Obedience and Milgrams research

  • Created by: AliceTori
  • Created on: 07-05-17 10:39

What is Obedience?

Obedience is a form of social influence where people are told what to do.

It varies from conformity in the fact that we are told what do do rather than having pressures present that are not specifically stated.

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Outline of Milgrams Study

The aim of Milgrams study in 1963 was to answer the question of why the German population followed the orders of Hitler and slaughtered over 10 million Jews, Gypsies and members of other social groups during the Second World War.

Milgram wanted to know if Germans were different and whether they were more obedient.

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Procedure of Milgrams Study

Milgram recruited 40 male participants through newspaper ads and postal flyers.
The ad said that he was looking for people to take part in a memory study.
Participants were aged between 20 and 50 years old and were in varying jobs from unskilled to professional.

Participants drew their lots for their role and a confederate (known as 'Mr Wallace') was always the 'learner' and the particiapnt was always the 'teacher'.
An 'experimenter' wore a lab coat and the participants were told that they could leave the study at any time.

The learner was strapped to a chair in another room and wired with electrodes. The teacher had to give the learner increasingly severe electric 'shocks' each time he made a mistake on the task (learnign word pairs). The teachers were not told that the electric shocks were fake and that Mr Wallace was an actor.

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Procedure of Milgrams Study continued

The 'shocks' started at 15 volts (labelled 'slight shock' on the machine) and rose through 30 levels to 450 volts (labelled as 'danger-severe shock').
At 300 volts ('intense shock'), the learner pounded on the wall and gave no response to the next question.
After a 315 volt shock the learner pounded on the wall again but gave no further response.

When the teacher turned to the experimenter for guidnace he gave a standard response instruction of: 'Absence of response should be treated as a wrong answer'. If the teacher felt unsure about continuing, the experimenter used a sequence of four standard 'prods':

  • (prod 1) 'Please continue' or 'Please go on'
  • (prod 2) 'The experiment requires you to continue'
  • (prod 3) 'It is absolutely essential that you continue'
  • (prod 4) 'You have no other choice; you must go on'
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Findings and Conclusions of Milgrams study

  • No participant stopped below 300 volts
  • Five (12.5%) stopped at 300 volts
  • 65% continued to 450 volts
  • Observations (qualitative data) indicated that the participants showed signs of extreme tension; many were seen to 'sweat, tremble, bite their lips, groan and dig their fingernails into their hands'.
    Three had 'full-blown uncontrollable seizures'
  • The findings were unexpected as before the study Milgram asked 14 psychology students to predict the naive participants behaviour and they estimated that no more than 3% of them would continue to 450 volts
  • After the experiment the participants were debriefed, and assured that their behaviour was normal.
    In a follow up questionnaire 84% reported they felt glad to have participated.
    74% felt that they had learned something of personal importance.
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Evaluation- Lacked internal validity


Orne and Holland (1968) suggest that the participants guessed that the shocks they were giving were fake so Milgram was not actually testing what he intended to study (obedience).

However, Sheridan and King's (1972) participants gave real shocks to a puppy; 54% of males and 100% of females delivered what they thought was a fatal shock.

This means that the obedience in Milgram's study might be genuine as 70% of participants believed that the shocks were genuine.

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Evaluation- Good external validity


Milgram argued that the lab based relationship between the participant and the experimenter reflected a wider real-life authority relationship.

Hofling et al. (1966) found that levels of obedience in nurses on a hospital ward to unjustified demands by doctors were very high (21 out of 22 nurses obeyed.)

Therefore this means that the processes if obedience in Milgram's study can be generalised.

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Social Identity Theory- an alternative explanation


Obedience is about group identification and Milgram's participants identified with the experimenter.

When obedience levels fell, the participants identified more with the victim.

Haslam and Reicher (2012) suggest that the first three 'prods' are appeals for help with science and only the 4th prod demands obedience.

Every time this was used, the participant quit, the participants did not give shocks due to obedience, but due to their indentification with the experiementer as a scientist.

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Evaluation- Ethical issues

Baumrinf (1964) critisied Milgram's deceptions.

The participants believed that the allocation of the roles was random assignment when actually it was fixed every time. 

The most significant deception is the fact that the participants believed that the electric shocks were real when infact they were fake.

Baumrind objected beacause deception is a betrayal of trust that damages the reputation of psychologists and their reasearch. Deception of participants may also make them less likely to volunteer for future research.

Other ethical issues include:

  • Right to withdraw- given at the beginning but it was made difficult to actually withdraw
  • Protection from harm/protection of participants well being
  • No informed consent
  • Socially sensitive research
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Situational Variables

The baseline study that Milgram conducted established a method that he would repeat and vary and which also allowed him to place a numberical value on the rate of obedience.

Milgram began his research believing that levels of obedience may be due to personality but he found that situational factors might explain obedience better.

To explore this he carried out a number of different variations to consider the situational variables that might increase or decrease obedience levels.

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Situational Variables- Proximity

In the original study, the teacher and the learner were in adjoining rooms so the teacher could hear the learner but not see him.

However, in this variation (proximity), the teacher and the learner were in the same room as each other which cause obedience to drop from 65% to 40%.

In the touch proximity variation, the teacher had to force the learner's hand onto a shock plate, again the obedience level dropped to 30%.

In the 'remote-instruction' proximity variation, the experimenter left the room and gave instructions by telephone. The obedience rate dropped again to 20.5% and the participants frequently pretended to give shocks or gave weaker ones when they were ordered to.

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Situational Variables- Location

The location of the obedience study was a run-down building rather than the prestigious university setting where it was originally set (Yale University).

Obedience fell to 47.5% which indicates that the experimenter had less authority in this setting.

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Situational Variables- Uniform

In the original study, the experimenter wore a grey lab coat as a symbol of his authority (a kind of uniform).

In one variation the experimenter was called away because of an inconvenient telephone call right after the start of the procedure. The role of the experimenter was taken over by an 'ordinary member of the public' in everyday clothes rather than a lab coat.

The obedience rate dropped to 20%, the lowest of these variations. This suggests that uniform does act as a strong visual authority symbol and a cue to behave in an obedient manner.

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Evaluation- Research Support


There is research support for the influence of situational variables becasue Bickman (1974) looked at the effect of authority on obedience (he dressed a confederate in jacket/tie, milkman or security guard).

The confederate then asked passers-by to provide a coin for a parking meter for example.

Bickman found that people were twice as likely to obey the 'security guard' than the 'jacket/tie' confederate.

This supports Milgram's conclusion that a uniform conveys authority and is a situational factor producing obedience.

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Evaluation- Research has control of variables


Milgram systematically altered one variable at a time to test its effects on obedience.

Other variables were kept constant as the study was replicated many times with over 1000 participants.

This control gives us more certainty that changes in obedience were caused by the variable manipulated (e.g. location), showing a cause and effect relationship.

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Evaluation-Research replicated in other cultures


Miranda et al (1981) found over 90% obedience in Spanish students.

Milgram's finding are not limited to American males. However, Smith and Bond (1998) note that most replications have taken place in Western societies (e.g. Spain), which are not that culturally different from the USA.

It is permature to conclude that Milgram's findings about proximity, location and uniform apply to people everywhere.

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Evaluation-Variations may lack internal validity

Orne and Holland (1968) suggest that participants in Milgram's variations were even more likely to realise the procedure was fake because of the extra experimental manipulation.

In the variation where a 'member of the public' replaced the experiementer, even Milgram recognised this was so contrived that some participants may have worked it out.

This means that it is unclear whether the results are due to obedience or  because the participants saw the deception and 'play acted'.

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