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Study notes

Dispositional Explanation for Obedience: Authoritarian personality

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Psychologists have examined dispositional (internal) factors that also contribute to obedience. One particular characteristic is the authoritarian personality, which has been associated with higher levels of obedience.

Adorno et al. (1950) developed a questionnaire called the California F scale, to measure levels of authoritarian personality. In Milgram’s original research, psychologists questioned whether the obedience occurred due to situational factors, for example, uniform and location, or dispositional factors, such as a particular personality characteristic. In order to answer this question, Milgram conducted a follow-up study, using participants from his original research.

Elms and Milgram (1966) wanted to see if the obedient participants in Milgram’s research were more likely to display authoritarian personality traits, in comparison to disobedient participants. Their sample consisted of 20 obedient participants, who administered the full 450 volts and 20 disobedient participants, who refused to continue. Each participant completed several personality questionnaires, including Adorno’s F scale, to measure their level of authoritarian personality. In addition, participants were also asked open-ended questions about their relationship with their parents and their relationship with the experimenter and learner, during Milgram’s experiment.

Elms and Milgram found that the obedient participants scored higher on the F scale, in comparison to disobedient participants. In addition, the results also revealed that obedient participants were less close to their fathers during childhood [all of the participants in Milgram’s original experiment were male] and admired the experimenter in Milgram’s experiment, which was the opposite for disobedient participants. Elms and Milgram concluded that the obedient participants in his original research displayed higher levels of the authoritarian personality, in comparison to disobedient participants.


Although the results of Elms and Milgram suggest a link between authoritarian personality and obedience, these results are correctional and it is therefore difficult to draw meaningful conclusions about the exact cause of the obedience. In addition, there are many other situational factors that contribute to obedience, including proximity, uniform and location. Therefore, although it is likely that authoritarian personality contributes to obedience, a range of situational variables can affect the level of this contribution.

Furthermore, research by Middendorp and Meleon (1990) found that less-educated people are more likely to display authoritarian personality characteristics, than well-educated people. If these claims are correct then it is possible to conclude that it is not authoritarian personality characteristics that lead to obedience, but levels of education.

Finally, Elms and Milgram used Adorno’s F scale to determine levels of authoritarian personality. It is possible that the F scale suffers from response bias or social desirability, where participants provide answers that are socially acceptable. For example, participants may appear more authoritarian because they believe that their answers are the socially ‘correct’ and consequently they are incorrectly classified as authoritarian when they are not.

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