Describe and Evaluate Psychological Research Into Obedience

Obedience results from pressure to comply with authority. Children are taught to obey from an early age by their care givers, in order for them to conform in society. The authoritarian rule continues through their education and working life, and is then passed on to the next generation. This essay will focus on the work of the American psychologist Stanley Milgram. It will also look at other studies into obedience that evolved from Milgram’s experiments from the early 1960s. Stanley Milgram is one of the leading researchers into the psychology of obedience.
Rice et al (2008) and was interested why thousands of German soldiers blindly obeyed orders that resulted in the death of millions of Jewish people during World War II. However if a soldier is obeying orders from their superiors, then should responsibility for the consequences be held to those superiors? But evidence suggests that there was a mass willingness of tens of thousands of people to cooperate with the Nazi regime, even to the extent of shopping neighbours to the Gestapo. Rice et al (2008). The Allies saw the Germans as an authoritarian, militaristic and obedient nation.
Suggesting an explanation for this extreme behaviour. Adorno et al (1950) claimed that it was the authoritarian personality that was responsible for the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany. Milgram was sceptical of this, believing that obedience was owed more to the situation than to the national character of a particular nation. So in the early 1960s Milgram conducted a series of experiments to support his theory. The aim of Milgram’s Study of Obedience (1963) was to investigate how far people would go in obeying an authority figure. He advertised in local newspapers.

