Social Psychology

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Definition and Key terms


  • the social approach is about people both as individuals and as part of a group or groups.
  • its about how people live together comfortably and when they do not, as well as the social structures, who obeys and who orders.

Key terms

  • Agentic state - the agentic state is when you feel you have no control or choice. You are giving up your own free will to the authority figure and doing as you are told.
  • Autonomous state - is when you are in control of your own responsability and actions, and ignore the orders of the others. this gives you the power to make your own decisions.
  • Moral strain -  the result of having th do something we believe to be immoral in order to function as an agent of those with power and authority, and so benefits society. Denial is often used to avoid the distress .
  • Social categorisation - is the process of forming an in-group or an out-group. The in-group all share a common belief e.g. football supporters. 
  • social identification -  you adopt the identity of the group and your self esteem is tyed up with the others in the group.
  • social comparison - where you compare the in-group to the out-group become rivals and have to compete to maintain self-esteem.
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Milgrams study into obedience (1963)

Aim - to investigate how obedient people would be in a situation where following orders would mean breaking the moral code of the participant and harming others.

Procedure - a lab experiment was used. Milgram advertised for male volunteers to take part in an experiment on learning for a fee of $5. 40 male participants were used. when they arrived at yale, university, participants were told they would either be a teacher or a learner. They were introduced to 'Mr Wallace' who was an actor working for milgram. By pretending to use a random procedure, milgram ensured that the participant was always the learner, and 'mr wallace' was always the learner. 'Mr wallace' was then strapped into a chair and 'wired up'. he was then given a memeory test, given by the participant and every time the learner made a mistake, Milgram ordered the participant to give him an electric shock. The learner did not have reall electric shocks, but the particpant did not know this. After each mistake the size of the shock increased. the shock levels on the machine were labeled from 0 - 450 volts. Milgram ordered participants to continue giving increased shocks whilst the learner 'shouted and screamed' in pain then appeared to collapse. When the participant protested Milgram told them 'the experiment requires that you continue'.

Results - All 40 participants gave mr wallace 300 volts. and 65% gave the full 450 volts. most participants wept and begged in distress, fully believeing they had killed mr wallace. however, most people did not feel they could stop. 

Conclusion -  milgram concluded that an ordinary person would abey orders form an authority to an extreme extent even when they were very uncomfortable about doing so.

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Evaluation of Milgrams Study

Generalisability - it cannot be generalised to the wider population as milgram only used male participants, and therefore cannot say that it would be the same for women.

Reliability - it was a lab experiment meaning it had very high controls and standardised instructions, making it easily repeatable. The study has been repeated already.

Applicability - it can be applied as it shows that people are willing to enter the agentic state in order to follow an authority figure.

Validity - it is not very task valid as you would not be asked on a day to day basis to shock somebody for getting a question wrong. It is task valid however because Milgram did get the results on what he set out to measure, however it is not ecologically valid as the particpants where sent to a lab in a university, which is not there everyday settings.

Ethics - the particpants where decieved as they did not know the true nature of the experiment, however after the experiment the particpants got a full debrief. The participants did have the right to withdraw however were encouraged by the researcher to carry on with the experiment, 35% of particpants did not go the full 450volts showing they did have the right to withdraw. The particpants also had full confidentiality and names of the participants where never revealed, and the particpants where protected after the experiment had been completed.

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Variation 1 of milgrams original study

Variation 1 - Touch Proximity:

Aim - to see whether being in the same room as the 'learner' would affect the obedience level.

Procedure - the 'learner' was placed in the same room as the participant. The participant was asked to ask questions and when the learner got one wrong apply a shock, however the 'learner' only recieved a shock when their hand rested on a shock plate. At 150 volts the victim demanded to be let free and refused to put their hand on the plate. experimenter ordered the participant to force the 'learners' hand on the plate and push down, forcing them have contact with the 'learner'.

Results - All particpants gave Mr Wallace some electric shocks. The min was 135 volts and the max was 450 volts. 30% gave Mr Wallace the full 450 volts.

Conclusion - when the ppts had contact with Mr Wallace it made them alot more likely to drop out because they are forcefully hurting someone and they had to watch, showing that moral strain got the better of them.  

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Variation 2 of Milgrams original study

Variation 2 - Office building:

Aim - to see if setting plays a parton how obedient a person is.

Procedure - same as original however was in a run down off block and the researcher did not wear a lab coat, making it alot more formal.

Results - all gave Mr Wallace some form of electric shock. The min was a slight shock and the max was the full 450 volts. 47.5% gave Mr Wallace the full 450 volts.

