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Study notes

Explanations for Obedience -Variations of Milgram (1963)

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

Following Milgram’s original research, numerous variations were carried out to examine how different variables affect obedience.

Agentic State

An agentic state is when an individual carries out the orders of an authority figure and acts as their agent, with little personal responsibility. In Milgram’s original experiment, the participants were told that the experimenter had full responsibility and therefore they could act as an agent, carrying out the experimenter’s orders. If the participants were told that they were responsible, it is possible that Milgram would have obtained very different results.

Milgram argued that people operate in one of two ways when faced with social situations. Individuals can act autonomously and choose their behaviour, or they can enter an agentic state, where they carry out orders of an authority figure and do not feel responsible for their actions. When a person changes from autonomous state to an agentic state, they have undergone an agentic shift.

In Milgram’s original experiment 65% of participants administered the full 450 volts and were arguably in an agentic state. However, in one variation of Milgram’s experiment and additional confederate administered the electric shocks on behalf of the teacher. In this variation the percentage of participants who administered the full 450 volts rose dramatically, from 65% to 92.5%. This variation highlights the power of shifting responsibility (agentic shift), as these participants were able to shift their responsibility onto the person administering the electric shocks and continue obeying orders because they felt less responsible. Therefore, the ability to enter an agentic state increases the level of obedience, as the level of personal responsibility decreases.

Proximity

In Milgram’s original research the teacher and the learner were in separate rooms. In order to test the power of proximity, Milgram conducted a variation where the teacher and learner where seated in the same room. In this variation the percentage of participants who administered the full 450 volts dropped from 65% to 40%. Here obedience levels fell, as the teacher was able to experience the learner’s pain more directly. In another variation, the teacher had to force the learner’s hand directly onto the shock plate. In this more extreme variation, the percentage dropped even further, to 30%. In these two variations, the closer the proximity of the teacher and learner, the lower the level of obedience.

The proximity of the authority figure also affects the level of obedience. In one variation, after the experimenter had given the initial instructions they left the room. All subsequent instructions were provided over the phone. In this variation participants were more likely to defy the experimenter and only 21% of the participants administers the full 450 volts.

Location

Milgram’s conducted his original research in a laboratory of Yale University. In order to test the power of the location, Milgram conducted a variation in a run down building in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The experiment was no longer associated with Yale University and was carried out by the Research Association of Bridgeport. In this variation the percentage of participants who administered the full 450 volts dropped from 65% to 47.5%. This highlights the impact of location on obedience, with less credible locations resulting in a reduction in the level of obedience.

Uniform

In most of Milgram’s variations the experimenter wore a lab coat, indicating his status as a University Professor. Milgram examined the power of uniform in a variation where the experimenter was called away and replaced by another ‘participant’ in ordinary clothes, who was in fact another confederate. In this variation, the man in ordinary clothes came up with the idea of increasing the voltage every time the leaner made a mistake. The percentage of participants who administered the full 450 volts when being instructed by an ordinary man, dropped from 65% to 20%, demonstrating the dramatic power of uniform.

Bickman (1974) also investigated the power of uniform in a field experiment conducted in New York. Bickman used three male actors: one dressed as a milkman; one dressed as a security guard; and one dressed in ordinary clothes. The actors asked members of the public to following one of three instructions: pick up a bag; give someone money for a parking metre; and stand on the other side of a bus stop sign which said ‘no standing’.

On average the guard was obeyed on 76% of occasions, the milkman on 47% and the pedestrian on 30%. These results all suggest that people are more likely to obey, when instructed by someone wearing a uniform. This is because the uniform infers a sense of legitimate authority and power.

Legitimate Authority

Milgram’s variations investigating location and uniform highlight an important factor in obedience research – legitimate authority. For a person to obey an instruction they need to believe that the authority is legitimate and this can be affected by multiple variables.

In Milgram’s original research, which took place at Yale University, the percentage of participants administering the full 450 volts was high (65%). However, when the experiment took place in a run down building in Bridgeport, Connecticut, obedience levels dropped significantly (48%). This change in location reduced the legitimacy of the authority, as participants were less likely to trust the experiment. In addition, when the experimenter in Milgram’s research was replaced by another participant, in ordinary clothes, the obedience levels dropped even further (20%). The lack of a uniform and questionable position of authority reduced the credibility of the authority, which meant the participants were far less likely to obey.

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