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Define obedience

Obedience is a form of social influence in which an individual follows a direct order (I.e. Told what to do). The person issuing the order is usually a figure of authority.


Give three differences between conformity and obedience.

Conformity is going along with the crowd/yielding to group pressure whereas obedience is behaving as instructed.

When we conform nobody asks us to do so, we act to please peers, friends, social groups and it regulates the behaviour among people of equal status. However with obedience it is usually authority figures who ask us to such as parents, teachers, police, government etc.

We conform to be accepted, liked or just to fit in or to avoid being silly. People are usually unaware they've been influenced by the group. As a result, people will deny that they've changed their behaviour because of conformity pressures. Whereas with obedience, we do it to avoid punishment or unpleasant consequences. People are usually well aware that they've obeyed an authority figure. As a result, people use obedience as an explanation (excuse) for their behaviour.


What study investigated how far people would be prepared to go in obeying an authority figure?

Milgram's study


Outline the procedure of Milgram's study

40 men aged 20-50, from a range of occupations, volunteered to take part in a study on learning and memory. The study place at Yale university. On arrival the participant was greeted by the experimenter who was always dressed in a grey lab coat.

The participant was laid $4.50 for taking part and then introduced to another 'participant' who was really a stooge. There was then a draw to decide who would be the learner and who would be the teacher. The draw was fixed - the participant was always the teacher.

The participant watched as the learner (the stooge) was strapped into a chair, attached to electrodes linked to a shock generator.

Participants were given a sample shock of 45 volts to convince them that the shock generator was real. The learner complained of a slight heart problem but was assured that although the shocks may be dangerous they would not be harmful.

The teacher (participant) was taken into another room and seated in front of a shock generator. The shocks ranged from 15-450 volts and went up in 15 volts intervals. The teacher had to test the learner on word pairs and every time they got one wrong the teacher had to give them an electric shock beginning at 15, increasing by 15 each time.

The learner did not really receive electric shocks but just acted as if they did. At 315 volts the learner let out a violent scream and at 330 volts there was complete silence.

When the teacher turned to the experimenter for guidance, the experimenter gave a standard instruction: 'an absence of response should be treated as a wrong answer'. If the teacher felt unsure about continuing, the experimenter used a sequence of four standard 'prods', which were repeated if necessary:
Prod 1: 'Please continue' or 'please go on'
Prod 2: 'The experiment requires that you continue'
Prod 3: 'It is absolutely essential that you continue'
Prod 4: 'You have no other choice, you must go on'


What were the findings of Milgram's study?

Before the study Milgram had asked staff, psychiatrists and students to predict how many participants would continue to the full 450 volts. They predicted that most participants would stop after 150 volts and less than 1% would continue to 450 volts. Milgram found that 100% of participants went up to 300 volts and 65% continued to 450 volts. This shows that the findings were not expected.

Qualitative data were also collected, such as observations that the participants showed signs of extreme tension; many of them were seen to 'sweat, tremble, stutter, bite their lips, groan and dig their fingernails into their hands'

Three even had 'full-blown uncontrollable seizures'. Although they dissented verbally, they continued to obey the experimenter who prodded them (verbally) to continue giving the shocks.

All participants were debriefed, and assured that their behaviour was entirely normal. They were also sent a follow-up questionnaire; 84% reported that they felt glad to have participated.

Conclusion: ordinary people are capable of following the orders of a perceived authority figure, even if these could result in killing another person.


How many participants took part in the study?

40 men aged 20-50


What was the sampling method used?

A volunteer sample


Where did the study take place?

Yale University


What did the experimenter wear when first greeting the participants?

A grey lab coat


What voltage was the shock given to the participant to convince them that the shock generator was real?

45 volts


What health issue did the learner complain of?

A slight heart problem


What was the voltage range of the shocks on the shock generator?

15-450 volts


What were the intervals that the voltage increased by?

They went up in 15 volt intervals


At what voltage did the learner let out a violent scream?

315 volts


What happened at 330 volts?

There was complete silence from the learner


At what voltage did people predict most of the participants would stop by?

150 volts


How many did they think would continue to 450 volts?

Less than 1%


What percentage of participants went up to 300 volts?



What percentage of participants went up to 450 volts?



How many participants had full blown seizures?



Who argued that the study lacked internal validity and why?

Orne and Holland argued that participants behaved the way they did because they didn't really believe in the set up - they guessed it wasn't real electric shocks. In which case Milgram was not testing what he intended to test, I.e. The study lacked internal validity.


How did Milgram respond and what study supports his claims?

He responded by saying this was unlikely as all participants were given a sample shock snd he referred to film footage that showed that the participants were showing intense signs of stress during the experiment. Also he contacted his participants a year after the study, over 80%of the respondents said they genuinely believed they were really giving shocks.

Sheridan and King conducted a similar study where real shocks were given to a puppy. Despite the real shocks, 54% of the male student participants and 100% of the females delivered what they thought was a fatal shock.

This suggests that the effects in Milgram's study were genuine because people behaved the same way with real shocks.


How does the study lack ecological validity?

Critics have argued that as Milgram's experiment was conducted in a lab it lacks ecological validity, making it difficult to generalise the findings to obedience in the real world. In an attempt to overcome this criticism, psychologists have conducted field experiments.

These studies suggest that the process of obedience to authority that occurred in Milgram's lab study can be generalised to other situations. Therefore his findings do have something valuable to tell us about how obedience operates in real life l.

Hofling's nurse experiment to see if nurses would an order that breaches hospital rules. An unsuspecting nurse was told to give a patient a drug for a 'doctor' over the phone before he arrived. The nurse was to give 20mg and the maximum dosage for this was clearly stated as 10mg. This instruction broke many hospital guidelines including acting without without s signed order from a doctor. 21 out of 22 nurses obeyed until they were stopped. The nurses obeyed the doctors (authority figures) in a real life setting and provided support for the ecological validity of Milgram's findings.


How is androcentricism a limitation of the study?

Milgram only used a male sample in his experiment, this means the results can't be generalised as they were bias. A common belief is that women should be more likely to obey than men, so we could expect to find gender differences in obedience.

Milgram did have one condition where participants were female - the rate of obedience was exactly the same as it was for males.

Bless also studied 9 other replications of Milgram's study which had both male and female participants. In support of Milgram, 8 out of 9 found no gender differences in obedience.


What ethical issues were there with Milgram's study?

Milgram's study raised several ethical issues. Many psychologists are still uneasy about the procedure, but it is also worth mentioning that Milgram did not breach ethical guidelines, since they did not exist at the time. His work was eventually ruled ethically acceptable and he won a major award for it.

•deception - in Milgram's study participants were deceived in 3 ways; about the nature of the study, told the learner was another participant not a confederate, that the electric shocks they were giving were real.
Milgram responded that he didn't deceive them he 'disillusioned' them. If Milgram told the participants about the true nature of the study the aim of the study may have not have been achieved and internal validity would've been compromised.

•the right to withdraw from the experiment was not made clear to participants. Use of prompts such as "you have no choice, you must go on" would suggest participants did not have a choice.
Milgram believes that they did have the right to withdraw and, in fact, some of them did.