Conclusion - this demonstrated that location did hae a slight effect on how mch shock was given and how when the researcher was alot more formal it allowed less of them to enter the full agentic state.

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Hoflings study of obedience in hospitals (nurses)

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

Procedure - 22 (real) night nurses were called by Dr. Smith (stooge) on 22 seperate occasions, and asks them to check to see if they had the drug astrofen (placebo). When the nurse checks she can see the maximum dosage aloud is 10mg. When they reported to Dr. Smith they were then told to administer 20mg of the drug to a patient called 'Mr. Jones'. Dr. Smith was in a desperate hurry and told them he would be down when he had a moment to sign the authoriczation form, when he came to see Mr. Jones later on. The Nurses where then watched to see what they would do.

If the nuses did administer the drug they would have broken three hospital rules: 1) they are NOT allowed to accept instructions over the phone. 2) The dose ordered was double that of the maximum, stated on the bottle. 3) The medicine itself was unauthorized and not on the stock list.

Results - 21 out of the 22 nurses were easily influenced and administered the drug. When a control group of nurses were asked in a discussion whether they would comply 21 out of 22 said they would not.

Conslusion - Hofling demonstrated that people are very willing to question supposed 'authority', even when they may have a good reason to.

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Evaluation of Hoflings study

Generalisability - this study cannot be generalised as there could of been more obedient nurses on shift that night, they could not control how tired the nurses were. This type of study is also very unique and only used nurses and so therefore can only be generalised to the target population of nurses.

Reliability - It is reliable as it was repeated 22 times over the course of the night. The Dr had a script, which was the same for all 22 participants, they also had an observer on the floor. However this was a field experiment so it is very hard to control and standardise, making it very hard to repeat on a seperate occassion.

Applicability - this can be applied to Hitler in WW2 as he acted as an authority figure, many people obeyed his orders and were willing to enter the agentic state, which forced them to carry out tasks, which may be immoral (moral strain).

Validity - this study has high task validity as the Nurses will have to give drugs and medicines to people everyday, so it was nothing out of the ordinary, apart from the phone call. It has very high ecological validity as it was, in a real life hospital using real life nurses. It also has high face validity as Holfling got what he set out to measure.

Ethics - this study is very unethical as th enurses never gave informed consent, they were decieved throught out as if the drug was not a placebo, something seriously wrong may of happened. The nurses were never told they had the right to withdraw as they did not know they were taking part in an experiment in the first place. The nurses however did have a full debrief and were reassured that nothing could of happened to Mr Jones. The ensured that the nurses did not feel embarrased and that nothing would happen to their job title.

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Agency Theory

  • Agentic State - giving up your own free will and concience in order to serve the interests of the wider group. 
  • Autonomous State - we are free to act as we wish, including how our conscience dictates.
  • Moral Strain - we usually go through this when in the agentic state. Moral strain is when we have to do something that we believe to be immoral in order to function as an agent of authority, and so benefit society. 

When the ppts gave the shocks they were acting as an agent, therefore they were in the agentc state.

Milgram claims that social systems (hierarchy) encouage higher levels of obedience.

Cognitive psychologists believe that we develope schemas for avoiding confrontation. e.g. slipping into the agentic state you do as your told to help you cope with conflict and avoid direct confrontation.


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Agency Theory Evaluation

A piece of research that supports the theory is Milgrams original study, which shows that when an authority figure gives orders, individuals will obey but with the result of suffering from moral strain. this is a strength because it supports the theories Agentic state and Moral strain.

A piece of research that rejects the theory is Hoflings study into obedience, as although the nurse did enter the agentic state, they did not suffer from moral strain as well as they were doing what they do everyday, therefore this is a negative because it rejects that moral strain is suffered throughout the agentic state. 

This theory is applicable because this study can help us understand the awful behaviour and actions during the time of the holocaust. Therefore this can be used to try and stop anything like this from happening again.

 This theory is reductionist because it does not explain why people follow orders. Also Milgram also ignores the people that did disobey him, this means that the theory is oversimplified this is a weakness because it does not explain everything clearly. 

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Meuss & Raajmakers (obedience study not in USA)

Aim - to investigate a number of posible problems which may undermine milgrams conclusions regarding obedience.

