Obedience Psychology Gcse Coursework

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Obedience: Following orders or commands from people in authority

Authority: A level of status or power

Defiance: Not following orders or commands from people in authority

Denial of responsibility: Blaming actions on a higher authority rather than accepting the blame yourself e.g. “Mum said I could”

Milgram’s research: aimed to see if the Nazi’s were ‘special’

–Participants were asked to give electric shocks to a ‘learner’ if they got an answer wrong

–Given prompts to continue if tried to resist orders

65% of people went to lethal 450 volts

–When asked why – “he told me I had to”

TSF = Theory of Situational Factors

–Number of variables which influence whether a person obeys or not.

–E.g. Hofling et al – doctors and nurses: 21 out of 22 nurses followed orders from an unknown doctor over the phone and gave an illegal dose of Astrofen to a patient


–Where someone is has an effect on following orders. People tend to follow the unwritten rules of how to behave in certain places (dentist, post office, worship)


–2 types of culture individualist (all about self) and collectivist (all about the group)

Power to punish

–People obey a person in authority who has the power to threaten or punish them


–Sheer presence and behaviour of other people that makes it impossible for us not to obey, following like ‘sheep’

A lot of research into TSF lacks ecological validityit is not done in a real life setting and the participant may show ‘demand characteristics’ (doing what they think is wanted of them)- e.g. Milgram’s experiment was in a laboratory

A lot of research into TSF has ethical problems – may end up causing distress, embarrassment, deception and long-term harm. In Milgram’s experiment one participant actually had a seizure from the stress, and several reported high stress levels, clenching of the fists and general upset.

Ignores the role of the personality – suggests our behaviour is a reflex or automatic response ignoring feelings, ambition, frustration, imagination etc. Some people in collectivist cultures may not care about the group and me more concerned with their self.

The theory can be criticisied for being reductionist – it only considers a small number of factors, rather than the whole picture of obedience. It ignores the role of the personality and thinking in how much we obey.

TDF = Theory of dispositional factors

Dispositional factors = factors associated with someone’s personality that makes them more likely to obey others.

Authoritarian personality = a personality type which is prone to obedience

Came shortly after the second world war by Adorno (1950)

–Someone who feels an active dislike of lower class people

–Someone who has fixed ideas of right and wrong, good and evil

–Someone who cannot deal with any uncertainty about the right way to behave

–Someone who likes to be bossed around by people in authority.

Aim: to investigate the effect of uniform on obedience

Procedure: Field experiment into the effect of uniform on obedience, used opportunity sampling – picked people who were available on the streets of Brooklyn at the time. 3 experimenters dressed as either a guard, a milkman or a civilian (normal person) Gave one of three instructions

  • Pick up this bag for me
  • This man is over parked and has no money, pay for him
  • Don’t you know you have to stand on the other side of this pole, the sign says no standing



Conclusion: how we dress can suggest authority and when people think someone has the authority to punish them, they are more likely to obey

Generalisability: Pedestrians selected via opportunity sampling – no previous knowledge about them, they might have been in a hurry or distressed. It is also culturally biased as it was only carried out in the area of New York.

Reliability: The participants could not be controlled for – we have no idea on their background or there obedience level. For example their role in their job could have affected how obedient they would be. However reliability is increased through the standardised parts of the procedure, such as the uniforms used, the questions asked and the times the experiment took place.

Application: We can use the idea of uniforms to help obedience in a number of places, such as schools, prisons and the army.

Validity:  All the researchers that asked the questions were male – this could have affected the validity of the obedience rates, the gender they are could have played a part in whether they were obeyed or not. They did however use real pedestrians on the sidewalks of Brooklyn, giving the experiment high ecological validity.

Ethics: Due to the nature of the experiment, no informed consent was gained from the participants, and they had no right to withdraw. This makes the study unethical.

Like this:


Obedience involves people behaving as they instructed to, while conformity involves people behaving according to group norms. Within obedience, the person is influenced by an authority figure, while conformity involves the person being influenced by the social group. Obedience involves following somebody with social power, where conformity involves people wanting to be accepted.

Stanley Milgram was an American social psychologist who was known for his controversial study called the Milgram Experiment. Milgram was influenced by the effects of the Nazi Holocaust, thus he wanted to investigate the relationship between obedience and authority. The participants of the study were told that the aim of the study was to investigate the relationship between learning and punishment. All of the participants were unknowingly signed the role of teachers whereas the confederates were signed as learners. The teacher was seated in a different room to that of the learner who was strapped to an electric generator. The teacher was seated in front of the generator. The shocks ranged from 15volts to 450volts going up in 15volt intervals.  The job of the teacher was to ask the learner questions on word pairs, ensuring an electric shock was given when a mistake was made. The learner didn’t actually receive the shocks but hey acted as though they did. At 315V the learner let out violent screams and at 330V there was silence. The experimenter would give out verbal prods such as ‘the experiment requires that you continue’ if the teacher began to hesitate.

All participants went to 300V and 65% carried on to the 450V, compared to that of a predicted 1% before the experiment. This concluded that ordinary people are capable of causing harm upon another when told to do so by an authority figure. Milgram’s study also shows that obedience is situational instead of down to someone’s personality.

