Explanations for obedience to authority

How can we explain the psychological processes that make people obey an authority figure?

Agentic state

Gradual commitment

The role of buffers

Legitimate authority figures
How can we explain the psychological processes that make people obey an authority figure?

Agentic state
Milgram (1974) argued that people will, in an obedience situation, pass all responsibility for their actions to the authority figure. He said that people are in an autonomous state when they are taking responsibility for their own actions, but they move into an agentic state when they pass this responsibility to the authority figure. The shift from an autonomous state to an agentic state is called the agentic shift. When Milgram’s participants were debriefed after the original electric shock experiment (Milgram, 1963), many reported that they knew it was wrong to deliver dangerous electric shocks, but that they felt the experimenter was responsible and not them. At the Nuremberg trials, many Nazi soldiers defended their actions by saying it was not their fault as they were just following orders.

Gradual commitment
If people start small then it is easier to do something bad. In Milgram’s original electric shock experiment (Milgram, 1963), participants started by administering a 15 volt shock which was small and relatively harmless. The shock levels gradually increased in 15 volt increments and did not become dangerous or particularly painful until several shock had been administered. Had participants been asked to deliver just one large stick, it is less likely that they would have done so, but since they had started small it was only a little step to the next shock, and another little step to the one after that and so on. People gradually commit to doing bad things. Perhaps Nazi soldiers gradually committed to their actions against the Jews by moving from name calling, through minor violent attacks, more serious attacks, to murder and ultimately mass extermination. It should be remembered that the task used in Milgram’s experiment lacked ecological validity, meaning that the findings should be treated with caution when using them as definitive explanations for obedience in real life situations.

The role of buffers
The variations in Milgram’s original electric shock experiment introduced buffers between the authority figure and participant, and also between the participant and victim. Buffers are anything that reduce the immediacy and impact of the orders given, or reduce the depersonalisation of the victim.
  • When the authority figure (the experimenter in Milgram’s study) was in a different room to the participant, obedience rates dropped to just 20%. It is harder therefore to refuse to follow an order when the authority figure is in close proximity.
  • Obedience rates were highest when the victim was in a different room to the participant. When the participant could see the victim, obedience dropped to 40%, and when the victim was close enough to be touched, obedience dropped to 30%. It is therefore easier to follow an order to harm a person who is hidden from you.
  • The environment the orders are given in also acts as a buffer. When Milgram moved his experiment from the university to an office building, obedience rates dropped to 48%. Orders are therefore more likely to be followed if given in an appropriate environment.

Legitimate authority figures
In Milgram’s 1963 experiment, the authority figure was an experimenter dressed in a light grey laboratory coat. The coat was a symbol of legitimate power and experience, and possibly led participants to believe that the experimenter was a legitimate authority figure. Other examples of uniforms that convey the impression of legitimate authority in society are police officers, security guards, night club bouncers, fire fighters, nurses and doctors.

The power a uniform has to make people more likely to obey orders was shown by Bickman (1974) in New York. Bickman used three male actors dressed in normal clothes, as a milkman, or as a security guard. The actors asked passersby to do things like pick up a paper bag that had been thrown in the street, or to give them a coin for a parking meter. Passersby were most likely to obey the actor dressed as a security guard and least likely to obey the actor in normal clothes. This was a field experiment with high ecological validity, however it used an opportunity sample that makes the results difficult to generalise beyond the people that just happened to be passing by.


A Level exam tips
Answering exam questions (PSYA2 AQA A specification)
Outline and evaluate explanations of obedience to an authority figure (12 marks)
6 AO1 marks would come from naming and briefly describing at least three explanations of obedience - e.g. the agentic state, when it occurs, and the idea that responsibility is passed to the authority figure.

6 AO2 marks would come from using research evidence (experiments) to show the explanations you have described. For example, Milgram (1963) showed gradual commitment as participants moved from low level harmless shocks through to higher level potentially lethal ones. You could also apply this to a real life situation such as doing something small and seemingly inconsequential, to something slightly more serious, up to a very serious act and that it is easier to commit to following the order as you are being asked to do something only a little bit worse than before. Remember also to explain that that task used in Milgram (1963) was low in ecological validity which means that it is difficult to apply the findings directly to real life situations.








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