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Obedience is about... complying with an order from another person to carry out an action. the person who gives the instruction usually has power/authority

most research into it was carried out mid 20th century. experiments involving obedience to authority can often involve deception of research p's.

a lot of obedience research thrived after the 1939-45 war- the interest stemeed from reports of extreme bedience that had taken place in Nazi Germany then then 50's 60's in the Vietnam war.

Stanley Milgram was a prominent researcher at Yale in USA in earl 60's. he was especially interested in obedience to authorit which was highlighted at the time in the Nuremberg trials relating to Adolf Eichnann, a prominent Nazi

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Milgram (1963) Obedience Experiment

Aim: Milgram was interested in researching how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person.  Stanley Milgram was interested in how easily ordinary people could be influenced into committing atrocities for example, Germans in WWII.

Procedure: Volunteers were recruited for a lab experiment investigating “learning” (re: ethics: deception).  Participants were 40 males, aged between 20 and 50, whose jobs ranged from unskilled to professional.  At the beginning of the experiment they were introduced to another participant, who was actually a confederate of the experimenter (Milgram).  They drew straws to determine their roles – leaner or teacher – although this was fixed and the confederate always ended to the learner. There was also an “experimenter” dressed in a white lab coat, played by an actor (not Milgram).

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The “learner” (Mr. Wallace) was strapped to a chair in another room with electrodes. After he has learned a list of word pairs given him to learn, the "teacher" tests him by naming a word and asking the learner to recall its partner/pair from a list of four possible choices.

   milgram obedience IV variations (http://www.simplypsychology.org/milgram.jpg)

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The teacher is told to administer an electric shock every time the learner makes a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger – severe shock).

The learner gave mainly wrong answers (on purpose) and for each of these the teacher gave him an electric shock. When the teacher refused to administer a shock and turned to the experimenter for guidance, he was given the standard instruction /order (consisting of 4 prods):

Prod 1: please continue.

Prod 2: the experiment requires you to continue.

Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.

Prod 4: you have no other choice but to continue.

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Results: 65% (two-thirds) of participants (i.e. teachers) continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.

Milgram did more than one experiment – he carried out 18 variations of his study.  All he did was alter the situation (IV) to see how this affected obedience (DV).

Conclusion: Ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being.  Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from the way we are brought up. Obey parents, teachers, anyone in authority etc.

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Methodogolical issues

  • the use of experiment & lab settings allowed M to investigat obedience in a systematic & controlled way. standarised procedures were used to ensure that p's were exposed to similar conditions
  • M's research has been critisced for lacking both internal & external validity. some have claimed that his p's could not have been fooled by the experimental set up into thinking that the shocks were real wheras others argued that he situation in M's lab was unlike any situation experienced in real life

Ethical issues

  • M failed to ask p's for informed consent & decieved them, making it difficult for them to withdraw
  • experienced considerable stress & potential pyshological harm
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factors affecting obedience

  • the setting of the experiment is throught to have contributed to high levels of of obedience- Yale uni is one of the most prestigest. in order to prevent this being a factor he transferred the research to a seedy office above a shop & discovered a significant drop in obedience, therefore the setting does have an effect on obedience
  • reducing the power of the experimenter: reduced it by removing them from the room & requested to give orders through the phone, in this variation, many more 'teachers' were able to resist the authourity of the experimenter with only 20% doing the full 450 v.
  • increasing awarness of the plight of the victim-  with the victrim hidden the teacher wasnt able to see the learner but could hear the screams, M altetred the proximity & had them both in the same room, so that the victim could be seen & heard, obedience dropped therfore proving that greater awarness of the inflicting pain can have a effect
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M's work has been replicated across Europe, high rates of obedience found in Spain 90% ( go full 450v) aswell as the Netherleands; lower rates in Australia: 40% men, 16% women achieving the full v. The extent to which people are prepared to obey varies & relates to the values & nature of the culture of the time

Hofling study indicates that high levels of obedienc can be obtained in real-life setting & so appear to provide support for the ecological validity of M study

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Obedience in the field

Research in the field regarding obedience has a range of advantages in that usually people are unaware they are taking part in a pscyhology experiment that minimizes DEMAND CHARACTERISTICS.

