Obedience: Dispositional explanations

The authoritarian personality

  • Adorno et al (1950) wanted to understand the anti-Semitism of the Holocaust. They believed that unquestioning obedience is a psychological disorder, and tried to find its causes in the individual's personality. 
  • Concluded that people with an authoritarian personality are especially obedient to authority. They: 
    • have exaggerated respect for authority and submissiveness to it. 
    • express contempt for people of inferior social status.
    • have controversial attitudes towards race and gender. 
  • It originates from childhood through harsh parenting: extremely strict discipline, expectation of absolute loyalty, impossibly high standards and severe criticism, as well as conditional love - parents' love depends entirely on how their child behaves. 
  • These experiences create resentment and hostility in the child, but they cannot express this directly to the parent because they fear consequences. Therefore, the feelings are displaced onto others who are seen as weaker (scapegoating). This explains hatred of people seen as socially inferior - a psychodynamic explanation. 
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Investigated unconscious attitudes towards other racial groups of more than 2000 middle-class, white Americans. 

Procedure - 

  • Facism scale (F-scale) was developed which involved statements that the participant had to say how far they agreed with (rating scale). Examples include:
    • 'Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues for children to learn'. 
    • 'There is hardly anything lower than a person who does not feel great love, gratitude and respect for his parents'.

Findings - 

  • Authoritarians (who scored high on the F-scale and other measures) identified with 'strong' people and were contemptuous of the 'weak'. 
  • Conscious of their own and others' status, showing excessive respect to those of a higher status. 
  • Cognitve style - no 'fuzziness' between categories of people, fixed and distinctive stereotypes. 
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Strength - Research support

P - A strength is that there is support for the link between authoritarian personality and obedience. 

E - Elms and Milgram (1966) interviewed fully obedient participants that all scored highly on the F-scale believing there may be a link between obedience and authoritarian personality. They found a correlation between the two variables. 

CA - However, this link is just a correlation between measured variables. We cannot conclude from this that authoritarian personality causes obedience. Also, a third factor may be involved. For example, both obedience and authoritarian personality may be caused by a lower level of education (Hyman and Sheatsley 1954). 

E - On the other hand, there is much supporting evidence to show a link between obedience and an authoritarian personality type, therefore, it cannot be dismissed as an explanation. 

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Limitation - explanation is limited

P - A limitation of the authoritarian personality explanation is that it is limited. 

E  - Millions of individuals in Germany displayed obedient and anti-Semitic behaviour - but they didn't all have the same personality. It seems unlikely that the majority of Germany's population possessed an authoritarian personality. 

E - An alternative explanation is more realistic - social identity theory. Most Germans identified with the anti-Semitic Nazi state and adopted its views. 

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Limitation - political bias

P - Another limitation is that the F-scale is politically biased. 

E - Christie and Jahoda (1954) suggest the F-scale aims to measure tendency towards extreme right-wing ideology. But right-wing and left-wing authoritarianism (e.g. Chinese Maoism) both insist on complete obedience to political authority. 

E - This means that Adorno's theory is not a comprehensive dispostional explanation of obedience to authority as it doesn't explain obedience to left-wing authoritarianism showing that it is politically biased. 

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Limitation - Methodology

P - A third limitation of dispositional explanations is that it is based on flawed methodoloy. 

E - Greenstein (1969) suggests the F-scale is a 'comedy of methodological errors' for example, items are worded in the same 'direction' so the scale just measures the tendency to agree with everything (acquiesence bias). Also, researchers knew the participants' test scores when they interviewed them. So they knew who had authoritarian personalities. They also knew the study's hypothesis, which makes biased results likely. 

E - This suggests that the data collected in meaningless and the concept of authoritarian personality lacks validity. 

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Limitation - correlations

P - A final limitation is that much of the research uses correlations. 

E - Adorno measured many variables and found significant correlations between them (e.g. authoritarianism correlated with prejudice against minority groups). No matter how strong a correlation between two variables is, it does not mean that one causes the other. 

E - Therefore, Adorno could not claim that harsh parenting style caused the development of an authoritarian personality. 

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