Agency theory and Milgram's experiments

  • Created by: zhutt12
  • Created on: 28-04-20 17:30

Stanley Milgram

Agency theory was developed in response to Nazi war crimes, as often the defense of those accused of acts of genocide during World War II was based on obedience, as they claimed that they were simply following orders given by their superiors.

  • E.g the trial of Adolf Eichmann, who claimed that he was “merely a little cog in the machinery”, as he had not given orders, merely recieved them and carried them out.

Additionally, Milgram (1963) wanted to investigate whether Germans were particularly obedient to authority figures as this was a common explanation for the Nazi killings in World War II.

Agency Theory

According to the theory we have two states:

Autonomous state

We percieve ourselves to be responsible for our own actions and therefore will experience guilt

Agentic state

We percive ourselves to be an agent of someone elses will,  that the authority figure who is commanding us is responsible for the actions and we will therefore not feel guilt

Authority figure - someone who we percieve to have a higher rank than our own, or who have a symbol of authority

The agentic shift will occur after recieving an order from a percieved authority figure, meaning that we will change from the autonomous state, into the agentic state.

Moral strain may occur upon recieving an order from a percieved authoriy figure that goes against our own concience. This is because we fight between two contradictory urges - should we follow the instructions of our superior, or should we do what our concience thinks is right?

Milgram's experiment


To see how far an individual wil go in following the instructions of an authority figure


40 participants, collected through a volunteer sample

At the beginning of the experiment the participants were introduced to another individual, named 'Mr Wallace' who they believed was another participant, however in reality was acually a confederate of the experimenter. The particiapant and confederate drew straws to see who would take the role of 'learner' and 'teacher', however the results were rigged, meaning that the participant is always the 'teacher' and t'Mr Wallace' is always the 'learner'.

'Mr Wallace' was then strapped into an electric chair in the room next to the participant's. The participants were assured that the electic chair was real, with the participants even recieving a shock of 45V to "prove" it was in fact real. They were assured that while the shocks may be painful for 'Mr Wallace', they would "not cause lasting damage" 

'Mr Wallace' was given a list of word pairs to learn. The job of the participant was to test 'Mr Wallace' on the words by reading a word to him and then asking him to recall the…


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