The ad was for participation in a study of learning at Yale University. Participants would be paid $4. 50 just for turning up. Through the ads, Milgram had signed up 40 males between the ages of 20 to 50 with various occupations, and all came from a range of educational backgrounds. Believing they were participating in the effects of punishment on learning, the participants were brought to a laboratory setting at Yale, where they would be individually tested. Here they met with the experimenter, dressed in a grey laboratory coat, who appeared stern and impassive throughout the experiment (Class Handout 1).
The other participant present would be a confederate to the experiment, and through a fixed lottery, would always be given the role of learner. The participant would then see his apparent peer be strapped to a chair and then the experimenter would attach electrodes to him. The participant was given an initial trail shock of 45 volts, then moved behind a partition. The experiment required the participant to ask the confederate questions on word pairs. For each mistake that was made, the participant was to administer an electric shock to the learner, gradually increasing the voltage from 15 volts up to a lethal 450 volts.
The only contact with the learner was through an intercom. Throughout the test, the participant would be observed by the experimenter. During the experiment the learner would constantly make mistakes. As the voltage would increase with each incorrect answer, at specific levels, the learner would protest about the shocks. Beginning with moans and groans, begging to be released, kicking the wall and at 315 volts there would be no further responses (Class Handout 1. As the shocks, and responses, increased many of the participants became upset.
Three of the participants had uncontrollable seizures, one being so severe that the experiment had to be halted Rice et al (2008). Any questions the participants asked the experimenter during the test, whether it be a request to stop the experiment or asking about the welfare of the learner, would result in the experimenter responding with four verbal prods to continue. Only after the fourth prod would the experiment would finish or when the maximum amount of shocks had been delivered. The results showed that 65% of the participants continued to the maximum level.
The results of the first experiment are difficult to generalise to the whole population as Milgram only used American males as participants. Therefore, in a series of follow up experiments, Milgram (1974) investigated factors which may vary the level of obedience. Rice et al (2008). Depending on the variations to the original experiments, the results changed considerably – with 92% complete obedience with the two teacher condition. This would be were the participant would be paired with a second confederate also playing the role of teacher.
It would be the confederate delivering the shocks while the participant would only read the questions (Class Handout 1). The allocation of responsibility had now shifted to the confederate who was administering the shocks. The other notable change would be the social support condition which showed a significant drop, with only 10% complete obedience. Two more confederates would join the participant as teachers, but soon refused to obey. Most subjects stopped very soon after the others (Class Handout 1).
This would imply that disobedience, or obedience, is more likely to happen when there is social pressure present. To test the ecological validity of Milgram’s work Bickman (1974) used 3 male experimenters, dressed in one of three ways: a sports coat and tie, a milkman’s uniform or a security guard’s uniform. The experimenters randomly gave 153 pedestrians one of three orders. (Class Handout 2). Bickman found that most people obeyed the experimenter dressed as the guard. This might explain how obedience can be related to perceived authority – thus supporting Milgram’s findings.
On the other hand the orders, unlike Milgram’s were not so unreasonable – and so in a public setting, it would be down to attitudes and individual differences as to whether people would comply with any mundane requests, regardless of what they are wearing. Support is also shown by the results of Hofling et al (1966). In this experiment at a hospital, twenty-two nurses were called by an unknown doctor (a confederate), requesting they administer drugs to a patient. The order from the doctor, if they went through with it, would have the nurses disobey three hospital rules.
First of all, they didn’t know the doctor that was calling them. Second, they didn’t have written authorization. And finally, the dose that was instructed to be given was twice as high as the maximum dosage allowed, this was also stated on the medicine bottle. Despite this twenty-one out of twenty-two nurses obeyed the telephoned instructions, before they were stopped and the situation explained to them. Rice et al (2008) Since being in a natural setting, the study was ecologically valid with the results supporting Milgram’s theory.
However on the other hand there are clear ethical issues with this study in that the nurses were deceived, there was no consent given prior to the experiment and they had no right to withdraw. With Milgram’s original experiment being carried out in the 1960s, it may suggest that his results can no longer be justifiable in today’s modern society. With the ethical guidelines of today, a replication of the study would now seem impossible. Nevertheless, after making variations to some of Milgram’s procedures, Burger (2007) managed to replicate Milgram’s experiment.
Going as far as using the same words in the memory test and the experimenter’s lab coat. The most critical changes were made to the ethical treatment of the participants. The experiment was stopped at the 150 volt mark, this was also the point of the first vocal feedback from the learner. From looking at Milgram’s data, participants who continued past 150 volts, 79 percent went all the way to 450 volts. Burger (2007). This allowed them to estimate what the participants would do if they where allowed to continue. Deception was a criticism of the original experiment.
To avoid this, participants were told at least three times that they had the right to withdraw and still receive the full payment. The results were similar to that of more than four decades ago. With 70% willing to continue after the 150 volts. With no significant differences between genders and even with the ethical restrictions, this Study supports Milgram’s original results of well over forty years ago. Another criticism of Milgram’s research is that it was only conducted with Americans and so lacks cross-cultural validity.
The experiment has now been replicated across the globe, with the majority of studies showing high levels of obedience, with participants continuing to the maximum shock level. Ranging from 90% in Spain, 80% in Italy, Germany and Austria and 50% in the UK. Rice et al (2008). One exception to this would be in Australia, Kilham & Mann (1974) in one variation of their experiments, their results showed a minor 16% obedience rate of the subjects, in comparison to Milgram’s original 65%.
On the other hand, when looking at the methodology on this particular variation, there are a few notable changes. First of all the general population (male and female variations) that Milgram used had now been replaced by all female students. However the biggest difference is the confederate that was used in the Australian sample – they used a fellow female student. This may of impacted on the participants’ willingness to cause pain to someone they saw as equal to themselves, thus resulting in the lower percentage of obedience.
In general the results from the cultural and geographical variations continue to support Milgram’s findings. Throughout all the criticisms of Milgram’s early work, the general reliability and validity of these experiments from the early 1960s (as already discussed) have been continued through to modern times, across cultural variations and in and out of the laboratory setting. The results, although varying in some degrees (dependent upon the methodology used in the later studies) still show that people will obey authority even when it violates their core values and lead them to harm others.
A criticism that persistently follows the Milgram experiment has been the ethical treatment of the participants in the experiment. Milgram’s main defence centres on the debrief that all participants received afterwards. They all received a full report of the procedure and findings. They were also sent a questionnaire to complete which showed that a high percentage of participants stated they were happy they took part in the experiment. So although the experiment did breach today’s ethical guidelines, on the other hand Milgram did not breach these guidelines, since they did not exist at the time.

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