Obedience - Milgram's research

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  • Created on: 11-10-16 09:10

Milgram's research

Milgram recruited 40 male participants through newspaper adverts and flyers in the post. The participants recruited were aged between 20 and 50 years and their jobs ranged from unskilled to professional.

When the participants arrived at Milgram’s lab they were paid the money at the outset and there was a rigged draw for their role. A confederate ‘Mr Wallace’ always ended up as the learner while the participant ended up as the teacher. There was also an experimenter who dressed up in a lab coat. The participants were told they could leave at any time.

The learner was strapped in to a chair in another room and wired with electrodes. The teacher was required to give the learner an increasingly severe electric shock each time the learner made a mistake on a learning task. The shocks were not real. The shock level started at 15 and rose to 450 volts (labelled danger – severe shock). When the teacher reached 300 volts the learner pounded on the wall and then gave no response to the next question.

After the 315 volts shock the learner pounded on the wall again but did not respond to the questions. If the teacher turned to the experimenter for advice, the experimenter gave a standard instruction. ‘An absence is regarded as the wrong answer’. 

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Milgram's research


No participants stopped below 300 volts, 12.5% stopped at 300 volts, 65% continued to the highest voltage. Qualitative data was also collected such as observations that the participants showed signs of extreme tension, many of them were seen to sweat, tremble, stutter, bite their lips, groan and dig their nails into their hands. Three even had uncontrollable seizures.

Prior to the study Milgram asked 14 psychology students to predict the participants behaviour. The students estimated that no more than 3% of the participants would continue to 450 volts. The results of the experiment were unexpected. All participants were debriefed, and assured that their behaviour was entirely normal. They were also sent a follow-up questionnaire; 84% reported that they felt glad to have participated. 

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Low Internal Validity-They guessed it wasn’t real electric shocks. In which case Milgram was not testing what he intended to test. When Sheridan and King conducted a similar study were shocks were given to a puppy. Despite the real shocks, 54% of the male and 100% of females delivered what they thought was a fatal shock. Which shows that the effects in Milgram’s study were genuine because people behaved the same way with real shocks. Milgram himself reported that 70% of his participants said they believed the shocks were genuine.

Good External Validity-However, the central feature of this situation was the relationship between the authority figure and the participant. Milgram argued that the lab environment accurately reflected wider authority relationships in real life. Suggesting that Milgram’s lab study can be generalised to other situations. So his findings do have something valuable to tell us about how obedience operates in real life.

Supporting Replication-The participants believed they were contestants in a pilot episode for a new game show. They were paid to give (fake) electric shocks when ordered by the presenter to other participants (who were actors), in front of a studio audience. This replication supported Milgram’s original conclusions about obedience to authority. 

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Situational variables


In Milgram’s original study, the teacher and learner were in adjoining rooms, so the teacher could hear the learner but not see him. In the proximity variation, they were in the same room. In this condition, the obedience rate dropped from the baseline 65% to 40%.

In another variation, the teacher had to force the leaners hand onto an ‘electroshock plate’ when he refused to answer a question. In the touch proximity variation the obedience rates dropped to a further 30%.

In a third proximity variation, the experimenter left the room and gave instruction via telephone. In this remote instruction condition time proximity was reduced. The outcome was a further reduction in obedience to 20.5%. The participants also gave weaker shocks when instructed to increase the voltage. 

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Situational variables


In another kind of variation Milgram changed the location of the obedience study. He conducted a variation of the study in a run-down office building rather than the university where it was originally set. In such a situation the experimenter had less authority. Obedience fell to 47.5%. This is still a quite high level of obedience but it is less than the original 65%. 

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Situational variables


In the original baseline study the experimenter wore a grey lab coat as a symbol of his authority. Milgram carried out a variation in which the experimenter was called away because of an inconvenient telephone call at the start of the procedure. The role of the experiment was taken over by a member of the public in everyday clothes rather than a lab coat. The obedience rate dropped to 20%, the lowest of these variations. 

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Research support-Other studies have demonstrated the influence of these situation variables on obedience. Bickman who had three confederates dress in three different outfits and see if people in the street would give them a coin for the parking meter. People were twice as likely to obey the assistant dressed as a security guard than the one dressed in shirt and tie. This supports Milgram’s conclusion that a uniform conveys the authority of its wearer and is a situational factor likely to produce obedience.

