Agency Theory (Milgram, 1973)

  • Created by: lucija23
  • Created on: 12-05-21 11:32

Agency theory (Milgram, 1973): 

  • People will obey an authority when they believe that the authority will take responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

  • Two mental states:

    • Agentic: agent of someone else’s will, authority figure commanding us is responsible for our actions therefore no guilt 

    • Autonomous: responsible for own behaviour so feel guilt 

  • Agentic shift: orders from authority figure trigger shift into agentic state 

  • Moral strain

    •  Experience it when authority issues order that goes against our conscience. 

    • 2 contradictory urges

    • Obey authority (and meet society’s expectations) 

    • Obey conscience (and keep self image of ‘good person’) 

  • May manifest in physical distress e.g. weeping/shaking 


  • Research support from Milgram: Variations of original study of obedience support idea that situational factors, especially when related to perceived authority of experimenter changed the level of obedience (e.g. obedience significantly lower when experiment done in rundown office block rather than prestigious Yale University) 

  • Research support from Burger (2009): backs up Milgram’s conclusions 

  • Can explain various atrocities: Holocaust, Eichmann said he was just following orders when slaughtering Jews 


  • Alternative explanation by Adorno (1950): some people have ‘authoritarian personality’ = extreme respect for authority, enjoy following rules 

  • Moral strain: gap in theory because key feature of theory but only showed by participants who obeyed (weeping, shaking, groaning) but not ones who disobeyed 

  • Eco validity: theory developed from lab studies with artificial tasks not applicable to real life scenario 

Example 8 mark essay (Evaluate Milgram’s Agency Theory as an explanation of obedience):

Milgram’s agency theory (1973) states that people will obey an authority figure if they believe that the authority figure will take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. The theory states that humans have two mental states: the autonomous state, where we feel that we are responsible for our


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