Obedience to authority

Why do people follow orders to carry out immoral acts even when they know it is wrong?

Under what circumstances are normal everyday people obedient to authority?

Milgram's shocking obedience experiment.
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Milgram’s shocking studies of obedience
Milgram (1963) aimed to uncover some of the factors that led Nazi soldiers in World War Two Germany to follow Hitler’s orders to exterminate six million Jews. When tried for their war crimes, Nazi soldiers claimed in their defence that they had simply been following orders. The thinking in the USA at the time was that Germans were different and would follow orders, whereas ordinary Americans would never simply follow orders to harm other humans.

Milgram advertised for volunteer participants in a New Haven newspaper. The advert specifically asked for males aged 20-50 from all backgrounds, excluding university and college students, in an attempt to make the results as generalisable to as wide a population of ordinary people as was possible. Participants were told they would be taking part in a memory experiment. The research was carried out at Yale University and participants were paid $4 on arrival at the laboratory for their time. 40 male participants were selected from the volunteers to take part.

Participants, believing they were taking part in a memory experiment, were introduced in pairs to the experimenter where they drew straws to be either a ‘teacher’ or a ‘learner’. In reality one of the ‘pairs’ of participants was a confederate (an actor playing a role) and the straws were rigged so that the real participant was always the ‘teacher’. The experimenter explained that the ‘teacher’ would test the ‘learner’s’ memory, and when the ‘learner’ answered incorrectly would be asked to give him an electric shock. The ‘learner’ (who was the confederate) was strapped into a chair and wired up to the electric shock generator. So that the ‘teacher’ (the real participant) believed the electric shock generator was real, he was given a 45 volt electric shock. The electric shock generator had a row of switches marked from 15 to 450 volts in 15 volt increments with adjectives describing how severe the shock was, and 435 and 450 volts were labelled “XXX”.

“You have no other choice, you must go on.”

The real participant was taken to an adjacent room where he was unable to see the ‘learner’ and could only hear him through a loud speaker. Every time the ‘learner’ answered incorrectly, the participant was instructed by the experimenter to deliver the next highest electric shock, starting with 15 volts. At 75 volts the participant heard the ‘learner’ say, “Ugh,” at 120 volts the learner protested, “Hey this really hurts,” at 150 volts the learner was distressed and asking to be let out, at 270 volts he started screaming in agony, and after 345 volts the learner became silent. If the participant hesitated or objected to giving a shock, the experimenter used prods including, “The experiment requires you to continue.”, “It is absolutely essential that you continue.” or “You have no other choice, you must go on.” Unknown to the participants, no electric shocks were given and the ‘learner’s’ responses were simply a tape recording.

Milgram had estimated that only 4% of participants would obey orders to give the maximum 450 volt shock, however an astonishing 65% of participants delivered electric shocks up to the maximum 450 volts even though the ‘learner’ went through the stages of protest, agony, and silence.

Ordinary people will, under certain situational pressures, obey orders from authority figures even though they go against their conscience and moral values.

Variations on Milgram’s basic procedure
  • Proximity of authority figure. When the experimenter gave orders by telephone rather than face to face, the obedience rate dropped to 20%. People are therefore more likely to follow orders when the authority figure is present, but when the authority figure is in a remote location it is easier for people to disobey.
  • Proximity of victim. In the initial experiment the victim was in a different room to the participant delivering electric shocks. However when the participant was able to see the victim, the obedience rate dropped to 40%, and if the participant was required to physically touch the victim it dropped to 30%. This shows that people find it easier to follow an order to harm another person if they are unable to see their victim.
  • Seedy office building. Moving the experiment from the imposing and highly respected Yale University to a downtown office building caused a drop in obedience rate to 48%. The location in which orders are given therefore seems to have an effect on whether or not they are followed, and this may explain why governments, law courts, and military leaders are usually located in imposing buildings.
  • Social support from dissenting confederate. In the initial experiment, participants were on their own with the authority figure. When Milgram introduced a confederate who disagreed with the orders, the participant was no longer alone and had social support that made it easier for them to disobey. In this situation the obedience rate dropped to just 10%.

Conclusion - what has Milgram’s research told us about obedience to authority figures?
Milgram concluded from his initial experiment and the variations that:
  • Ordinary people are astonishingly obedient to authority when asked to behave in an inhumane way
  • It is not necessarily evil people who commit evil crimes but ordinary people who are just obeying orders.
  • Crimes against humanity may be the outcome of situational rather than dispositional factors
  • An individual’s capacity for making independent decisions is suspended under certain situational constraints – namely, being given an order by an authority figure
So it seems that ordinary Americans were not so different to soldiers in Nazi Germany, and that any person has the capacity to commit abhorrent acts when placed under the right sort of situational pressure, and a person’s personality is far less of a factor than the situation they are in.

The variations also provide valuable insights into situations that make it less likely a person will follow an order to commit an immoral act. If possible people put under pressure to act against their moral values should distance themselves from the authority figure, as in Milgram’s variations a remote authority figure reduced obedience rates to 20%, and they should look for social support from a friend, as the variation with a dissenting confederate lowered obedience rates to just 10%.

Evaluation of Milgram’s research
Milgram’s research was conducted as laboratory experiment which means there was tight control of extraneous variables and it is possible to establish cause and effect, i.e. situational pressures caused obedience. However there are many criticisms of the study, including generalisability and ethics.
  • Deceiving participants into believing they are delivering electric shocks that harm another person is extremely unethical, and most participants showed distress of varying levels when urged to continue. However, in defence of the experiment, all participants reported during debriefing that they were glad to have taken part as it gave them a valuable insight into their own behaviour.
  • Milgram’s participants were all male Americans aged 20-50 from New Haven. This means that generalising the findings to humans who are neither American, from New Haven, male, or aged 20-50 is impossible.
  • The study lacked ecological validity as being ordered to give electric shocks during a memory experiment is an unrealistic situation. Nazi soldiers were, for example, given their orders in prison camps during war time. The concept of obedience in a laboratory setting has, however, been repeated by Kilham & Mann (1974) who found higher levels of obedience in Germany and lower levels in Australia. And Shanab & Yahya (1977) found high levels of obedience in a replication of Milgram’s experiment using Jordanian school children.
  • There were almost certainly demand characteristics present, as the reaction of the experimenter when giving orders to harm a person who had been heard screaming were probably unrealistic. It is most unlikely that even the coldest authority figure would remain impassive when instructing someone to harm another person, and so participants may have subconsciously doubted the realism of the situation when the experimenter remained calm and showed no signs of distress himself.
  • Generalisability can be further criticised as the study only looked at obedience in a single situation. In real life, orders may come from many types of authority figure and in many possible situations. The results from just one situation can hardly apply to the many different possible situations.

A Level exam tips
Answering exam questions (PSYA2 AQA A specification)
Outline and evaluate research into obedience to an authority figure (12 marks)
6 AO1 marks come from describing the aim, procedure, results and conclusion of Milgram’s electric shock experiment.

6 AO2 marks come from evaluating the study. This will inevitably focus on weaknesses such as deception, psychological harm, lack of generalisability, lack of ecological validity, and demand characteristics. For 6 marks it is only necessary to discuss 2 or 3 of these. For completeness it is a good idea to discuss the benefits of the research, namely the valuable insight into human behaviour that has been learned from it

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