Lack of Internal validity-Orne and Holland’s criticism of Milgram’s original study was that many of the participants worked out that the procedure was faked. A good example is the variation where the experimenter is replaced by a member of the public. Even Milgram recognised that this situation was so contrived that some participants may have worked out the truth.

Cross cultural replications-A general strength of Milgram’s research, that applies to his variations as well. For example Miranda et al, found an obedience rate over 90% among Spanish students. This suggests Milgram’s conclusions are not limited to American males, but are valid across cultures and apply to females too. However, Smith and Bond make the crucial point that most replications have taken place in American cultures therefore are unrepresentative of more than one culture. 

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Social psychological factors

Agentic State

Stanley Milgram’s initial interest in obedience was sparked by the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 for war crimes. Eichmann had been in charge of the Nazi death camps and his defence was that he was only obeying orders. This led Milgram to propose that obedience to destructive authority occurs because a person does not take responsibility. Instead they believe they are acting for someone else, i.e. that they are an agent someone who acts in place of another. 

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Social psychological factors

Autonomous state

The opposite of being in an agentic state is being in an autonomous state. ‘Autonomy’ means to be independent or free. So a person in an autonomous state is free to behave according to their own principles and therefore feels a sense of responsibility for their own actions.

The shifts from autonomy to agency is called agentic shift. Milgram suggested that this occurs when a person perceives someone else as a figure of authority. This other person has greater power because of their position in a social hierarchy. In most social groups when one person is in charge, others defer to this person and shifts from autonomy to agency. 

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Social psychological factors

Binding Factors

Milgram then raised the question of why the individual remains in this agentic state Milgram had observed that many of his participants spoke as if they wanted to quit but seemed unable to do so. The answer is binding factors-aspects of the situation that allow the person to ignore or minimise the damaging effect of their behaviour and thus reduce the moral strain they are feeling. Milgram proposed a number of strategies that the individual uses, such as shifting the responsibility to the victim or denying the damage they were doing to the victims. 

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Social psychological factors

Legitimacy of authority- Most societies are structured in a hierarchal way. This means that people in certain positions hold authority over the rest of us. For example, parents, teachers, police, night club bouncers, all have some kind of authority over us at times. The authority they wield is legitimate in the sense that it’s agreed by society. Most of us accept that authority figures have to be allowed to exercise some social power over others because this allows society to function smoothly.

One of the consequences of this legitimacy of authority is that some people are granted the power to punish others. Most of us accept that the police and others have authority and power to punish other for doing wrong. So we are willing to give up some of our independence and to hand control of our behaviour to people we trust to exercise their authority appropriately. We learn acceptance of legitimate authority from childhood.

Destructive authority – problems arise when legitimate authority becomes destructive. History has too often shown that charismatic and powerful leaders can use their legitimate authority to cause destruction, ordering people to behave in dangerous ways. Destructive authority was very clearly show in Milgram’s study, when the experimenter used prods to order the participants to behave in ways that went against their consciences. 

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Research support – Blass and Schmitt showed a film of Milgram’s study to students and asked them to identify who they felt was responsible for the harm to the learner Mr Wallace. The students also indicated that the responsibility was due to legitimate authority but also due to expert authority. 

A limited explanation – The agentic shift doesn’t explain many of the research findings. For example, it does not explain why some of the participants did not obey. The agentic shift explanation also does not explain the findings from Hofling et al’s study. The agentic shift explanation predicts that, as the nurse handed over responsibility to the doctor, they should have shown signs of anxiety similar to in Milgram’s participants, as they understood their role in a destructive process. But this was not the case. This suggests that, at best, agentic shift can only account for some situations of obedience.

Cultural differences – Many studies show that countries differ in the degree to which people are traditionally obedient to authority. Authority is more likely to be accepted as legitimate and entitled to demand obedience from individuals. This reflects the ways that different societies are structured and how children are raised to perceive authority figures. Such supportive findings from cross cultural research increase the validity of the explanation. 

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Dispositional explanations

The authoritarian personality

Adorno et al investigated the causes of the obedient personality in a study of more than 2000 middle class, white Americans and their unconscious attitudes towards other racial groups. They developed several scales to investigate this, including the potential for fascism scale which is still used to measure authoritarian personality. 

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Dispositional explanations


Probably the most interesting discovery from this study was that people with authoritarian leanings identified with strong people and were generally contemptuous of the weak. They were conscious of their own and others status, showing excessive respect, deference and servility to those of higher status.

