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Give the three situational variables that affect obedience

Proximity, location, and uniform


What is proximity?

The physical closeness or distance of an authority figure to the person they are giving an order to. Also refers to the physical closeness of the teacher to the victim (learner) in Milgram's studies.


What is location?

The place where an order is issued. The relevant factor that influences obedience is the status or prestige associates with the location.


What is uniform?

People in positions of authority often have a specific outfit that is symbolic of their authority, for example police officers and judges. This indicates to the rest of us who is entitled to expect our obedience.


Describe the variation of Milgram's study to do with proximity

In Milgram's original study, the teacher and learner were in adjoining rooms, so the teacher could hear the learner but no see him and they couldn't see how much the learner was suffering - this created a psychological and a physical distance between them.

In the proximity variation, they were in the same room. In this condition, the obedience rate dropped from 65% to 40%.

In another variation, Milgram made the teacher get even closer to the learner (I.e. Where they had to force the learners hand into the metal plate to deliver the electric shock). In this touch proximity condition, the obedience rate dropped further to 30%.

Milgram also found that proximity of the authority figure had an affect on obedience rates. In this variation the experimenter gave orders via the telephone. That majority defied the experimenter - only 21% gave the maximum shock level.

This shows that with no physical authority figure present the participants felt less pressure. The teachers were under less scrutiny and experienced less fear.


Describe the variation of Milgram's study to do with location

Location can be relevant to the amount of perceived legitimate authority a person giving orders is seen to have. In locations that add to the perceived legitimacy of an authority figure obedience rates will be higher.

The original experiment was conducted at Yale University (a very prestigious university), which added legitimate power.

When Milgram replicated the study in a run-down inner city office building, obedience dropped to 47.5% which suggests that change in location from Yale University reduced the perceived legitimacy of the authority figure giving the orders, leading to the drop in obedience rates.


Describe the variation of Milgram's study to do with uniform

The wearing of uniforms can give a perception of added legitimacy to authority figures when delivering orders therefore increasing obedience rates. In Milgram's study, the researcher wore a grey lab coat as a symbol of his authority (a kind of uninform).

Milgram carried out a variation in which the experimenter was called away because of an inconvenient telephone call right at the start of the procedure. The role of the experimenter was taken over by an 'ordinary member of the public' (played by a confederate) in everyday clothes rather than a lab coat. The obedience rate dropped to 20%, the lowest of these variations.


What is the agentic state?

A mental state where we feel no personal responsibility for our behaviour because we believe ourselves to be acting for an authority figure I.e. As their agent. This frees us from the demands of our consciences and allows us to obey authority figures.


What is the autonomous state?

The opposite side of the agentic state, where individuals are seen as personally responsible for their actions.


What is legitimacy of authority?

An explanation for obedience which suggests that we are more likely to obey people who we perceive to have authority over us. This authority is justified (legitimate) by the individual's position of power within a social hierarchy.


Why does obedience occur in the agentic state?

Obedience may occur because people see themselves as 'agents of authority' and blindly carry out orders without questioning them.


What is the agentic shift?

Most of the time in our daily lives we act autonomously (under our own free will). When a person is placed in a social hierarchy, and take orders from authority, we defer to the person in charge and shift responsibility to them. This is the agentic shift.


What is a binding factor?

Aspects of the situation that allow the person to ignore or minimise the damaging effects of their actions.


(Evaluation) How do variations of Milgram's study support the agentic shift?

When the distance between authority figure and the naive participant was increased (when Milgram gave orders from a remote location over the phone) obedience fell to 20.5%.

Also, participants often pretended they were administering dangerous shocks - but actually gave shocks at a lower level - when they were not under direct surveillance. This can be explained by the fact that the lack of surveillance caused participants to move from the agentic state to the autonomous state - they 'snapped out of it' and were no longer blindly following orders.