Milgram’s study couldn’t be generalised to the population in today’s society due to the fact that it was conducted in the 1960’s, where the moral values of people in America during the 1960’s may different to how they are today. The experiment was also conducted on males and within America therefore this leads to no evidence that the same results would be collected in different countries around the world and with females. The experiment isn’t very reliable and can’t really be applied to society today for the same reasons as above, that it was conducted within the 60’s where the moral values in society may have been different to that of today and it was also only conducted with men and in one country, meaning it can’t be used to back up the reaction of people from other cultures and women. The experiment would be valid in the sense that the participants weren’t aware of the true aim of the experiment therefore demand characteristics couldn’t come into play.  However the experiment could be criticised for not being very ethical because of the fact that the participants were never briefed fully at the beginning of the experiment and were initially deceived. The participants may have also experienced long term psychologically affects after the experiment at knowing that they have the potential to cause harm to another person and maybe even kill them. The experiment wasn’t very ecologically valid because of the fact that it was conducted within a laboratory, which isn’t very representative of what may occur in real life, however a laboratory experiment would mean that extraneous variables would be easier to control.

Milgram did several studies of obedience and he altered aspects of his original study to explore whether this would affect the levels of obedience.  When the change in location was altered, from when the orders were given in an important location, like Yale University, to a run-down office, the levels of obedience dropped to 47.5%. The obedience levels dropped due to the level of prestige decreasing. It also drops due to the legitimate authority that the experimenter has when the orders are being given in a run-down office. The authority figure doesn’t appear to have legitimate authority because they cannot give a legitimate order when they are in the location that they are in. This location would be inappropriate and out of context for the participant as it doesn’t make sense for this order to be given in a run-down office, thus obedience levels dropping.

When the proximity of the learner was changed, where the learner was placed in the same room as the teacher, obedience dropped to 40% When the teacher had to hold the learners hand on the electrocution plate, obedience further dropped to 30% Obedience dropped in this case due to the teacher being in an autonomous state. This is where the teacher would feel more responsible for what happens to the learner and they would have a higher sense of personal responsibility as they can actually see the learner in front of them and in the latter case, they have to hold their hand onto the electrocution plate.

When the proximity of the authority figure was altered, where they left the room and gave their orders by telephone, it was easier to resist the orders from the authority figure if they were not close by. When the authority figure is close by, the person is more likely to obey the experimenter. When the experimenter left the room and gave order via telephone, obedience levels dropped to 20.5% Obedience dropped when the experimenter left the room because the participants not being directly around them in the same room reduces the legitimate authority that the experimenter has. As the authority figure was giving their orders through the telephone from another room, this made their orders appear less legitimate for the participant as they weren’t directly around them to place pressure on them. This could also be the participant being in the autonomous state because as the authority figure has left the room, if someone were to come into the room, they’d be the one to blame so there is a sense of personal responsibility there.

Milgram also placed two teachers in the same room rather than them working alone. One teacher was a confederate and a disobedient model. They started to object to carrying on with the experiment and eventually stopped. With this change obedience dropped to 10%. This is due to the move for the participant from the agentic state, where they believe the responsibility is in the hands of the authority figure, to the autonomous state, where the participant has a greater sense of personal responsibility. As the participant is receiving motivation to stand up for what is right from the confederate, it gives the participant confidence to take personal responsibility for the learner and disobey with the stooge, thus obedience dropping to 10%.

When the participant was paired with a confederate teacher who was administrating the shocks and the participants were just asking the questions, obedience rose to 92.5%. This rise in obedience levels is down to the teacher being in the agentic state. As it is the confederate teacher that is administrating the shocks to the learner and they are merely just asking the questions, they may just believe that they do not have as great of a personal responsibility for the learner. If somebody was to walk into the room, it would be the confederate that would get into the most trouble as the participant isn’t the one directly giving the shocks so they wouldn’t consider themselves to be as responsible.

Due to the fact that Milgram’s study was criticised for not being ecologically valid because it was conducted in a laboratory, there were also other experiments conducted within more real life scenarios that were less artificial. Within the Nurse Study by Hofling, a nurse was told to give a patient a drug, breaching hospital rules even though being told that these were apparently instructions from a doctor. This broke the guidelines as there was no signed order from a doctor however the nurses were stopped before giving the medication. Despite the fact that 21 out of 22 nurses obeyed, this is still a very small sample and still not very representative. It contradicted Milgram’s study as it showed very high obedience levels when instructions were given over the telephone and it was ethically unacceptable as the nurses weren’t allowed to give consent to the study and had to option to withdraw.

Another real life study was the New York Streets study by Bickman. This experiment saw whether uniform would affect obedience. Three researchers were dressed either as a guard, civilian or a milkman and were giving orders such as to pick up litter. The results were that there was much more obedience with the guard, supporting that visual symbols of authority increases obedience. This experiment supported that of Milgram’s findings as it showed status affected levels of obedience however it is questionable how representative the study was of the whole population due to the use of opportunity sampling, it only tested who was there at the time.

It is believed that the 21 out of 22 nurses who went ahead and obeyed the orders were in the agentic state because they did truly believe that the responsibility of giving this drug and the potential consequences of it would be down to the doctor even though they were breaking guidelines. The nurses had no sense of personal responsibility as they believed that lied with the doctor and they would face the consequences. The 1 nurse who chose to disobey and follow the hospital guidelines was indeed in the autonomous state as they recognised that they had the personal responsibility of what happened to the patient as they were the one administrating and prescribing the drug and if something bad was to happen to them, then it would be their fault and their doing.

The Guard appeared to have the legitimate authority in this experiment due to the uniform that he was in. It would make sense to the participants that it would be legit for a guard to instruct residents to pick up their litter from the street as that is part of their job role therefore their order was in context and wasn’t confusing to the participants, hence it being a legitimate order. The orders of the Milkman and the civilian were ignored because their orders were in the incorrect context and they would have appeared confusing to the participants. As it was not their standard profession to instruct people on the streets of New York, they would not have legitimate authority to make these orders because these orders were out of context within society.


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