Theory Of Obedience Essay

The Theory Of Obedience

The purpose of this essay is to describe and evaluate Milgram’s theory on obedience. The essay will outline the theory, the famous experiment, the findings from the experiment, and the subsequent studies that have strengthened and weakened the plausibility of the theory. What is the Theory Of Obedience? Milgram (1974) stated:

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‘A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.’ (Cited by Gross, 1996, p.498). Milgram’s study into obedience came about as he was trying to explore the ‘Germans are different’ hypothesis. (Gross, 1996, p.494) Many historians had argued that Hitler couldn’t have persecuted and exterminated so many Jews and Poles without assistance, and that Germans had a defect in their character that made them obey orders more readily (Gross, 1966, p.494). The famous experiment in 1963 involved the participant delivering a potentially fatal electric shock to a confederate under the supervision of the experimenter. His findings were that 62.5% of participants continued all the way through to the highest shock (Eddy van Avermaet, 2001, p.434).

Milgram performed many more variations of this experiment, with which he found situational factors had an impact of the level of obedience – for example if the experimenter was absent from the room, obedience dropped to 21% (Eddy Van Avermaet, 2001, p.435) and if the participant had two confederates that refused to continue after 150v and 210v, the obedience dropped to 10% (Eddy Van Avermaet, 2001, p.436). If the participant had a co-teacher who actually delivered the shock, obedience rose to 92% (Eddy Van Avermaet, 2001, p.436). This showed that situational factors and interpersonal factors do make an impact on obedience. From the experiment results and the variations of the original experiment, Milgram noticed that people were most likely to obey orders from an authority figure even when they were uncomfortable carrying out such an act. He also found factors that made individuals more likely to obey. These are detailed as follows. Buffers – if the person was in the same room for example, or in a separate room from the learner receiving the shocks.

Milgram tested this idea of remoteness, by putting the learner in the same room, obedience dropped to 40% (Hilgard, 2000, p.657) and if they had to hold the learners hand on the shock, obedience dropped further to 30% (Hilgard, 2000, p.657). Ideological Justification – in the Milgram experiment, the justification was it was in the name of science that people obeyed and the person in authority was the man in the lab coat. The ideology in this case was science, but in other cases the ideology was primacy of the German state in reference to the Nazis (Hilgard, 2000, p.657) or the idea of national security in the case of the US soldiers in Vietnam (Hilgard, 2000, p.657). Gradual Commitment – in the experiment, the parcipitants started off giving low shock progressing up to the 450v, which gives the idea that people only gradually slip into committing acts of grave consequences (Eddy Van Avermaet, 2001, p.438) It also raises the point of social norm – people are less likely to stop once they have started as they don’t want to break the agreement (Hilgard,2000, p.656). Again this could be related back to Nazi Germany, and once they signed up, its hard to quit. Agentic Shift – This could be the most central idea that came from the experiment, the idea that people will shift from the autonomous state to the agentic state, they go from being responsible for their own decisions to being an agent, and giving up their responsibility to those in authority. It defers the responsibility (e.g the Nazi Germany Eichmann case) that it wasn’t Eichmann’s fault, he was ‘obeying orders’ (Eddy Van Avermaet, 2001, p.438).

These points above are the central ideas that came from Milgram’s Theory, and subsequent studies have successfully reinforced the theory. For example, Bickman’s study in 1974 (Gross, 1996, p.498) which involved people being ordered to pick up litter by a uniformed guard showed that more than 80% obeyed the guard, where as only 40% obeyed someone in normal clothes. This again enforces the idea that they obeyed the ‘guard’ as he was perceived to be in authority, and also that there is ecological validity. Another example is the My Lai Massacre in 1968 where US soldiers were sent on a search and destroy mission to find any NLF members in a village, they proceeded to kill hundreds of civilians, and the soldiers argued that they were following orders (, accessed 17/10/2013). Hofling’s study of the nurses (Gross, 1996, p.499) showed obedience to authority in a natural environment, however Gross argues that there is an important difference between the two situations in that Milgram’s parcipitants are asked to inflict pain, but they nurses are acting in the patients interests (Gross, 1996, p.499). Criticisms mainly centre around the ethics of Milgram’s experiments, but it is also argued that in some cases people won’t obey to malevolent authority. For example, Rochat and Modigliani (cited by Eddy Van Amermaet, 2001, p.440) told us of the Le Chambon village who saved thousands of refugees in WWII and defied authorities. There are questions into the realism of the experiments, as raised by Aronson (as cited by Gross, 1996, p.499) and that the results cannot be generalised outside of the lab setting, though Milgram defended this by saying the process of obeying is the same no matter where it is.

Another critic is Mandel, 1998, who argued that Milgram’s theory being used to explain the Germans actions in the Holocaust were over simplified, and didn’t take into account other motivational factors as well as obedience, such as the ‘exciting freedom to exert unlimited power’ (Mandel, 1998, p.79). In evaluation on Milgram’s Theory, there is validity in his theory as it has been shown in historic events such as the Holocaust, My Lai, and the Abu Ghraib incident in 2003-2004. Although the theory lacks generalisability because although they were widely replicated, the procedures were different (Gross, 1996, p.503). The theory has shown that the factors detailed above do increase the chances of obedience, and ultimately that situational factors far outweigh personality factors.

Reference List

Gross, R. (1996). Psychology The Science of Mind and Behaviour. 3. London: GreenGate Publishing Services. Van Avermaet, E. (2001). Social Groups In Hewstone, M. ; Stroebe, W (3) Introduction to Social Psychology (pp.403-444). Padstow, Cornwall: Blackwell Publishing. Atkinson, R. L., Hilgard, E. R., Atkinson, R. C., Smith, E. E., Bem, D. J., ; Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2000). Hilgard’s Introduction to Psychology. 13. Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt College Publishers. Trueman, C. (2000). History Learning Site – My Lai Massacre. Retrieved from