Obedience Theories


Core Theory: Theory of Situational Factors

Milgram used the experiment where members of the public gave electric shocks to someone else upto 450v

They were told they were taking part in an experiment about punishment and memory

The Learner was 'Mr Wallace', who was a colleague of Milgram and did not recieve the shocks

There was a man in a lab coat in the room that told the participant to continue

Every Participant continued to 300v and 65% to 450v

Hofling et al showed obedience was part of the real world

22 nurses were asked to give an overdose of a drug from a unknown doctor

21 / 22 obeyed the orders as the doctor was in authority

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Setting, Cultural Setting, Authority, Consensus

  • People are more obedient because the the place that they are in
  • When the Milgram experiment was moved to a run-down office in Bridgeport it reduced to 47.5%
  • The nurses did what they were told as they were at work but would it happen in other places?
  • Milgram's experiment was repeated in other cultures
  • Australia - 40%
  • Italy - 80%
  • Austria - 85%
  • A person is more likely to be disobedient in a individualist rather than collectivist society
  • When there was no lab coat, obedience levels fell to 20%
  • They had no authority looking over their actions
  • The nurses did what they were told as they were scared of being reprimanded
  • The behaviour of an individual is influenced by what someone else thinks
  • They could 'follow each other like sheep'
  • The participant followed the two others thoughts and only 10% went to 450v
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Limitations of the Situational Factors

A lot of research into situational factors in obedience lacks ecologically validity

  • The set-up of Milgrams experiment was not that of a normal setting
  • Responding the demand characteristics?

A lot of research into situational factors has ethical problems

  • Manipulating factors could decieve participants

The theory has not suggested the role of personality

  • Our behaviour is part of our personality and this theory suggests that we do not use them and we are on 'autopilot'
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Alternative Theory: Dispositional Factors

People are more likely to obey because of their personality rather than the situation

Authoritarian personality - more prone to obedience than others

Adorno et al in 1950 created the F-scale to see whether 2000 participants were supportive or not


  • Someone who dislikes people of a lower class
  • Has good ideas or right and wrong
  • Someone cannot deal with ambiguity or cenrtainty about behaviours
  • Someone who is willing to be bossed by someone of a higher status

Comes from childhood

They learnt these characteristics as a child

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Bickman 1974

Field experiment - giving orders to pedestrians on the streets of Brooklyn New York

Three difference costumes were used to see whether their status affected obedience

  • The 153 Participants were asked to:
  • Picking up litter
  • Coin and parking meter
  • Bus Stop
  • People were more likely to obey someone in authority
  • Guard - 89%
  • Milkman - 57%
  • Civilian - 33%
  • Limitations:
  • There was a lack of control over extraneous variables
  • The pedestrians were picked through opportunity sampling
  • The study was unethical
  • The experiementers were male
  • The study was only carried out in America
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Application of Research: Keeping Order

There is an authority that someone follows orders from in the workplace

The hierachy can change dependent on the situation and the workplace


Rules and procedures are in place

Prison guards wear uniform to show authority

Inmates wear uniforms so that they can lose their sense of identity - easier to control

Loss of privileges for misbehaviour

Consensus can cause disobedience

They are not allowed any time together that is unsupervised and is usually limited to an hour

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