comes to see himself as carrying out the wishes of another.

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The role of buffers

In Milgram's study the teacher and the learner were in different rooms with the teacher protected (i.e. buffered) from having to see his 'victim' and the consequence of the electric shocks

However when the learner was in the same room, the buffering effect was reduced, as was the tendency to obey the experimenter's commands when the experimenter wasn't in the room.

Therefore levels of obedience were reduced

Buffering effect can be applied to people willing to disbatch weapons of mass destruction

Less immediacy of consequence compared to rifle or machete

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Justifying Obedience

Inital justification of the participants role in delivering electric shocks was given as being that science wants to help people improve their memory through the use of reward and punsihment

Dissenters who later tried to remove themselves from the experiment were told they must continue 'because the experiment requires it'

By offering an ideology (e.g. for the good of science, threat to national security etc.) people are willing to surrender their freedom of action in the belief that they are serving a justifiable case.

During the Holocaust, the Nazi propaganda machine portrayed the Jews as a danger to all Germans-therefore justifying the horrific obedience that was to follow.

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Evaluation: Monocausal Emphasis


Suggest that by focusing solely on obedience as an explanation of atrocities carried out in the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity, Milgram ignored many other pausible explanations


Identifies anti-semitism as the primary motivation for the actions of those invovled in the annihilation of the Jews, rather than obedience.

Supports this claim with countless examples of voluntary and unessecary cruelty carried out by ordinary Germans against Jews in his book Hitler's Willing Executioners

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Evaluation: Agentic Shift

Unlike the experience of the Holocaust perpetrators who carried out their duties over months if not years, Milgram's participants experienced no more than half an hour in the laboratory and were subjected to constant pressure from the experimenter during that time.

There is also a distinction in perceptions of harm-doing.

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Evaluation: The Consequences of an obedience alibi

Milgram's original claim that his work offered a situational explanation for Holocaust atrocities is no longer central in social psychology.

Mandel believes the use of an 'obedience alibi' to explain such events has a number of negative consequences:

  • The conclusion that the obedience had a key role in Holocaust events is unjustified given an analysis of the historical record
  • The suggestion that Holocaust perpretrators were 'just obeying orders' is distressing for those who are or were affected by the Holocaust
  • Such an explanation effectively exonerates war criminals of their crimes
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