Social Influence: Obedience

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Obedience 1

Definition- complying with an order from another person to carry out an action. Generally occurs when the person giving the order is perceived to have power or authority.


  • Milgram
  • Hofling
  • Kurdika
  • Explanation of Obedience
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Milgram Key Study

Aim- to find out under what situations ordinary Americans would obey an unjust order from a person in authority to inflict pain on another person.

Procedure- 40 male volunteers paid $4.50 each deceived into thinking they were giving electric shocks to a partner. pps told study was about the role of punishment on learning. Teacher and learner, learner shocked, learner had to learn word pairs. when tested the teacher's role was to administer an electric shock each time the learner made a mistake. shock generator had 30 levers, each graduation 15V. Voltage started at 15V and reached 450V. if teacher hesistated researcher encouraged continuation. no shocks actually administered. experiment continued until teacher refused to continue or until 450V was given four times. then debriefed and taken to meet the learner.

Findings- all pps went to at least 300V. 65% of pps went to end of generator and believed they'd administered 450V four times. most pps found procedure very stressful and wanted to stop but although they dissented verbally they continued to obey.

Conclusion- under certain circumstances most people will obey orders that go against their conscience. when people occupy subordiante position in dominance hierarchy they lose empathy, compassion and morality, and are inclined to obey.

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Evaluation of Milgram

Orne & Holland- claimed Milgram's experiment lacked ecological validity due to being carried out in a lab. claimed study also lacked internal validity as believed pps were only going along with the act when shocking the learner in order to please the experimenter.

Milgram's Reply- Milgram argued that the relationship between participant and experimenter still occured in power hierarchy where the experimenter was perceived as having authority to give orders, therefore it is fundamentally no different to any other obedience situation. Also videos of participants showed them to be incredibly distressed and immediately afterwards + a year later pps said they did believe the deception.


  • deceived his participants
  • failed to gain informed consent
  • caused participants harm i.e. caused stress + anxiety, guilt and physical discomfort e.g. shaking and seizures
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Variations of Milgram; Hofling + Kurdika

Hofling Nurse Study- a man pretending to be a doctor rings 22 nurses and asks them to administer medicine to a patient. If the nurses obey they break three rules as:

  • nurses are not allowed to take orders over the phone
  • the dose was twice the maximum amount written on the box
  • medicine was not on the ward stock list so was not authorised

Despite this 21 of the 22 nurses obeyed and had to be stopped by an accomplice. When debriefed nurses claimed the situation happened often and they obeyed because they didn't want to anger the doctor. Supports Milgram's study and has very high ecological validity.

Kurdika Biscuit Study- experiment in which participants were instructed to eat 36 biscuits soaked in quinine, an extremely unpleasant substance. Despite participants showing disgust and even nausea almost all participants ate all 36 biscuits. high internal validity. showed criticisms that Milgram's pps only obeyed orders because they believed they were not causing harm was wrong as pps will still obey even if they know for certain it will cause harm.

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Explanations of Obedience 1

Agency Theory- agentic state is a state in which people mindlessly accept the orders of the person they believe to be responsible for the given situation. opposite of autonomous state where people behave voluntarily and are aware of the consequences of their actions. agentic shift is a term that describes when a person moves from the autonomous state to the agentic state, due to a shift in responsibility from them personally to the person in authority.

Gradual Commitment- gradual change in behaviour in which person starts by obeying small requests and then find it too hard to stop when orders start to have more serious outcomes. By this time they feel they are already commited.

Situational Factors-

  • degree of personal responsibility - lower personal responsibility = higher obedience rate
  • physical presence of experimenter - obedience more likely when authority is in close proximity
  • authority of the experimenter - higher authority = higher rate of obedience
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Explanations of Obedience 2

Personal Characteristics

Adorno et al claimed that people with a certain personality type, the authoritarian personality, were more prone to obedience than others. Characteristics of this personality type include conventionality, submission to authority, toughness, destructivenes and superstition. Adorne claimed those that scored high on a scale that rated this characteristics were more likely to be prejudiced and administer extreme shocks in Milgram's experiment.


  • argument that this does not offer a satisfactory explanation for the killing of millions of Jews. not enough time for child rearing practices to change in order to produce these personality types. more likely response to intense social pressure being put on people to obey.
  • supported by Miale and Selzer who claimed personality tests showed many Nazi's to have psychopathological tendencies and used this same argument to explain behaviour of Milgram's pps. no evidence however to support Milgram's pps were psychopaths as they showed visible distress during the experiment.
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  • Milgram and other researchers showed that ordinary people given the right situation would follow orders that could harm another individual.
  • In an obedience situation people often fall into the agentic state and give up all sense of personal responsibility for their actions.
  • People may also become committed to obeying via inital small and seemingly harmless requests that they subsequently find it hard to refuse large potentially harmful requests.
  • Milgram's variations showed the influence of situational factors such as the degree of proximity between the authority figure and individual and the prestige of the location.
  • Despite strong evidence for the social situation exerting powerful influences some researchers have also suggested there are personality differences between highly obedient people and other individuals.
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