Obedience to Authority

Outline and evaluate RESEARCH into obedience


Aim- to find out whether ordinary people ( not just German soldiers) would obey legitimate authority even when required to injure another person.


  • 40 male participantsImage result for men clipart
  • by advertising for volunteers (self-selected sample)
  • for a study of ‘how punishment affects learning’
  • Yale university

Image result for yale university

  • everyone paid $4.50 (even if they quit)

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2 confederates

  • an experimenter (authority figure)
  • a learner

The participant acted as the ‘teacher’ and was told he must administer increasingly strong electric shocks to learner when they get question wrong.

‘Learner’ sitting in in another room gave mainly wrong answers and received¬†‘fake’ shocks in silence until they reached 300V (very strong shock).

At this point he pounded on the wall and then gave no response to the next question. He repeated this at 315V and from then on said nothing.

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  • 65% went to maximum 450V (marked Danger: severe shock)
  • ALL continued to at least 300V
  • Partcipants showed signs of distress, some sweated, bit their nails, passed out
  • Some unwilling to continue but did when experimenter provided standardised prods e.g ‘please continue’ or ‘the experimenter requires that you continue’.
  • Only 5 participants (12.5%) stopped at 300V


  • Ordinary people are obedient to unjust authority, not just evil people who commit evil crimes
  • So a situational explanation rather than a dispositional explanation.

General Evaluation

+ Reliable (Hofling et al)

Image result for hofling hospital experiment

  • Realistic field experiments have supported Milgrams findings
  • Hofling found 95% of nurses would give a higher dose of an unfamiliar drug to a patient if ordered to by someone they saw as an ‘authority figure’ even though they knew the dose was wrong.
  • Other researchers found that nurses are less obedient when they can discuss with other nurses and drug is well-known (Valium)
  • 89% refused
  • shows situational factors influence obedience levels

-Internal validity

Criticism by Orne and Holland


  • ‘participants were going along with the act’ when they shocked learner
  • ‘not stressed, just pretending to please experimenter’ (demand characteristics)
  • this questions internal validity of the research

Milgram disputed these claims:

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Image result for filming


  • evidence from debriefing sessions of participants admitting they believed they were actually giving shocks
  • film evidence where participants appear to be distressed

– External Validity

  • lab experiment=artificial (lacks ecological validity)
  • this gave rise to high level of obedience

Image result for baumrind

  • Psychologist Diana Baumrind suggested can’t generalise findings to real life
  • Study was carried out at Yale University (a US Ivy League university)
  • study used paid volunteers who aren’t representatives of the population

Milgrams study lacks ecological and population validity


-Ethical Issues

  • deception– ‘ a study of the effects of punishment on learning’.
  • this denied participants to the right to informed consent
  • Milgram- ‘deception was necessary because if they knew the aim they’d change their behaviour and the experiment would be pointless’
  • Milgram debriefed them at the end
  • Told them behaviour was normal and answered their questions
  • right to withdraw- wasn’t clear. ‘free to leave at any time’ but ‘ experiment requires you to continue’ (verbal prods). – ethically incorrect.
  • protection from psychological harm- Baumrind said participants weren’t protected from psychological harm as they were distressed which was justified
  • Milgram- follow-up study:
  • 84% of participants indicated they were glad to have taken part
  • 74% of participants felt they had learned something extremely valuable
  • Baumrind- ‘participants will suffer from psychological harm’ eg distrust of authority
  • Milgram- psychiatric examinations one year later= no sign of psychological damage


Outline and evaluate EXPLANATIONS of why people obey

(Agency theory/Role of buffers/legitimate authority including uniform/Authoritarian personality)

Agency theory (Agentic State)

Image result for agent mahone

  • Milgram proposed ps able to shift responsibility for actions onto another person
  • so they no longer feel they’re fulfilling own wishes but being an agent and carrying out someone elses wishes
  • Milgram argued people shift back and forth between agentic state (action on behalf of authority figure) and autonomous state (own decision)

A02 Support (Milgram Variation Study)

  • original study- ‘teacher’ and ‘experimenter’ in same room so easy for ‘teacher’ to see themselves as an agent of the experimenter
  • in variation- experimenter telephoned orders from another room
  • Maximum 450V- dropped from 65% to 20.%

The Role Of Buffers

Image result for barrier

  • buffers act as a barrier between two things and protect people from confronting consequences in this case (hurting another individual)
  • It’s believed you’re more likely to obey orders from a position of authority to cause harm to an individual if you’re unable to see consequences of actions

A02 Support (Milgram Variation)

  • original, teacher and learner in different rooms
  • variation- learner and particpant teacher in same room
  • obedience to 450V dropped to 30%



Image result for police in hospital

  • Participants most obedient when authority figure considered credible and legitimate
  • Legitimate social power is held by authority figures (eg. police)
  • This can include setting (eg. hospital) or uniform
  • Usually gives person the right to exert control over behaviour of others


Image result for run down building

  • original- prestigious Yale University
  • variation- rundown office block
  • obedience dropped to 48% (lost legitimacy)
  • Bickman- investigated effects of uniform in natural setting
  • guard/milkman/ normal clothes
  • asked members of public to do things (eg pick up litter)
  • security guard obeyed MOST, civillian LEAST
  • because of social power security guard had


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  • Adorno argued that people with an authoritarian personality tend to be extremely obedient
  • This type of peorson has extereme respect for authority
  • They may be hostile to those of lower rank


  • Adorno found children brought up by strict parents who used harsh, physical punishment grew up to be obedient
  • Chidren quickly learned to obey and develop strog respect for authority
  • Milgram tested participants to see if they had an authoritarian personality
  • Those who were obedient and went to 450V scored higher on tests of authoritarianism than those who refused.
  • Suggests personality is a predictor of obedience level.

AO2 Explanations Summary




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