Obedience: Social-psychological factors

Agentic State

  • Milgram proposed that obedience to destructive authority occurs because a person becomes an 'agent' and feels no personal responsibility for their actions.
  • The opposite is an autonomous state which means to be independent of free. So a person in an autonomous state behaves according to their own problems and feels responsible for their own actions.
  • Agentic shift occurs when a person defers to the authority figure. The shift from autonomy to being an 'agent' occurs when we perceive someone else as an authority figure. This person has power becuase of their position in the social hierarchy.
  • Binding factors are aspects of a situation that allow the person to ignore or minimise the damaging effect of their behaviour and reduce the 'moral strain' they feel.
  • Milgram proposed a number of strategies the individual uses, such as shifting the responsibility to the victim or denying the damage they are doing.
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Strength - research support

P - A strength is that the agentic state explanation has research support.

E - Blass and Schmidt (2001) showed students a film of Milgram's study and asked them to identify who was responsible for harm to the learner. Students blamed the 'experimenter' rather than the participant. This responsibility was due to legitimate authority (the 'experimenter' was top of the hierarchy) but also to expert authority (he was a scientist).

CA - However, the agentic state cannot account for the behaviour of the Nazis. Mandel (1998) described German Reserve Police Battalion 101 - men shot civilians in a small town in Poland in WWII. They did this even though they were not directly ordered to (they were told they could be assigned to other duties). This challenges the agentic state explanation because to Reserve Police were not powerless to disobey as well as showing that the explanation may lack external validity and thereby, generalisability.

E - Nevertheless, the students recognised legitimate authority as the cause of obedience, supporting the agentic state as an explanation.

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Limitation - doesn't explain research findings

P - A limitation is the agentic shift doesn't explain many of the research findings.

E - Some participants did not obey - humans are social animals in social hierarchies and, therefore, should all obey. Also, in Hofling et al's (1966) study, nurses should have shown anxiety as they gave responsibility over to the doctor, because they understood their role in a destructive process, but this was not the case.

CA - On the other hand, Hofling's study could be said to lack validity as it was the nurses' job to listen to and act upon the doctor's orders. This means that their obedience levels can be said to be due to the agentic state.

E - However, agentic shift can only account for some situations of obedience.

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Legitimacy of authority

  • Most societies are structures hierarchically. People in certain positions hold authority over the rest of us. E.g. parents, teachers, police officers, bouncers all have some kind of authority over us at times.
  • The authority they wield is legitimate in the sense that it is agreed by society. Most of us accept that authority figures should social power over tohers because this allows society to function smoothly.
  • One consequence of legitimate authority is that some people are granted the power to punish others. We give up some of our independence to people we trust to exercise their authority appropriately. We learned to accpet authority during childhood from parents and teachers.
  • History has too often shown that leaders (e.g. Hitler) use legitiamte authority destructively, ordering people to behave in callous, cruel, dangerous and stupid ways.
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Strength - Cultural validity

P - A strength of legitmacy of authority is that it is a useful account of cultural differences in obedience.

E - Countries differ in obedience to authority; only 16% of Australians went to the top of the voltage scale (Kilham and Mann 1974); 85% of German participants did (Mantell 1971). Authority is more likely to be accepted as legitmate in some cultures. This reflects how different societies are structured and children raised to perceive authority figures.

E - Supportive findings from cross-cultural research increase the validity of the explanation.

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Strength - real life explanations

P - A strength of legitimacy of authority is that it can explain real-life obedience. 

E - Kelman and Hamilton (1989) suggest the My Lai massacre (Vietnam War) is explained by the power hierarchy of the US army.The army has authority recognised by the US Government and the law. Soldiers assume the orders given by the hierarchy to be legal; even orders to kill, **** and destroy villages. 

CA - However, much like the Nazis, this explanation cannot be used as an excuse for the immoral and disturbing behaviour of the soldiers that participated in the My Lai massacre. Legitmacy of authority is in danger of being accused of trying to excuse the atrocious behaviour of groups of people. 

E - On the other hand, the legitimacy of authority explanation is able to give reasons why destructive obedience is committed. 

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