Adorno also found that authoritarian people had a cognitive style where there was no fuzziness between categories of people, with fixed and distinctive stereotypes about other groups. There was a positive correlations between authoritarianism and prejudice.

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dispositional explanations

Authoritarian Characteristics

Adorno concluded that people with an authoritarian personality have a tendency to be especially obedient to authority. They have extreme respect for authority and submissiveness to it. They also show contempt for people they perceive as having inferior social status and have highly convention attitudes towards, sex, race and gender. They believe that we need strong and powerful leaders to enforce traditional values as love of country, religion and family. People with an authoritarian personality are inflexible in their outlook – for them there are no ‘grey areas’. Everything is either right or wrong and they are very uncomfortable with uncertainty. 

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Dispositional explanation

Origin of the authoritarian personality

Adorno et al also sought to identify the origin of the authoritarian personality type. They concluded that it formed in childhood, as a result of harsh parenting. Typically, the parenting style identified by Adorno features extremely strict discipline and an expectation for absolute loyalty, impossibly high standards and severe criticism of perceived failings. It is also characterised by unconditional love – that is, the parents love and affection for their child depends entirely on how he or she behaves.

Adorno argued that these experiences create resentment and hostility in the child, but the child cannot express these feelings directly against their parents because of a well-founded fear of reprisals. So the fears are displaced onto others who are perceived to be weaker. This explains the central trait of obedience to higher authority, which is a dislike for people considered to be socially inferior or who belongs to another social group. This is a psychodynamic explanation. 

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Research support-Milgram and his assistant Alan Elms conducted interviews with a small sample of fully obedient participants, who scored highly on the F-Scale believing that there might be a link between obedience and authoritarian personality. However, this link is merely a correlation between two measured variables. This makes it impossible to conclude that the authoritarian personality causes obedience on the basis of this result. 

Limited explanation- Any explanation of obedience in terms of individual personality will find it hard to explain obedient behaviour in the majority of the country’s population. For example, in pre-war Germany, millions of individuals all displayed obedient, racist and anti-Semitic behaviour. This was despite the fact that they must have differed in their personalities in all sorts of ways. It seems extremely unlikely that they could all possess an authoritarian personality. This is a limitation of Adorno’s theory because it is clear that an alternative explanation is more realistic.

Political bias - The F-Scale measures the tendency towards an extreme form of right-wing ideology. Christie and Jahoda argued that this is a politically biased interpretation of authoritarian personality. This is a limitation because it is not a comprehensive dispositional explanation that can account for obedience to authority across the whole political spectrum. 

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Resistance to social influence

Conformity- Social support can help people to resist conformity. The pressure to conform can be reduced if there are other people present who are not conforming. As we saw in Asch’s research the person not conforming doesn’t have to giving the ‘right’ answer but simply the fact that someone else is not following the majority appears to enable a person to be free to follow their own conscience. This other person acts as a model.

However, Asch’s research also showed that if this ‘non-conformity’ person starts conforming again, so does he naïve participant. Thus the effect of dissent is not long lasting. 

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resistance to social influence

Obedience- Social support can also help people to resist obedience. The pressure to obey can be reduced if there is another person who is seen to disobey. In one of Milgram’s variations, the rate of obedience dropped from 65% to 10% when the genuine participant was joined by a disobedient confederate. The participant may not follow the disobedient person’s behaviour but the point is the other person’s disobedience acts as a model for the participant to copy that frees him to act from his own conscience. 

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resistance to social

 Locus of control - Julian Rotter first proposed the concept of locus of control. It is a concept concerned with internal control versus external control. Some people believe that the things that happen to them are largely controlled by themselves. For example, you do well in an exam because you worked hard. Other people have a tendency to believe that things happen without their control. If they did well in an exam they might say it was due to a good textbook.

Continuum - People differ in the way they explain their success and failures but it isn’t simply a matter of being internal and external. There is a continuum with high internal LOC at one end and high external LOC at the other end of the continuum with low internal and low external lying in between.

Resistance to social influence. - People who have an internal LOC are more likely to be able to resist pressures to conform or obey. If a person takes personal responsibility for their actions and experiences then they are more likely to base their decisions on their own beliefs and thus resist pressures from others. Another explanation for the link with greater resistance is that people with high intelligence and have less need for social approval. These personality traits lead to greater resistance to social influence. 