However ethical issues are a real dilemma as consent cannot be requested & debriefing may be hard afterwards. For this reason more recent field research has tended to involve compliance with fairly trivial request.

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Hofling Obedience Experiment

Aim: Hofling (1966) created a more realistic study of obedience than Milgram’s by carrying out field studies on nurses who were unaware that they were involved in an experiment.

Method: The procedure involved a naturalistic field experiment involving 22 (real) night nurses. Dr. Smith (a stooge) phones the nurses at hospital (on 22 separate occasions) and asks them to check to see if they have the drug astroten.  When the nurse checks she can see that the maximum dosage is supposed to be 10mg.  When they reported to the ‘Doctor’, they were told to administer 20mg of the drug to a patient called ‘Mr. Jones’.  Dr. Smith was in a desperate hurry and he would sign the authorization form when he came to see Mr. Jones later on.

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The nurses were watched to see what they would do. The medication was not real, though the nurses thought it was.

If the nurse administers the drug, they will have broken three hospital rules:

1. They are not allowed to accept instructions over the phone.

2. The dose was double the maximum limit stated on the box.

3. The medicine itself as unauthorized, i.e. not on the ward stock list.

The drug itself was a harmless sugar pill invented just for the experiment.

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Results: 21 out of 22 (95%) nurses were easily influenced into carrying out the orders. They were not supposed to take instructions by phone, let alone exceed the allowed dose (The drug was a placebo).

When other nurses were asked to discuss what they would do in a similar situation (i.e. a control group), 21 out of 22 said they would not comply with the order.

Conclusions: Hofling demonstrated that people are very unwilling to question supposed ‘authority’, even when they might have good reason to.

Critical Evaluation

A strength of this study is that it has high levels of ecological validity, due to the fact it was conducted in a real life environment. However, the study broke the ethical guideline of deception, as neither the doctor was real. MUNDANE REALISM

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The power of unifrom

Bickmann 1974- FIELD EXP.3 male experimenters dresses as either in uniform (milkman/guard) or civilian, made requests (pick up rubbish, stand on other side etc) to passer byers in NYC. people were most likely to obey to experimenter dressed as guard & least civilian. REAL LIFE, but opportunity sample so could bi bias. M study of YALE

Jackson 1990- he aimed to test the predications of social impact theory in relation to compliance to an order. he examined the effects of strength & immediacy & obedience to a simple request at a Zoo. 153 adults & 55 kids attending the zoo were approached by the experimenter either dressed as a zoo keeper or visitor. the experimenter asked not to lean on railing exhibit, the behaviour of p's was observed imediacy (high) when experimenter present & after (low). High strength & high imediacy more than low.

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Research into obedeience has been critiscied in a

  • ethics of the research Baumrind 1964
  • the validity of the research orne & holland 1968; aronson & carlsmith 1988
  • the creation of an obedience alibi Mandel 1998
  • the consequences of a situationist perspectiveberkowitz 1999
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Why do people obey?

People can choose to obey or disobey orders given by others.

there are many situationalist features which influence obedience.

personality factors are also considered to affect how people respond to orders- some people are more consistently obedient than others.

Legitimate authority

the amount of social power held by the person who gives the instruction. most human societies are ordered in a hierarchical way. We may obey people with legitimate authority as we trust them or simply as they have the power to punish.

In M's study obedience was much higher in Yale as oppose to the seedy office. it is reasonable to assume that the setting influenced the degree of trust p's felt in the expermenter

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Legitimate authority

In Hofling 1966 field study, 21/22 nurses were willing to carry out the instruction by 'Dr Smith' this explained by the degree of power & trust invested at the time in hospitals. suggest that many drug errors in hospitals can be explained by the tendency of nurses to obey doctors even when they orders seem dubious.In

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The authority figure

In order for an authority figure to be obeyed it is important that they are prepared to take the responsibility for their order & for their subordinates' actions. This is shown in film evidence & transcript for M's study. Many p's asked who had responsibility for the shocks, upon finding out it was the experimenter  they obeyed. If the answer was different, outcome would be to.

