AQA AS/A Level Psychology Unit 1 7181
This section covers explanations for obedience for AS and A level psychology students studying the new AQA specification also known as Unit 1 or 7181. It is also suitable for anyone interested in knowing the main psychological explanations for obedience.
Below is an extract for explanations for obedience from the Unit 1 ebook which covers this whole section in full including the evaluation elements. You can download everything you need to know for unit 1 by clicking on the image on the right.
The Agentic State
One explanation for obedience is The Agentic State. Milgram proposed “Agency theory” which suggests people are socialised from childhood to obey rules and this involves giving up some free will and autonomy. When an individual feels they have complete control they are autonomous and see themselves as responsible for their own actions. However when an individual obey’s an authority figure they enter the Agentic state where they no longer see themselves as responsible for their own behaviour but an agent of the authority figure whose orders they are following. In this individuals eyes they see the authority figure as responsible for the consequences and they become de- individuated. People may enter the Agentic state because normally the concern around maintaining a positive self-image restricts behaviour however the fact that responsibility shifts to the authority figure means perception of self is no longer relevant. The Agentic state may be maintained due to the gradual commitment made by the individual from giving early shocks. People may feel obliged to continue even when the shocks become more serious as they had obliged to smaller reasonable shocks prior binding them into this Agentic state.
Legitimacy Of Authority
The Agentic state can only be achieved through an individual believing the person giving the orders has legitimate authority to do so. People are socialised from an early age to accept a hierarchy of power exists within society with authority figures having power in social situations. For example the police have power in regards to the law, doctors with health and teachers in respect to education. Milgram believed that there was generally a shared expectation that most situations would have an appropriate authority figure controlling the situation. Therefore the person giving the order must be perceived to have the social power to give orders within the context of what is happening for them to be seen as a legitimate authority figure.
Situational Variables Affecting Obedience
“Situational variables” focus on how changing the situation slightly can affect obedience rates, i.e. external explanations for obedience. Milgram found that 3 main situational variables affected obedience rates dramatically. These were Proximity, Location & Uniform. If you are asked questions on what factors/situations affect obedience these 3 will apply.
Proximity between the teacher and learner has been found to affect obedience as well as the proximity between the authority figure and teacher. Milgram found when the experimenter left the room and gave orders over a telephone more people were able to resist with only 20% of participants going all the way to 450 volts. When the teacher and learner were in the same room and the teacher could see the distress the learner was going through due to the consequences of their actions obedience rates declined to 40%. When the teacher was tasked with forcing the learner’s hand on to a shock plate obedience declined to 30%. The closer people were to observing the consequences of their actions the lower the obedience rates as more people resisted. When people are able to feel detached from the consequences of their actions i.e. not being able to see them first hand, the higher obedience is.
The location and environment has been found to affect the amount of perceived legitimate authority the person giving orders has. In Milgram’s original study, it was conducted at the prestigious Yale university which added to the perceived legitimacy of the authority figure giving orders. Milgram recreated his obedience study in a run down town office block in Connecticut and found obedience rates fell to 47.5%. This suggests that the perceived legitimacy of the authority figure was lowered due to the location and its context i.e. a rundown office block suggests the experimenter giving orders had less perceived authority than a researcher at at a well respected university.
The Power Of Uniform
Uniforms can impact obedience rates with those wearing them being perceived as having legitimate authority and people more likely to obey their orders. In Milgrams obedience study the researcher wore a white lab coat which is believed to have added to his perceived authority. Research has supported this assumption with Bickman (1974) finding that when a research assistant dressed in normal civilian clothing ordered people to pick up rubbish, loan money to a complete stranger or to move away from a bus stop, up to 19% of people obeyed. This decreased to 14% when the uniform was a milkmans uniform, possibly due to people believing he did not have the legitimate authority to make such an order however it increased to 38% when the assistant was dressed as a security guard. Bushman (1988) found supporting evidence also; a female assistant dressed in a police-styled uniform asked people passing by to loan a stranger money for a parking meter with obedience rates as high as 72%. This lowered to 48% when dressed as a business woman or 52% when dressed as a beggar highlighting the power of uniforms in obedience.
The Authoritarian Personality
The dispositional explanation is based on the idea that behaviour is caused by the internal characteristics of an individual. The Authoritarian personality type was proposed by Fromm (1941) as an explanation for people who held rigid, intolerant and conservative beliefs and were characterised by absolute obedience to authority and the domination of those of lower social standing. Adorno et al believed this personality was shaped in early childhood by parenting that focused on hierarchical and authoritarian parenting styles. Under such conditions children learn to obey authority and acquire the same attitudes through a process of social learning and imitation. To test for an authoritarian personality, Adorno created the “F-Scale” questionnaire which comprised of 30 questions assessing nine personality dimensions.
Research Into The Authoritarian Personality
Zillmer et al found Nazi war criminals scored highly on 3 of the personality dimensions of Adorno’s F-scale questionnaire but not all 9. This only gives limited support for the authoritarian personality suggesting it has limited validity.
Elms (1966) et al found that the participants who took part in Milgram’s obedience study and were the most obedient were rated by the F-scale as more authoritarian than participants who resisted which supports the link between the authoritarian personality type and obedience. Those who were more obedient also reported to be more distant to their fathers during their childhood which supports the possibility of the authoritarian personality having been learnt through social modeling. However we cannot say this for certain as we cannot infer cause and effect with correlational data when other variables may be affecting personality type such as innate temperament. Altemeyer (1988) found that participants who were more willing to give themselves electric shocks were also identified as having an authoritarian personality type lending support for this explanation.