Explanations for obedience: agentic state and legitimacy of authority.

Description, AO1 – Explanations of Obedience:

  1. The Agentic Shift

It is easy to deny personal responsibility when orders come from a figure of authority because it can be assumed that they will take ultimate responsibility. In these instances, we become ‘agents’ of an external authority. According to Milgram, obedience occurs as a result of a conflict between 2 opposing sets of demands:

  1. The external authority – authority of the experimenter or authority figure
  2. The internal authority – authority of our own conscience

The fully obedient person undergoes a psychological adjustment or ‘shift’ whereby they see themselves as an agent of external authority (assuming ‘the agentic state’).

Link to Milgram’s study: The effects of the agentic state can be seen in Milgram’s study in that participants in the after experiment interviews said that they continued with the shocks because they assumed the authority figure would take responsibility for anything that happened to the learner, In addition, Milgram saw that obedience rates increased when the authority figure stated that they would take responsibility for any harm caused to the learner.


  1. Presence of a Legitimate Authority

An important factor in obedience is legitimate authority. This refers to the amount of social power held by the person (authority figure) who gives the instruction. Most human (and indeed animal) societies are ordered in a hierarchical way, with some members of the group having legitimate social power to issue instructions to those beneath them in the hierarchy. From early childhood, socialisation in the family and at school teachers us that we are acceptable if we obey those who have authority over us. We may obey people with legitimate authority because we trust them. Alternatively, we may obey them because they have the power to punish us.

Link to Milgram’s study – In Milgram’s study, the participants saw the experimenter as a legitimate authority figure due to the fact that the experimenter was dressed in a white lab coat, was called a professor etc… all these factors helped the participants to judge the experimenter as having legitimate authority and therefore saw this individual as someone they should listen to and obey. Not obeying this individual could lead to a punishment.