M explained the importance of responsibility through agency theory. He argued people operate in 2 diff ways in social situations:

  • when they act as autonomous individuals they are aware of the consequences of their actions & choose voluntarily to behave in particular ways
  • in an agentic state, the person sees themselves as the agent or subordinate of others. they carry out their orders but do not feel personally responsibility for their actions
  • they change from an autonomous to an agentic state is known as the agentic shift.
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agentic shift importance can be seen in Holfing Study. The nurses acted in their agentic state as employees. Bried, Dukerish & Doran 1991 argued that organisational obedience (bureaucratic orgs) may have been greater than M suggested.

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Graduated commitment

An important reason why people obeyed in M's original study is graduated commitment, this means that in the experiment p's became locked into obedience in small stages. At the start of the experiment p's were asked to give the learner small shocks than increased. It is unlikely people would straight away give larger shocks. M established a basis for obedience, which made it v.difficult to disobey. this method is known as 'foot in the door technique' & often used as a sales technique. Smith & Mackie 2003 argued that similar processes take place in real life crimes of obedience in which people are led to gradual stages from the acceptable to the unthinkable

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Evaluation of research into obedience-The ethics o

M’s research into obedience has been criticised for the ethical issues raised. 2 critics of M were Baumrind (1964) & Rosnow (1981), who levelled a no. of charges at the research. M responded to some of these charges with his own defence although his death in 1983 meant that he was later unable to contribute to the continuing debate regarding the ethics of his research.


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The charges against Milgram

It has been argued that the p’s were not fully informed about the nature of study & thus were unable to give their fully informed consent. They were deceived as to the nature of the study & it was made v.difficult – if not impossible – for them to withdraw due to the pressure placed upon them. They were put in an extremely stressful situation in which they believed that they may have seriously injured/ killed another person, this may have resulted in temporary/ permanent psychological damage.

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The defence

M responded to these charges by a no. of defences. With reference to the issue of consent, M had attempted to gain presumptive consent before the study by asking the psychological community to predict the findings of the study. Most suggested that only 1 or 2 in 100 would go as far as 450V. M has argued that critics of his research would not have given such strong opposition if this had been the actual result. In effect what people object if not what M did, but what he found.

 In response to the issue of coercion, M argued that each person who took part in his experiment was able to accept authority/ to reject it & that although it was difficult to withdraw, it was possible. In fact, 35% of the p’s were able to stop the experiment & refuse to continue to give the shocks.

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 With reference to the issue of the psychological harm, M argued that his p’s were provided with a thorough debriefing at the end of the experiment. They were told that the shocks were not real & were reintroduced to the unharmed learner. M also took steps in the immediate debriefing to ensure that p’s feeling about their behaviour were minimised. Obedient p’s were told that their behaviour was normal & that many others had also obeyed. Disobedient p’s were told that their behaviour was desirable. In this was M attempted to make all p’s feel better about their actions.

In the aftermath of the experiment, M sent out a questionnaire to over 1000 people who had taken part in his studies. 92% if his p’s responded, of these:

  • 84% were either glad/ v.glad to have taken part
  • 15% were neither glad/ sorry to have taken part
  • 1.3% were either ‘sorry’ / ‘v.sorry’ to have taken part
  • 74% had learned something of personal importance
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M also argued that he had shown concern for his p’s in the longer term. In order to asses potential psychological damage, they were visited & interviewed by an independent psychiatrist one year after the experiment who found no evidence of psychological harm.

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However, it could be argued that this was good luck on M’s part rather than good management. A series of studies were carried out between 1959 & 1962 by a psychologist called Dr Henry Murray at Harvard University. Some of these attempted to find out which types of people were best able to withstand/ resist brainwashing. They involved subjecting p’s to ‘stress tests’ in which they were strapped in chairs with electrodes attached to them. One of these p’s was student called Theodore Kaczynski who was later to come to notoriety, nicknamed the ‘Unabomber’ by the press. Starting in 1978 & continuing for almost 20 years, Kaczynski carried out a series of parcel bomb attacks directed at universities & airlines in the US, killing 2 & injuring 23 in total. His lawyers argued that his emotional instability resulted in part from his participation in Murray’s research. While his later actions may not be attributable to his participation in Murray’s experiments, it may be difficult to predict or asses what, if any, damage has been sustained by those who take part in research of this nature.

