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Key Terms

Obedience - following orders or commands from authority figures

Authority - level of status/power

Defiance - resisting orders or commands from people in authority

Denial of responsibility - passing blame to someone in authority

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Core theory: Situational factors

  • Factors relating to situations affect obedience, not personality
  • Setting - physical environment of where something takes place
  • Culture - country/region
  • Authority - level of authority/perceived authority someone has
  • Punishment - consequences for actions
  • Consensus - following norm

Hoffling's hospital experiment & Milgram's electric shock experiment


  • Lacks ecological validity - labs cause demand characteristics
  • Ethical issues - distress & embarrassment
  • Doesn't consider role of personality
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Alternative theory: Dispositional factors

The dispositional factors theory refers to factors about themselves & their personality traits. It says that a person may be obedient because of their personality traits, not due to situational factos.

A person is obedient to authority figures, but disobedient to those considered lower.

Authoritarian personality - a personality type prone to obedience

  • More likely to conform
  • Are subservient to people of higher status
  • Intolerant to people considered inferior
  • Intoloerant to those who are different

There is a correlation between authoritarian personalities and harsh upbringings.

  • Have an unconscious hostility they can't show parents
  • Grow up to respect authority
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Core study: Bickman 1974

  • Aim: to investigate the effect of appearance on obedience
  • Participants: 153 pedestrains in Brooklyn
  • Method: Field experiment, confederates, 3 male experimentors in a guard, milkman and civilian's uniform
  • Procedure: Confederates took turns in each outfit and gave orders 'pick up this bag for me' - milkman, 'this man's over parked at the meter and doesn't have enough change, spare him a dime?' - guard and 'didn't you know you have to stand on the other side of the bus stop sign?' - civilian.
  • Results: participants were three times as likely to obey the guard than the civilian. Guard 89%, Milkman 57% & Civilian 33%
  • Conclusion: Appearance effects levels of obedience


  • Lack of control over extraneous variables - field experiment
  • Ignores individual differences - no knowledge of participants' upbringing
  • Unethical - no consent, right to withdraw or debrief and some distress was caused
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Application: Keeping Order

Hierarchy - structure of society with descending line of commans - person at the top has the most power. Hierarchy keeps order in schools, prisons and the army.


  • Situational factors promotes obedience - guards wear uniforms to show power & so they are easily identified. Prisoners wear uniforms to get rid of identity and prevent rebellion. Prisoners receive punishments


  • Similar hierarchy
  • Uniforms & punishments stop disobedience


  • Uniform & punishments
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