It is also likely that seeing the direct consequences of their actions (when the learner was brought into the same room and the teacher had to force their hand onto a metal plate) caused participants to switch from an agentic to an autonomous state, reducing obedience.


How does the agentic state have support from the participants themselves?

Milgram reported that many of his participants admitted during the debriefing they knew what they were doing was wrong (and the obvious distress they showed supported this). However, they continued to obey, which suggests they were in an agentic state and felt they had to obey the orders of higher-ranked authority.


How is the agentic state a limited explanation?

The agentic state explanation cannot account for the considerable number of participants who showed defiance in the Milgram study and did not continue to the maximum voltage. Presumably all people in society are subject to social hierarchies and therefore all should have obeyed.

Moreover the agentic shift cannot explain the findings from the Hofling nurses study as there was distance between the nurses and the authority figure (orders were issued over the phone) so levels of defiance should have been higher.


Does Milgram's study actually show the agentic state or just exposed dark aspects of human nature?

Although Milgram believed the agentic state best explained his findings, it is possible that some participants had used the situation to express their sadistic impulses. This is supported by Zimbardo's prison experiment which demonstrated how, within a few days, the guards used their power to inflict increasing levels of cruelty on prisoners. Perhaps Milgram's (and Zimbardo's) investigations both expose dark aspects of human nature.


What three factors help authority figures gain power?

•legitimacy of the setting e.g. Schools or police stations
•legitimacy of the system
•visible symbols of authority e.g. Uniform


(Evaluation) How does legitimacy of authority have support from variations?

The 'power' symbols of legitimate authority is supported by the variation in which orders were given by an ordinary member of the public. Obedience fell sharply in this condition (20%) which suggest that the grey lab coat gave the experimenter the image of someone to be respected and trusted.

Similarly, when the experiment was moved from Yale University to a run-down office block again, obedience fell. This suggests that the less prestigious setting led participants to question the legitimacy of authority.

Legitimacy was also illustrated by Bickman's study. When the orders were issued by an individual dressed in ordinary clothes or in a non-legitimate uniform (as a milkman), defiance of authority occurred. But when dressed as a guard obedience rates were high.


How might cultural differences make it hard to generalise the findings?

Replications of Milgram's research in Australia found that only 16% went to the top of the voltage scale. On the other hand, others have found much higher obedience rates among German participants.

This shows that in some cultures, authority is more likely to be accepted as legitimate and entitled to demand obedience from individuals.

However, it should be pointed out that there were important differences between the original Milgram study and the Australian variation. Participants were encouraged to verbally abuse their 'victims' rather than administer electric shocks.

This means we can't make comparisons or generalise the findings.


Does legitimacy of authority have any real-life applications?

The legitimacy of authority explanation can help explain how obedience can lead to real-life war crimes. For example, the My Lai massacre can be understood in terms of the power hierarchy in the US army. This is a strength of the explanation.


Milgram's findings have been used to explain the notorious war crime at My Lai in 1968 during the Vietnam war. As many as 504 unarmed civilians were killed by American soldiers.

Women were gang-raped and people were shot down as they emerged from their homes with their hands in the air. The soldiers blew up buildings, burnt the village to the ground and killed all the animals. Only one soldier faced charges and was found guilty, Lt William Calley. His defence was that he was only doing his duty by following orders.

Explain the behaviour of the soldiers in terms of agentic state and legitimacy of authority.

People are autonomous when part of the army. When am authority figure gives them orders there is an agentic shift to the agentic state. The person giving the orders has a legitimate position of authority within the army and therefore had an authoritative legitimate uniform, so the soldiers believe the orders are legitimate.



What is a dispositional explanation?

An explanation of behaviour that highlights the importance of the individual's personality.


What is an authoritarian personality?

A type of personality that Adorno argued was especially susceptible to obeying people in authority. Such individuals are also thought to be submissive to those of higher status and dismissive of inferiors.


What scientist suggested that the dispositional factor of an authoritarian personality may have something more to do with obedience than situational factors I.e. Uniform?