Procedure - 39 participants responded to a newspaper advert and were paid for their time. The research took place in a modern university building where particpants were led to believe that they were taking part in a study into stress and performance. Particpants believed that the psychology department had been commissioned to select candidates for a job and each applicant was to take a test which would be administered by the participants. The test was vital to success, if applicants (stooges) failed the test they lost the job. Participants where asked to make 15 increasingly distressing remarks regarding how they were getting on with the test e.g. "this job is too difficult for you, according to this test". It soon became obvious that the 'applicant' was becoming extremely distressed and that they would fail the test (and therefore will not get the job). Half way through the test the 'applicants' accused the researcher of giving false info and withdrew his consent to continue. If the subjects refused to continue to make the stressful remarks they were prodded to continue by the experimenter. A participant who made all the stress remarks was seen as obedient and those who refused to make all the stress remarks disobedient.

Results - 92% of the participants obeyed the experimenter to the end and made all the stress remarks. the participants were convinced that the applicants test scores had been seriously affected by the stress remarks. 96% were sure they were dealing with a serious situation.

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Conclusion & Evaluation of Meuss & Raajmakers

Conclusion - the researcher conclude that the level of obedience in thier study was considerably higher than in milgrams study. Furthermore this shows that it is easier to obey orders to use physical violence. 

Many participants were caused distress by their involvement they made it clear that they found the treatment of the applicant to be unfair. 

Participants intensively disliked making the stress remarks, were relieved the victim was not real applicant and they had not in reality caused someone harm. 

Participants were fully debriefed and given a follow up questionaire by mail a year later to ensure they were ok. 

In neither debriefing, however, were any indications seen that the participants had suffered any serious negative effects from thier participation in the experiment. 

Participants were decieved as they thought the study was on stress and performance (not obedience) and that the applicants were real when in fact they were just actors.

The volunteer sample may be biased as these participants tend to be more motivated and perform better. 

The findings can help explain real life atrocities such as genocide. 

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Prejudice and Discrimination


  • Prejudice - making judgements about people based on their membership of a group rather than their individual nature.
  • Discrimination - treating people differentlyaccording to their group membership.

Three elements: 

  • Cognitive element - this involves the beliefs held about the groupthese beliefs will be in a form of stereotypes, common but over simple views of whos particular group of people are like. 
  • Affective element - thisinvolves the feelings experienced in response to the group. We may experience anger, fear, hate or disgust when we encounter a member of the group.
  • Behavioural element - this consists of our actions towards the objectof our prejudice. behaving differently towards people based on theirmembership of a group is called discrimination. Our actions against members of a grou, against which we hold a prejudice, can range from avoidance and verbal criticisms to mass extermination. 


usually racism or sexism.

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Social identity theory

Social identity states that simply being in a group or percieving that you are in a group, is enough to create in-group loyalty & out-group hospitality.

This is done using three features:

  • social categorisation: classifying people, including ourselves, as part of particular groups.
  • social identification: becoming attached to groups of which we are a member. 
  • social comparison: comparing our group with out-groups.  

In-Group favouritism = Discriminating in favour of members of the in-group. 

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Evaluation of Social identity theory

The theory has useful applications because it can explain why prejudice and dicrimination originate, it can also be used to reduce the amount of discrimination and prejudice, e.g. preventing in-groups from forming. 

The theory has alot of emperial, scientific research to support the theory, e.g. the research carried out by Tajfel as the boys immediatley developed strong in-group loyaltys and out-group hospitality, when they knew there was another group of boys.

The theory has a certain amount of face validity as it can successfully explain many aspects of real-world behaviour and be applied to a wide range of social situations e.g. football teams. 

Social identity theory cannot explain individual differences in levels of in-group loyalty and out-group hospitality. Not everyone will have the same level of hospitality towards the out-group. 

Some contempary research into minimal groups suggests that prejudice and discrimination is more complex e.g. Dobbs and Cramo. 

People may have other reasons for identifying with eachother, not just minimal reasons based on social standings/self esteem. e.g. shared cultural histories. 

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Tajfel et al 1970

Aim - to see whether two clearly identifiable groups not in competition would still favour their own group over the other. 

Procedure - two experiments were set up, using 14 - 15 years old british schoolboys as participants. The first is reported here. Sixty - four participants were told that the researchers were investigating vision. They were shown a cluster of dots on a screen and asked to estimate the number of dots. They were divided into two groups, 1: underestimators 2: overestimated. Supposedly on the basis of their number-estimates, in fact they were randomly divided into two groups. The boys were then given the task of allocating points to eachother, choosing which one of a pair of boys should recieve points for their estimates of the number of dots. they were told that these points could later be turned into money. The participants did not know which individuals they were giving the money to but they did know which group they were in. in one condition, the choice was between two boys in the in-group and the second the choice was between two boys in the out-group and in the third it was between one boy from in and one boy from out. 

