The Reasons Why People Obey: The Milgram's Experiment

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Why did thousands of people obey Adolf Hitler’s orders? Why are people more likely to disobey or obey others? Researching obedience can provide answers. Milgram (1963) stated obedience is the psychological mechanism which links a person’s actions to politics. It is crucial to evaluate these findings as other explanations can replace obedience. Obedience can be negative, but it can also be important in teaching children to obey authority e.g. the police where disobedience would be punished.

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Milgram (1963) conducted a controlled experiment to test whether participants would obey orders to shock someone even if they felt uncomfortable doing this. They had to teach a learner word pairs believing they were taking part in a memory experiment, not obedience. The learner (Confederate) pretended to be electrocuted when the participant administered increasing shocks. The shock generator was fake nevertheless the participants believed it was real. 65% of the participants administered the highest shock even when very uncomfortable. They showed different responses while under pressure from the experimenter's orders, some had seizures, others trembled. The experimenter wore a lab coat to show his authority; he provided instructions and prods when participants hesitated. The dependent variable in the study was the last shock the participant administered before refusing to continue.

Obedience or Engaged Followership?

It is hard to distinguish between obedience and engaged followership. Milgram’s participants might not have been following orders but thought their actions would benefit science. (cite, page 34). They could have been co-operative with the experimenter for science; not as a response to an order which is obedience. “Obedience occurs not as an end in itself, but an instrumental element in a situation the subject construes as significant, and meaningful.” (Milgram, 1963 p.337). However, the situation is not very meaningful for themselves, but they are contributing to scientific research. They are not being obedient and following orders but being co-operative showing engaged followership. Therefore, if they were not being obedient, Milgram did not test obedience. Future studies should test the difference between engaged followership which seems to be cognitive and obedience which is behavioural. As the experimenter used prods which included continuing for the study, this could explain why they continued. The prod “The experiment requires that you continue.” Places emphasis on needing their participation for the study and science. However, as they were being paid, this could have put pressure on them to continue and their surroundings; being at a prestigious university.

Individual Differences

An aspect which Milgram did not investigate in depth in this study even though he knew it had an effect; personality. Milgram chose a variety of participants from different job backgrounds which could have confounded the results. A person with a job which requires them to follow orders constantly and has a shy personality would be more likely to obey authority. A shy person is more likely to obey as they do not want the negative consequences of disobeying. Therefore, a questionnaire testing personality before the experiment would be useful (Bègue et al. 2014). Regarding the five personality traits, Bègue et al. (2014) found agreeableness and conscientiousness are associated with obedience. Therefore, if most of Milgram’s participants were high in these traits, this would have confounded the results as it is in their disposition to obey and not due to someone giving them orders in a situation. Age also could have been a factor; perhaps older people are less likely to obey in comparison to younger people as they have had more life experiences and may be wiser. Burger (2009) found the more a prod resembled an order the less likely the participants were to obey. Most participants refused after the prod “you have no other choice you must go on.” (Milgram, 1963 p.374) this shows they were not responding to orders. However, this also shows that personality may not be the only factor as they still disobeyed after being ordered. Also, as the study was advertised in a newspaper, only people with certain personalities would have responded and those who do not read newspapers may be vastly different.

To conclude, although Milgram stated his participants were being obedient, other explanations show different. Personality is an important factor which needs to be addressed when investigating obedience. Also, future studies should distinguish between obedience and engaged followership as they seem to be interchangeable, but are different. It is unclear if Milgram’s participants were showing obedience or engaged followership, therefore, this idea needs to be investigated further by investigating the differences.

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