Research into Obedience

AO1: Description – Obedience to Authority Research, Milgram 1963

One of the most influential pieces of research into obedience is undoubtedly from Stanley Milgram (his electric shock study). Milgram was the son of Polish refugees and wanted to show that, when in the presence of an authority figure, any individual would follow instructions blindly rather than stand up to an authority figure and resist their commands.

Key Definition – Obedience: Complying to the demands of a perceived authority figure, often resulting the individual behaving in a way they would not normally.

Aim:

Milgram (1963) aimed to test the ‘Germans are different’ hypothesis with his study at Yale University (a prestigious setting).

Participants:

40 male participants, aged between 20-50 were selected to take part in the study.

Sample:

Milgram used a volunteer sample, he advertised in a local newspaper for male participants to take part in his study and offered all participants a payment for their participation.

Procedure:

Milgram used a confederate and fixed the selection of roles so that the confederate was always the ‘learner’ and the participant was always the ‘teacher’.  He used a fake set up whereby the teacher was instructed by an authority figure (the experimenter) to punish the learner (by electric shock) for incorrect responses on a memory test.  The shocks ranged from 15V (labelled ‘slight shock’) and increasing in 15V increments to 450V (labelled XXX).  Milgram was interested to see how far the participants would go in order to comply with an unreasonable order (to deliver an electric shock to another human) from an authority figure.

Findings:

During the experiment many of the participants showed signs of extreme tension. They shook, sweated and stuttered. Many of the participants repeatedly argued with the experimenter yet all participants continued to deliver the shocks up to 300V, and a staggering 62.5% continuing to 450V.  This was unexpected, as before conducting the research, people had estimated that most would stop at 100V.

Conclusion:

Milgram was therefore able to accept a situational hypothesis rather than a dispositional hypothesis, concluding that Germans are not different and in fact we are all capable of blind obedience to unjust orders due to the setting.

AO3: Evaluation of Milgram’s Obedience Research

Strengths:

(1) Point: The results obtained in Milgram’s study of obedience has been replicated in real-life settings. Evidence: For example, Hofling (1966) conducted a study in a hospital. Nurses were telephoned by a ‘Dr Smith’ who asked that they administered a drug to a patient. This order went against hospital regulations in a number of ways; (1) nurses were not suppose to take instructions over the phone, (2) the instructions were from an unknown doctor and (3) the dosage of the drug was twice the that advised on the bottle. Nevertheless, 21 out of 22 (95%) nurses did as requested. Evaluation: This is a strength because the research demonstrates that obedience to authority figures does occur in real-life settings.

Weaknesses:

(1) Point: However, Milgram’s research can be criticised for lacking ecological validity: Evidence: For example Orne & Holland suggested that participants in Milgram’s study only administered the shocks because they didn’t believe they were real. Evaluation: This is problematic because the findings from the study cannot be generalised past the artificial setting to everyday life as the research is likely to have recorded artificial behaviour.

**In post-experiment interviews 75% of participants reported that they believed the shocks were real.**

(2) Point: The study can be criticised for being androcentric. Evidence: For example the research was populated by male volunteers only, which means that the research only tests the male response to obedience. Evaluation: This is a problem because it means the results can’t be generalised to women as they have not been part of the research and may in fact have responded differently to authority than the men.

**Some research suggests that women are actually more obedient than men, Sheridan & King found that 100% of women, compared to 54% of men, administered fake electric shocks to a puppy when it responded incorrectly to a command.**

There are major methodological (see weaknesses of laboratory experiments) and ethical issues that can be brought against Milgram’s study. However, despite such ethical criticism, Milgram always maintained that his study was both methodologically and ethically sound.

Remember, in your exam, the examiners will be assessing you on your ability to ‘apply’ your knowledge of Psychology and Research Methods. Complete the revision sheet; Milgram, the ethical debate to check that you are able to apply your knowledge of ethics to Milgram’s study.