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The validity of obedience research

Others have criticised research into obedience on the ground of its validity. Aronson & Carlsmith (1988) have argued that the most important problem for social psychology is that of balancing the need for control in experiments against the need for realistic setting. Aronson & Carlsmith distinguished between 2 types of realism; experimental & mundane realism

Experimental realism: where the p’s were fooled into believing the set-up in the experiment is real & they take the situation seriously, this is also known as internal validity.

Mundane realism: refers to the similarity of the set-up in the experiment to situations that take place outside the lab in real life, this is also known as external or ecological validity.


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 Aronson & Carlsmith argued that M’s research is high in experimental realism but lower in mundane. This criticism was take further by Orne & Hollan (1968) who have argued that the p’s in M’s study simply did not believe the shocks were real. They also pointed out that p’s should have questioned why there was a need for the teacher at all & why the experimenter himself did not administer the shocks if the study was really about punishment & learning.

M responded to these criticisms by referring to the behaviour shown by p’s in the film footage of the experiment. This shows clearly the intense signs of stress experienced by the p as they are shown to tremble, sweat, burst into laughter & stutter. Orne & Holland counter-argued that the p’s behaved this way to please the experimenter.

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Others such as Rank & Jacobson (1977) have extended these criticisms regarding validity to cover Hofling’s research into obedience in nurses. As this was a field experiment, the nurses studied were unlikely to respond with demand characteristics due to their naivety that the experiment was taking place.

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However Rank & Jacobson argued that there were a number of threats to ecological validity in the study:

·         The use of the drug ‘Astroten’. This drug was fictional & it was unlikely that experienced nurses would come across a drug they had not heard off.

·         The order coming from the unknown ‘Doctor Smith’. Even in large hospitals, nurses would be v.likely to work regularly on a specific ward & be familiar by name & in person with the consultants covering the ward.

·         The nurses were phoned when they were alone on the ward. Again this would be unlikely to happen. In a real situation, nurses would be working with at least 1 other colleague & would be able to discuss an order with their workmates.

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Taking this into account, Rank & Jacobson replicated Holfin’s study in 1978 making 3 changes. The fictional drug was replaced with a real drug, Valium, which the nurses were familiar with.  A real, named doctor who worked on the ward gave the order by phone & nurses were able to consult with colleagues working on the ward. Under these conditions, those prepared to obey the order fell to a minimal 1/18. These findings imply that there is a need to be cautious when interpreting the results of Holfing’s original research.

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The obedience alibi

David Mandel (1998) has argued that M’s research provides an alibi for those charged with war crimes as it implies that any ordinary person could commit terrible acts under social pressure. This can be seen as providing justification for their behaviour – that they were just obeying orders. David Mandel has argued that M’s research is offensive to people who survived the Holocaust and to those who lost many family members as it underestimates & justifies the brutality to which they were subjected.

Adolf Eichmann was tried for crimes against humanity carried out in Nazi Germany in the Nuremberg trials in 1961. Eichmann insisted throughout his trial that he was simply obeying orders & that he had abdicated his own conscience to follow the Fuhrerprinzip (Fuhrer’s principles). Eichmann was convicted in December 1961 & sentenced to death. The same ‘obedience orders’ defence was used by Lieutenant William Calley who was tried for his part in My Lai massacre of South Vietnamese villagers in March 1978

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The consequence of a situationalist perspective

A related point has been made by Berkowitz (1999). Both Milgram’s & Zimbardo’s studies have been interpreted as showing that ordinary people can do extraordinary things to others when placed in a situation where they are under pressure to act in a certain way. Berkowitz has argued that this presents a ‘situationalist view of evil’ in which vile acts are largely seen as a consequence of the situation in which people are place, rather than acts of personal choice & responsibility. Berkowitz argues that such accounts simply fail to acknowledge the ****** & horrific acts of torture that took place in the concentration camps. He cites extracts taken from Adrendt’s (1966) book about the trial of 22 SS officers in which it was noted that babies had been used as shooting targets by throwing them in the air. Berkowitz argues that the evil in these acts is not ‘banal’ but is extreme & bears little resemblance to the shocks given in Milgram’s study.

