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What are the 2 social-psychological explanations for obedience?

1- agentic shift
2- legitimacy of authority


Why does a person feel no personal responsibility when in an agentic state?

- Milgram proposed that obedience to destructive authority occurs because a person does not take personal responsibility
- instead, the person believes they are acting for someone else I.e. they are an ‘agent’
- so in an agentic state a person feels no responsibility for their actions


What is the autonomous state?

- opposite of being in an agentic state
- autonomy means to be free or independent
- so a person in the autonomous state is free to behave according to their own principles and therefore feels a sense of responsibility for their own actions


What is the agentic shift and when does it occur?

- the shift from autonomy to being an ‘agent’ is called the agentic shift
- Milgram suggested that this occurs when a person perceives someone else as a figure of authority
- this other person has greater ‘power’ because of their position in a social hierarchy
- in most social groups, when one person is in charge, others defer to this person and shift from autonomy to agency


What are binding factors?

- aspects of a situation that allow the person to ignore the damaging effect of their behaviour and thus reduce the ‘moral strain’ they are feeling
- Milgram proposed a number of strategies that the individual uses, such as shifting the responsibility to the victim or denying the damage they were doing to the victims


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


Describe the structure of societies

- societies are hierarchical- we obey those at the top
- I.e those people in certain positions hold authority over the rest of us
- for example, teachers, parents, police officers and nightclub bouncers all have some kind of authority over us at times


Authorities are given legitimacy through

society’s agreement- most of us accept that authority figures have to be allowed to exercise social power over others because this allows society to function smoothly


What is a consequence of legitimacy of authority?

- some people are granted the power to punish others
- so we are willing to give up some of our independence and hand control of our behaviour over to people we trust to exercise authority appropriately
- we learned to accept authority from childhood through parents and teachers


History has too often shown that charismatic and powerful leaders (such as Hitler and Stalin) can use their legitimate powers for

destructive purposes, ordering people to behave in callous, cruel and dangerous ways


What are the evaluation points for social-psychological explanations for obedience?

✅agentic state has some research support (Blass and Schmitt)
BUT cannot always be applied e.g. Hofling et al
❌ agentic shift cannot account for behaviour of the Nazis
✅ legitimacy of authority explanation is that it is a useful account of cultural differences in obedience (Kilham and Mann)
✅ legitimacy of authority explanation can help to explain real-life crimes of obedience such as my lae massacre


Explain how agentic state has some research support (Blass and Schmitt)

- Blass and Schmitt (2000) showed a film of Milgram’s study to students and asked them to identify who they felt was responsible for the harm to the learner
- the students blamed the ‘experimenter’ and so the participant was merely an agent for the experimenter which is explained by the observed severe distress the participants experienced
- the students also indicated that the responsibility was due to legitimate authority (‘experimenter’ was top of the hierarchy as a perceived intelligent scientist and therefore had legitimate authority)
- so both agentic state and legitimacy of authority have been recognised as possible causes of obedience from participants in Milgram’s experiment


Explain how the agentic shift can’t explain an array of research findings into obedience

- agentic shift cannot consistently be applied to research into obedience
- for example, in Milgram’s experiment 12.5% of participants stopped at 300 volts and only 65% continued to the highest level of 450 volts
- so the agentic shift cannot explain why these participants didn’t obey
- agentic shift explanation also doesn’t explain all the findings from Hofling’s et al’s study into nurses’ obedience
- the agentic shift explanation predicts that as the nurses handed responsibility over to the doctor, they should have shown levels of anxiety as they understood their role in a destructive process, but this was not the case
- this suggests that agentic shift is a limited explanation as at best it can only account for some situations of obedience


Agentic shift cannot account for the behaviour of the Nazis

t- he agentic shift is unable to explain devastating real-life events relegated to obedience-the explanation cannot account for the behaviour of the Nazis
- for example, incidents involving German Reserve Police Battalion 101, where the men in the Battalion obeyed orders to shoot civilians in a small town in Poland, despite not being given direct orders to do so (they were told they could be assigned other duties if preferred)
- this proves a challenge to the agentic state explanation as they were not powerless to disobey the order and could have acted upon their own principles and morals


Explain how legitimacy of authority explanation is that it is a useful account of cultural differences in obedience (Kilham and Mann)

- many studies show that countries differ in the degree to which people are traditionally obedient to authority
- for example, Kilham and Mann replicated Milgram’s procedure in Australia and found only 16% of participants went all the way to the top of the voltage scale
- whereas in Germany, 85% of participants did
- this shows that in some cultures, authority is more likely to be accepted as legitimate
- this reflects the different ways societies are structured and how children are raised to perceive authority figures
- such supportive findings from cross-cultural research increases the validity of the explanation


legitimacy of authority explanation can help to explain real-life crimes of obedience such as my lae massacre

- my lai massacre could be understood in terms of the power hierarchy of the US army
- in this case, because the US army is an institution that has authority and is recognised by the government and law, any order given by that hierarchy of that organisation is assumed to be legal
- as such, US soldiers given orders to kill and rape Vietnamese civilians and burn buildings assume that the orders are legal
- therefore,it could be argued that the legitimacy of authority explanation has some value in being able to provide reasons why destructive examples of obedience have been committed