Obedience in real life settings

Does laboratory research into obedience generalise to real life settings?

Will nurses obey a dangerous order from a doctor they do not know? (Hofling et al, 1966)

The power of a uniform (Bickman, 1974)

Research examples of obedience in real life settings
Milgram’s research into obedience was a laboratory experiment that, while it showed shocking levels of obedience to an authority figure, lacked the realism of a real life situation. In real life, people obey orders in their everyday settings, for example nurses obey doctors, school students obey teachers, and everybody obeys policemen. The following research examples show obedience occurring in normal everyday life.

Hofling et al (1966) - obedience in a hospital setting

Nurses followed the instructions of a fake doctor even though it was against the hospital rules!

Hofling et al (1966) investigated obedience among nurses to an order from a doctor. They used real nurses in a real hospital, but the nurses did not know they were taking part in a research study. During their shift a researcher telephoned the ward, introduced himself as a doctor, and instructed the nurse to administer a patient with 20mg of Astroten which was a drug the nurses would have been unfamiliar with. Standard hospital rules prohibited nurses from taking telephone orders from an unfamiliar doctor, administering a drug that was not on a list of permitted drugs, and administering drugs without a signed order from a doctor. Despite this, 21 out of 22 nurses followed the fake doctor’s orders and gave the drug.

Before the experiment, Hofling had asked nurses whether they thought their colleagues would obey the orders given in the experiment, and the majority believed there would be almost no obedience. But when the nurses were interviewed after the experiment, they defended their actions by arguing that it was normal for them to follow orders of the nature in the experiment. The study highlighted the pressure nurses are often placed under to follow orders even though doing so breaks their professional rules, and therefore supports Milgram’s findings.

Rank & Jacobson (1977) - challenging Hofling (1966) with a more realistic drug

When nurses are familiar with the drug, and they can discuss the order with a colleague, they are not so obedient!

Rank & Jacobson (1977) repeated Hofling et al’s (1966) experiment, but this time they increased the realism of the situation by using valium (a drug the nurses were familiar with) at three times the recommended dose. When the research pretending to be a doctor telephoned, he introduced himself as a doctor the nurses would have heard of, and the nurses were in a position of being able to discuss the order with other nurses before carrying it out. Only 2 out of 18 nurses followed the order. The increased realism of the experiment, and the discussion with a colleague had lowered obedience rates in exactly the same way that Milgram’s addition of a dissenting confederate had done.

Bickman (1974) - uniforms create obedience
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)
What has research told us about obedience in real life settings? (12 marks)
6 AO1 marks. Choose 2 or 3 studies of obedience in real life situations. If you choose 2 studies then they need to be described in moderate detail, and 3 studies need to be described in slightly less detail.

6 AO2 marks. Evaluate each study in terms of realism and ecological validity. E.g. Hofling was a field experiment and so has high ecological validity, but the scenario used was lacking in realism as the drug was unknown to the nurses and they had no opportunity to discuss the order with their colleagues. Also state whether or not the findings support the findings of Milgram’s experiment.

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