Obedience to authority

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Milgram (1963) - Obedience to authority


  • Labratory experiment to test factors thought to affect obedience.
  • 40 men participated, volunteer sample for a study on 'learning and memory'.
  • Recieved payment for attending and still got the payment if they wanted to leave.
  • Experimenter wore a grey lab coat.
  • Each participant was introduced to a cofederate who they would be shocking. 
  • Participants were always the 'teachers'
  • Participants saw the confederate being strapped into a chair and connected to a shock generator in the next room.
  • Generator didn't actually give shocks. 
  • Switches ranged from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 volts (XXX).
  • Prticipant taught word pairs over intercom into the next room. 
  • Every time the learner got one wrong they were insturcted to give them a shock.
  • After 300 volts the learner pounded on the wall and gave no futher response. 
  • If patricipant hesitated to give the shock the experimenter told them to continue. 
  • Debriefing included: an interview, questionnaires and being reunited with the learner. 
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Milgram (1963) - Obedience to authority


  • 26 participants (65%) administered the 450 volt shock and none stopped before giving the 300 volt shock.
  • Most participants showed signs of distress eg. sweating, groaning and trembling. 
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Milgram (1963) - Obedience to authority


Ordinary people will obey rders to hurt someone else, even if it means acting against their concience.

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Milgram (1963) - Obedience to authority


Internal validity: 

  • Possible that the participants didn't believe the shocks were real - they may have being going along with the experimenters expectations (showing demand characteristics).

The experiment lacks ecological validity.


  • Participants were decieved - didn't know the true nature of the study.
  • Wern't informed of their right to withdraw.
  • Wern't protected from harm - they shwed signs of stress.
  • They were extensively debriefed.
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Milgram (1963) - Obedience to authority

Milgram carried out the experiment in many different ways and so he identified some situational factors.

1. Presence of alies - When there were 3 teachers involved (2 confederates) , the real participant was less likely to obey if the other 2 refused. Allies make it easier to resist obedience.

2. Proximity of the victim - The % of people who gave the maximum shock dropped from 65% to 40% with the learner in the same room and 30% when the teacher had to put the learner's hand on the shock plate. Proximity made the learners suffering harder to ignore.

3. Proximity of the authority - When the authority figure gave instructions over the phone or from the next room rates dropped 23%.

4. Location of the experiment - When the study moved to run down offices the rate dropped 48%. Experimenter seemed less legitimate so more participanted questioned it.

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Milgram's agency theory (1973)

When people behave on behalf of an external authority, they're said to be in an agentic state. This means that they act on someone's agent and don't take responsibility for what they do.

Opposite of this is behaving autonomously - not following orders.

The theory says that when we feel we're working for someone else what they do isn't their responsibilty.

This effect is seen in some of Milgram's studies. When asked who would be held responsible and the experimenter told them that he would be responsible they continued to give the shocks. 

People can start out in an automonous way, but them become obedient. This is known as the agentic shift. You can see this through out Milgram's studies.

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Milgram's agency theory (1973)

Milgram claimed that there were binding factors keeping his participants in the agentic state.

  • Reluctance to disrupt the experiment - Participants had already been paid so may have felt obliged to continue with the study.
  • The pressure of the surroundings - The experiment took place in Yale. This made the experimenter seem a legitimate authority figure.
  • The insistence of the authority figure - If participants hesitated they were told that they had to continue.
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Evaluation of the agency theory

There's lots of experimental evidence to support the agency theory - Milgram's participants often claimed they wouldn't have gone as far themselves but they were following orders.

Sometimes people resist the pressure to obey authority. This can be because of individual differences. Agency theory doesn't explain why some people are more likely to exhibit independent behaviour than others. 

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Legitimate authority

We're socialised to recognise the authority of people like parents, police officers and doctors.

These kinds of people are legitimate authorities - they're given the right to tell us what to do. This means that we're more likely to obey them.

Legitimate authority comes from having a defined social role which people respect usually as it implies knowledge or comes with a legal power.

Bickman (1974) conducted a field experiment where researchers ordered passers-by to do something like pick up a bit of litter. They were dressed in a guards uniform, as a milkman, or just in smart clothes. People were much more likely to obey the person in the guards uniform. This was because he seemed to be the most legitimate authority.

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The authoritarian personality

Adorno's theory of the authoritarian personality is a dispositional (personality) explanation of obedience. 

Adorno et al (1950) proposed that over-strict parenting results in a child being socialised to obey authority unquestioningly, because they learn strict obediece to their parents.

Adorno explained on this diea to argue that strict parenting also resulted in prejudice:

  • Strict parenting means the child feels constrained, which creates aggression.
  • But the child is afraid thy'll be displaced if they express this aggression towards their parents, so they're hostile to people they see as weak or inferior to them - usually minority groups.

Adorno et al defined the collection of traits that they thought resulted from over-strict parenting as the authoritarian personality. As well as aggression to people of percieved lower status, and blind obedience., the identifying traits included being conformis and having rigid moral standards.

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The F-scale

Adorno et al (1950) developed a scale to measure how strongly people express authoritarian traits, called the F scale. 

This research began shortly after the end of WW2 - Adorno's team were trying to find out if there are characteristics of individuals which could explain the prosecution of jews and other minority groups by the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s.

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Evaluation of Adorno's authoritarian theory

Elms and Milgram (1966) found that participants whoc scored higher on the F-scale had been willing to administer bigger shocks on Milgram's experiment. 

Strict parenting doesn't necessarily cause an authoritarian personality other factors such as education could cause both authoritarian traits and obedience.

Milgram also found that situational factors like proximity and location had a bigger effect on obedience.

The theory also doesn't explain how whole societies can become obedient - not everyone has this personality type. 

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