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Why do people obey?

Personality variables: people who obey in such circumstances are different; there are individual differences. Extreme obedience stems from primitive emotional responses. A study by Bègue et al (2014) assessed participants with the Big Five Mini-Markers questionnaire and found that conscientiousness and agreeableness were associated with willingness to administer higher-intensity shocks to a victim.

Situational variables: normal, ordinary people obey. Some situations (e.g Hitler & the Holocaust) foster conditions for obedience. Adolf Eichmann was executed in 1962 for his part in organising the Holocaust. At his trial in 1961, Eichmann expressed surprise at being hated by Jewish people, saying that he had merely obeyed orders. In his jail diary, Eichmann wrote "The orders were, for me, the highest thing in my life and I had to obey them without question." Eichmann was declared sane by 6 psychiatrists, had a normal family life, and observers at his trial described him as very average. Therefore, people had to face the uncomfortable possibility that his behaviour was the product of the social situation in which he found himself in.

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Authoritarian personality

Based on 63 interviews: constellation of attitudes - expression of underlying personality patterns formed in childhood. People who scored high on minority prejudice and authoritarianism described their childhoods as dominated by a stern and harshly punitive father who insisted on absolute obedience

Children reared in this manner developed a 'reaction formation'. They went to the extreme and adopted obedience and submission to authority as exalted virtues. Hostility found new outlets - directed at safer targets such as minority groups. The outside world is seen as populated by a horde of dangerous enemies that had to be crushed.

People with authoritarian personality types tend to support prejudice against various minority groups. They hold certain sentiments about authority, including: submission to superiors and harshness to inferiors. They have a general belief in importance of power and dominance
Issues with the authoritarian personality type idea: there is limited evidence. The original sample contained white middle-class Californians. It was based on their recollections of childhood. It also doesn't explain broad obedience.

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Milgram (1963)

Classic obedience study carried out by Stanley Milgram, which originally took place at Yale University. He wanted to see how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person.

  • The procedure was that a naive participant and a confederate drew ballots (which was rigged) and the participant got the role of teacher, the confederate was the learner. They split into 2 separate rooms, with the learner strapped into a chair attached to a generator and the teacher in a room next door with the researcher. The teacher had to read a word list to the learner, and the learner had to memorise and then recall them. The teacher is told to administer an electric shock at each incorrect answer, increasing in voltage each time. When the teacher refused to administer a shock, the researcher prodded them to continue e.g "it is absolutely essential that you continue".
  • 65% of participants continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All participants went to at least 300 volts. Despite their obedience, participants demonstrated extreme stress at having to administer the shocks; they sweat, trembled and dug their fingernails into their hands.
  • When Milgram surveyed people before the experiment, people thought that no participant would go up to 300v, when in reality every participant did.
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