Explanations for obedience


Explanations for obedience

Obedience is a from of control where people are told what to do

Milgram's research

Milgram sought to an answer to why the German population followed the orders of Hitler and persecuted over 10 million Jews, Gypsies and other members of social groups


  • Milgram recruited 40 male ppts age 20-50 through newspaper ads and postal flyers. They were given $4.50 just for turning up
  • Ppts drew lots for their role but a confederate 'Mr Wallace' was always the learner while the ppt was the teacher. An 'experimenter' wore a lab coat. Ppts were told they could leave the study at any point
  • The learner was strapped to a chair in another room and wired with electrodes. Teacher had to give learner an increasingly severe shock each time he made a mistake on a task
  • Shocks started at 15V and rose through 30 levels to 450V
  • At 300V the learner pounded on the wall and gave no response to the next question
  • When the teacher turned to the experimenter for guidance, he gave a standard response "Absence of response should be treated as a wrong answer"
  • If teacher felt unsure about continuing, the experimenter used four standard 'prods':
    • Please continue
    • The experiment requires that you continue
    • It is absolutely essential that you continue
    • You have no other choice, you must go on

Findings and conclusions

  • No ppt stopped below 300V
  • 12.5% stopped at 300V
  • 65% continued to 450V
  • Ppts showed signs of extreme tension: sweat, trembling, biting nails, 3 had full blown seizures
  • The findings were unexpected (predicted only 3% would go all the way)
  • Ppts were debriefed, assured their behaviour was normal
  • 84%reported they felt glad they had participated


-Lacks internal validity

  • Orne and Holland suggest ppts guessed the electric shocks were fake, so Milgram wasn't really testing obedience
  • Sheridan and King's ppts gave real shocks to a puppy: 54% of males and 100% of females delivered what they thought was a fatal shock. The shocks in Milgram's study may have been believed to be genuine

+Good external validity

  • Hoffling found that levels of obedience in nurses on a hospital ward to unjustified demands by doctors were very high ~(21/22 obeyed). 
  • Obedience from Milgram's study can be generalised

-Ethical issues 

  • Allocation of roles was fixed
  • Ppts believed the electric shocks were real

Situational variables affecting obedience: proximity, location and uniform

  • Proximity
    • In the proximity variation the teacher and learner were in the same room- dropped from 65% to 40%
    • In the touch proximity variation, the teacher had to force the learners hand onto a shock plate- dropped from 65% to 30%
    • In the remote instruction proximity variation, the experimenter left the room, giving instructions via telephone- dropped from 65% to 20.5%
  • Location
    • The location of the study became a run-down building rather than Yale university
    • Obedience dropped from 65% to 47.5%
  • Uniform
    • The experimenter was called away and the role was taken over by an 'ordinary member of the public' in everyday clothing
    • Obedience dropped…


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