Results - the boys overwhelmingly chose to allocate points to boys who had been identified as in the same group as themselves, either overestimators or underestimators. This occured irrespective of the accuracy of the boys estimates. 

Conclusion - In spite of the fact that there was no direct competition between the two groups, participants consistently displayed favouritism towards those who were identified as being in the same group as themselves and against those identified as in a different group. 

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Evaluation of Tajfel et al 1970

billing & tajfel did another study whereby they dstributed group membership randomly but still found in-group favouritism.

Rispert brown critised tajfels interpretation as the decisions of reward could have been justifies by fairness and bias was not extreme. 

The studies ecological validity is low as the process if the dots + awarding real money to each other is artificial. 

Its reliability is good the participants had controls over what information they were given. They only knew the other group by code number, there was no face-face contact between groups. The study is therefore repeatable. 

It can only be generalised to boys 14-15 years & from bristol as its sample is not representative to the wider society. 

The results are applicable as we can use them to see why groups become rivals & how the groups are formed in society. 

ethically it was okay, however they were diceved of the aim + that real money + punishments were to be used.

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Key issue

Abu Graib 

Army got told that they were in control and they took it to far. 

They were told to interegate the prisoner and to get information, whatever it takes. The interegation period turned into torture, and the prisoners took it too far. 

They tortured them through nudity, sleep deprivation, they treated them as dogs. 

The army were told to do these things by 'superiors' therefore they were in the agentic state. They said they felt mislead by there superiors. 

Torture = murder as many people. Many soldiers felt moral strain. The government made all the prisoners sound like bad people (terrorists) 

7% were captured by the army 

93% given in by pakistanies. 

They took away all the prisoners rights. 

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Evidence of practice

Background - Milgrams study pf obedience was used to see if an authority figure had obedience over you in a lab situation. 

Aim - to see whether parets had more authorty over either boys or girls. 

Hypothesis - females will have more parental authority than boys will. 

Null hypothesis - There will be no difference between the parental authority for both males and females. 

Method - i used the research design independent measure, because the ppts only had to endureone condition and only answered the questionaire once. 

I used a questionaire because i felt this was the best way to get peoples true opinions, as if i did an interview there could have been some demand characteristics however as it was a questionaire it gave the participants more free rome as they were able to put truthful answers without us knowing exactly who had filled them in. I felt this would be a more appropriate method of collecting info as it would help us find out specific info much easier and less time consuming than an interview as it would prevent ppts from going off topic. I made it clear to all ppts that they didnt have to answer the questionaire, if they felt uncomfortable. 

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Evidence of practice (continued)

We used both males and females for our study as we wanted to see whether males or females were more obedient towards their parents. We 17 girls and 10 boys from sixth form due to opportunity sampling. We used this type of sampling as we wanted our sample to be as random as possible so that we get a representative of both genders. however the representivity is slightly unreliable as we got more females than male perspectives. 

The only material we used was the questionaire which we asked the ppts to fill in. 

Before we asked all the ppt to take part in filling in out questionaire we decided to conduct a pilot study to make sure our questionaire had no mistakes that would make it hard for ppts to understand the questions or affect our results in any way. we then wrote and corrected any mistakes on our questionaire and asked people in year 12 to fill them in. After we collected all our questionaires we recorded the results and made graphs. 

Results - Girls are more likely to experience parental authority and are more likely to follow these, than boys are. 

Conclusion - the results do support my hypothesis as my results show that females have more of an authorital figure than males, when it comes to curfews and chores, females are more willing to comply where as boys are more likely to break them. 

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Evaluation of EOP

Generalisabilty - My study can only be generalised to the target population, of sixth form students as these are the only people that completed the questionaire, our sample size was only 27 therefore this cannot be generalised as it only has a small sample size. 

Reliability - i feel it had standardised instructions and the same results could be obtained again, therefore i feel it was reliable and repeatable. 

Validity - the independent variable, which was the gender of the ppts, was fully fully operationalised as the ppts stated whether they were males or female when answering the questionaire itself. The dependent variable was not fully operationalised as the questions asked did not cover all their parents rules and it wasnt clear that i was measuring their obedience as ppts may have answered on what i wanted to hear, demand characteristics, or they may have answered the questionaire dishonestly as they didnt want to appear a bad student from the reflection of the questionaires answers. 

Applicability - It can be applied to everyday life as we can now see that girls are often more parentally controlled, we can try to makes parents be less controlling. 

Ethics - this study was very ethical as they gave informed consent, they were allowed to withdraw at any point. The questions were not decieveing. 

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Caitlin x

This is fantastic thank you!!

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