How does Adorna suggest that blind obedience to authority has its roots in childhood?

Adorno et al suggested that children who grow up with harsh, punitive parents, and are subject to strict control and discipline, develop feelings of hostility and aggression that they cannot express to their parents (as they are in fear of them).

As a result, when they get older, these children displace their resentment onto those they see as weaker - authoritarianism.

At the same time, because of their childhood experience, authoritarian personalities show absolute respect and obedience to those they perceive as being 'above' them (as having legitimate authority).

The authoritarian personality type is also characterised by traditional, conformist and conservative values, right wing political views, an obsession with status and an inability to deal with ambiguity (seeing everything as 'black and white')


How did Adorno investigate the obedient personality?

He investigated it in a study of over 2000 white Americans. The authoritarian personality was measured using the F-Scale (F for fascism). Those who scored high on this scale tended to show excessive respect and servility to people of higher status whilst showing contempt and disregard for those they saw as having lower status.



Does the authoritarian personality explanation have any supporting research?

Milgram conducted interviews with a small number of participants who went to the maximum voltage in the original study and found high scores on the F-scale amongst them.

This suggests there is a link between blind obedience and authoritarianism.

However, this is a merely a correlation so we cannot be sure that obedience and personality type are casually related. It may be that both obedience and authoritarianism are associated with low level of education.

Also, Zillmer et al reported that 16 Nazi war criminals scored highly on three of the F-scale dimensions, but not all 9 (as would be expected) giving only limited support to the explanation.


How could it be said that situational factors are much more powerful than dispositional factors?

It seems unlikely that the disturbingly high obedience rates in the Milgram study could be explained by personality type alone. It is not plausible that all of the obedient participants had experienced the same strict upbringing and has displaced their unconscious hostility on to the 'victim'.

Milgram's study is a far better illustration of the power of the situation and how factors/variables such as the legitimacy of the authority figure (uniform, prestigious setting etc.) and the lack of proximity of the victim, influence obedience.


How is the authoritarian personality a limited explanation?

The authoritarian personality would struggle to explain obedient behaviour among entire country's population.

In pre-war Nazi Germany, millions of people displayed obedient, racist attitudes and behaviour. It seems unlikely that they could all possess an authoritarian personality type.


How does the authoritarian personality have methodological problems?

The F-scale has been described as a 'comedy of methodological errors' because it is possible to get a high score on it just by ticking the same line of boxes.
More modern questionnaires would 'mix up' the direction of the statements.
There is also an issue of acquiescence bias where participants just complete the questionnaire by agreeing to everything, a problem with the F-scale.


How could the authoritarian personality be seen as a correlation and not a causation?

Not everyone who experiences a strict upbringing goes on to develop a highly obedient authoritarian personality (in fact, there is evidence that children with very punitive parents are much more likely to 'rebel' in adolescence and adulthood).

For this reason, a harsh upbringing may be only one factor that produces obedience, and the relationship between childhood and authoritarianism cannot be assumed to be casual.


Caleb's grandad is the old-fashioned type. As far as he's concerned, there are good people and there bad people and that's all there is to it. He honks the youth of today are a bunch of wasters what they all need is a spell in the army. He longs for the days when we had strong leaders who knew how to get things done. Caleb has also noticed that his grandad talks with a lot of respect about his old bosses from work: "They don't make them like that anymore - you'd do anything for them". Caleb often wonders why his grandad thinks like this.

From what you know about obedience, how would you explain to Caleb why his grandad has these attitudes.

Adorno found that children who grew up with harsh, punitive parents and were subject to strict discipline develop feelings of aggression and hostility that they displace on those they view as weaker than them. In this case Caleb's grandad feels that youths are weaker than him so he displays hostility towards them. At the same time authoritarian personalities (like Caleb's grandad) show blind respect to those they view as above them, like Caleb's grandad does with his old bosses.