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Social Influence

4) What is obedience, and why do we obey?

Obedience is complying with someone’s wishes or demand because of their power.

Often in life we are faced with a decision of whether to obey or disobey, and psychologist are interested to see why, especially why people obey when the consequences will clearly be negative.

Research – Milgram (1963)

AIM – to test the rates of obedience to an order that was obviously harmful

PROCEDURE – 40 male participants were told, by a “researcher” in a white lab-coat, that they were doing tests to see how to improve memory. This would involve asking questions, every time the “learner” got an answer wrong the participant would give a shock. These shocks increased in 15 volt increments to a lethal 450 volts. However, what the participant didn’t know was that the shocks were actually fake and that they were really testing how much he would obey the authority figure of the researcher.

FINDINGS – A huge 65% of participants went to the full 450 volts, well above other psychologists’ predictions of 0.01%, despite the fact that the learner was no longer showing signs of life. 100% of participants went to 300 volts.

CONCLUSIONS – This is clear evidence that we are incredibly obedient to authority, even when the consequences are entirely inhumane.

Evaluation of Milgram’s study

Validity of research:

  • Realism – Orne and Holland said that the participant may have learnt to distrust the researcher because they know it is an experiment. Because of this they may have been unaffected by the cries of pain of the learner because they are aware it is an experiment so probably isn’t real.
  • Generalizability – Rank and Jacobson’s experiment attempted to recreate Milgram’s experiment to a real life situation, this time asking nurses to give a lethal amount of a drug to a patient. 89% of the nurses refused, this suggests that Milgram’s findings cannot be generalised to real life situations.

Ethical Issues:

  • Deception and no informed consent – Milgram deceived the participants completely into thinking they were taking part in an experiment to advance the way we teach people.
  • Right to withdraw? – Although Milgram said he would still pay the participants their $4.50 wage even if they withdrew from the experiment, this doesn’t mean he gave them the right to withdraw. When the participant asked to leave the experiment the research basically told him he couldn’t, saying “It is vital for the experiment that you continue”
  • Protection for harm – Many of the participants would have gone into the experiment thinking they would never purposely harm someone, but left knowing that if that was real life then they would have killed the learner with the shocks. This could be very harmful for the participants, and Milgram offered little protection from this.

Why we obey

As Milgram’s shock box experiment shows, gradual commitment is important in explaining why we obey. First, the small changes, only 15 volts difference between shocks means that we might not realise the change, and if we do we might just say “well its only 15 volts more” even though the dosage could be lethal. Secondly, once the participant was obeying the researcher it is hard to back out and start to disobey. This is known as the “foot-in-the-door phenomenon”. However, there are other reasons why we obey, for example:

Agentic Shift – This is where we allow someone else to direct our actions, we become “agents” for them. As a result with pass on responsibility and blame to someone else, making it much less of an issue to obey as the responsibility doesn’t rest with them. This is shown in Milgram’s experiment when many participants chose to obey because the researcher said “I take responsibility for the health of the gentleman [the person being “shocked”]”.

The Role of Buffers – Buffers are anything that distances you to the consequences of your actions which result from obedience. This is clear in Milgram’s study as the participant was “buffered” from the person he was shocking because he was in a different room. If the person was in the same room as the participant obedience would be much lower.

Justifying Obedience – By telling someone that by obeying they are doing the morally right thing they are much more like obey. This is because most people wouldn’t want to obey if they could clearly see it was incorrect to do so. This is evident in Milgram’s study as the researcher tells the participant that the experiment is for a good cause of “helping to understand how to improve memory”. During the Nazi regime propaganda stated that Jews were a threat to Germans, so it became “justified” to obey the commands of the Nazis.

Socialisation – From a young age we learn to obey others, for example obeying parents or teachers. This leads us to accept obeying others as entirely normal, hence why we often obey readily.



About Sam Cook

A blog set up to help A Level students revise Sociology


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