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Research evidence supports the role of dissenting peers in resisting conformity. For example, Allen and Levine found that conformity decreased when there was one dissenter in an Asch type study. More importantly this occurred even if the dissenter wore thick glasses and said he had difficulty with his vision. This supports the view that resistance is not just motivated by following what someone else says but it enables someone to be free of the pressure from the group. Another strength is that there is research evidence that supports the role of dissenting peers in resisting obedience. Gamson et al found higher levels of resistance than in Milgram’s. This was probably because the participants in Gamson’s study were in groups.

Research evidence supports the link between LOC and resistance to obedience. Holland repeated Milgram’s baseline study and measured whether participants were internals or externals. He found that 37% of internals did not continue to the highest shock level. Only 23% of externals did not continue. In other words internals showed greater resistance to authority. Research support of this nature increases the validity of the LOC explanation and our confidence that it can explain resistance. 

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Contradictory research

However not all research supports the link between LOC and resistance. Twenge et al, analysed data from American obedience studies over a 40 year period. The data showed that over this time span, people have become more resistant to obedience but also more external. If resistance were linked to an internal locus of control, we would expect to have become more internal. This challenges the link between internal LOC and increasing resistance behaviour. However, it is possible that the results are due to changing in society where many things are out of personal control. 

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Minority influence

Minority influence refers to the situations where one person or a small group of people influence the beliefs and behaviour of other people. This is distinct from conformity where the majority is doing the influencing. In both cases the people being influenced may most likely lead to internalisation – both public behaviour and private beliefs are changed by the process.

Serge Moscovici first studied this process in his ‘blue slide, green slide’ study. This study and other research have drawn attention to the main processes in minority influence. 

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Minority influence

Consistency - Over time, the consistency in the minority’s views increases the amount of interest from other people. This consistency might be agreement between people in the minority group- they’re all saying the same thing or consistency over time – they’ve been saying the same thing for some time. Such consistency makes other people start to rethink their own views.

CommitmentSometimes minorities engage in quite extreme activities to draw attention to their views. It is so important that these extreme activities are at some risk to the minority because this demonstrates commitment to the cause. Majority group members then pay even more attention. This is called the augmentation principle.

Flexibility - Nemeth argued that consistency is not the only important factor in minority influence because it can be interpreted negatively. Being extremely consistent and repeating the same arguments and behaviours again and again can be seen as rigid, unbending, dogmatic and inflexible. This is off-putting to the majority and unlikely to result in any conversions to the minority position. Instead, members of the minority need to be prepared to adapt their point of view and accept reasonable and valid counter-arguments. The key is to strike a balance between consistency and flexibility. 

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Minority influence

The Process of change

All of the three factors outlined above make people think about the topic. If you hear something which agrees with what you already believe it doesn’t make you stop and think. But if you hear something new, then you might think about it, especially if the source of this other view is consistent and passionate. It is the deeper processing which is important in the process of conversion to a different, minority view point.

Over time, increasing numbers of people switch from the majority position to the minority position. They have become converted. The more that this happens, the faster the rate of conversion. This is called the snowball effect. Gradually the minority view becomes the majority view and then change has occurred. 

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Research support for consistency - Moscovici’s study showed that a consistent minority opinion had a greater effect on other people than on other people than in inconsistent opinion. Wood carried a meta-analysis of almost 100 similar studies and found that minorities who were seen as being consistent were most influential. This suggest that consistency is a major factor in minority influence.

Research support for depth of thought. - Martin et al gave participants a message supporting a particular view point and measured their support. One group of participants then heard a minority group agree with their initial view while another group heard this from a majority group. Participants were finally exposed to a conflicting view and attitudes were measured again. Martin et al found that people were less willing to change their opinions if they had listened to a minority group rather than if they were shared with a majority group. This suggests that the minority message had been more deeply processed and had a more enduring effect, supporting the central argument about how the minority influence process works. 

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Artificial tasks

A limitation of minority influence research is that the tasks involved such as identifying the colour of a slide – are as artificial as Asch’s line judgement task. Research is therefore far removed from how minorities attempt to change the behaviour of majorities in real life. In cases such as jury decision making and political campaigning, the outcomes are vastly more important, sometimes even literally a matter of life or death. This means findings of minority influence studies such as Moscovici’s are lacking in external validity and are limited in what they can tell us about how minority influence works in real-life social situations. 

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Milgram's research highlighted the power Mini Crossword of situational factors and the potential for individuals to engage in harmful actions under the influence of authority.

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