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Why do people obey?

We have seen that people may choose to obey or disobey orders given by others. Some psychologists have considered the situational factors that lead people to obey- these are the features of the setting/ environment that influence obedience. Other psychologists have considered whether some types of people (or personalities) are more likely to exhibit higher levels of obedience than others. Personality factors are those characteristics of individuals that makes some individuals consistently more obedient than others in a range of different situations.

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personality factors in obedience- authoritarian pe

Other psychologists have attempted to establish if a certain type of people are prone to be more obedient. Theodore Adorno was a psychologist working in America in the late 40's & early 50's along with a group of European psychologists who had fled Nazi persecution in Europe. Adorno argued that the key to understanding extreme obedience & racial prejudice lay in early childhood experiences where personality is formed. he argued that with an authoritarian personality have a tendency to be extremely obedient.

Adorno  studied over 2000 american students mainly from mainly white middle-class backgrounds. he interviewed them about their political views & their childhood experiences. he also used projective tests to asses whether or not they were racially prejudiced. Adorno found that people who had been brought up by strict parents who used harsh physical punishments as children often grew to be v.obedient. under these conditions, children quickly learn to obey & develop a strong respect for authority.

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Adorno drew on psycho-dynamic concepts to build his explanation, arguing that harsh & physical punishments led to the child feeling hostile & angry towards their parents. This hostility was uncomfortable for the child & created feelings of conflict, so it might be repressed or locked away into the unconscious mind. The child then displaces these hostile feelings on to others, often a diff racial group which then become an alternative target for their hostility.

From his research, A developed a no. of scales to measure aspects of behaviour & attitudes, involving ethnocentrism (preference for one's own racial group), anti-Semitism & most famously, potential for facism which has become known as the 'F scale', it measures the 'authoritarian personality'

Although the role of personality & individual diffs was played down in M's experiment, Elms & milgram (citied in Miller 1986) carried out interviews with a sub-sample of those who had taken part in M's 1st 4 experiments. they found that those who were fully obedient & went to 450v scored higher on tests of authoritarianism & lower on scales of social responsibility than those who defied the experimenter,supporting Adorno's claims

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can research studies explain real life obedience a

the massacres in My Lai in Vietnam 1968 & at Titananmen Square in China 1968, in which protesting students were gunned down by tanks. Other reported cases of extreme orders have been reported in Bosnia, Kosovo & Rwanda.

My Lai Massacre 1968

took place march 1968 in a village in S.vietnam, during the vietnam war. Unarmed Vietnamese civilians, most female & kids were rounded up, herded into a ditch & executed. The US military were informed that member of Vitchang (resistance) were hiding there & normal civilians would of left to the market.


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Smith & Mackie 2000 and Cardwell 2001 have argued that we need to consider other important factors in order to understand & explain extreme obedience:

  • The context of inter-group hostility: social identity theory argues that people classify themselves as members of a certain social group & accentuate differences from others using the meta-contrast principle
  • The importance of self-justification & blaming the victim: in order for people to carry out extreme violence there is need for individual to explain & justify their actions to themselves. Blaming allows people to continue to view themselves as decent, responsible people whilst doing the action. M's study were those who administrated high levels of shock would often justify their actions by claiming the victim deserved it for being stupid! it was also evident in Nazi germany, where the prevailing view that the jews were responsible for plight
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  • the role of motivational factors: Cardwell 2001 has argued that M's research tells us v.little about the extreme obedience in Nazi Germany as it ignored the important motivational factors. It was clearly personal gain. Those who worked in gas chambers used the opportunity to plunder corpses, remove jewellery & gold fillings from teeth & even cutting hair from females to sell as wigs.
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