Social Psychology: Explaining blind obedience

Explanation of the social approach contributions to society - Agency theory explaining blind obedience

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Explaining blind obedience

The most famous study into obedience comes from Milgram (1963) whose study involved participants asking who they believed to be other participants questions and whenever they got a question wrong, supposedly giving them an electric shock. In fact, the answerers were actors and were not really given shocks but the participants did not know this and followed the experimenter’s instructions and supposedly knowingly administered the lethal 450v shock to complete strangers. It was after Milgrams study and a number of variations that he developed his agency theory to help explain obedience.

Studies such as Hofling et al (1966) and Meeus and Raaijmakers (1986) found the same results as Milgram – participants would willingly follow instructions of an authority figure and behave as they would not normally. It seems to be that people act as agents to an authority figure and obey instructions which go against what they would normally do – sometimes even those that go against the individuals own moral code. 

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Explaining blind obedience

In ‘real life’ this can be seen in events such as Abu Ghraib prison where US soldiers were seen treating Iraqi prisoners in abusive and violent ways. The treatment involved verbal and physical abuse, ****, torture, ****** and homicide of a number of Iraqi prisoners. There was a court hearing where 11 US soldiers were tried and sentenced to individual sentences for their behaviour.

Social psychology has explained that people will blindly obey those people above them. Zimbardo was involved in the court case and used his findings to explain that it was the soldier’s situation which caused them to behave as they did – not their abusive personalities. Although they lost the court hearing, Zimbardo’s contributions seemed to carry some weight; but agency theory was not sufficient to excuse them, the court refused to believe that even so they bore no responsibility over their own actions.

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Evaluation of explanation for blind obedience

Much of the research into obedience uses experimental methods such as Milgram and Hofling et al and so there are strong controls over extraneous variables and methodology is replicable.

+ Meeus and Raaijmakers found the same as Milgram; blind obedience occurred in both cases although this was in the Netherlands and twenty years after Milgrams (1963) study which suggests that it is a valid explanation across many cultures and strengthens the research as similar findings are obtained.

- It could be argued that the Netherlands isn’t too different a culture from the USA and so generalising the theory to other cultures which are elementally different might still be difficult.

- Milgram used agency theory to describe obedience whilst Zimbardo suggested situation caused obedience rather than personality. Other theories include that of social power and the numerous theories may affect how the theories are used to contribute to society; there is no one definitive explanation. 

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