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On Obedience

September 27, 2005

Even though people think of themselves as rebels, nonconformists, and free-thinkers, we obey authorities all the time. We file our income taxes, even if we object to the way the monies are disbursed. We carry out assignments given to us by our bosses, our teachers, our friends and family, even if we would rather spend our time doing something else. We obey the speed limits, follow the urgings of our religious and civic leaders, and try to do the right thing.

Milgram wanted to study these kinds of situations, so he created one in his laboratory. Initially he had planned to conduct similar tests with German subjects, but he soon changed his plans. “I found so much obedience,” Milgram explained, “I hardly saw the need for taking the experiment to Germany.”

The study became famous; one of the best-known studies in all the social sciences. Most people have heard of its fake shocks. Fake victim screaming in pain. A shock machine going from 15 volts to 450 to XXX. And prods: “The experiment requires that you continue,” “It is absolutely essential that you continue,” “You have no other choice, you must go on” (Milgram, 1974, p. 21). And the very obedient people: 65% obedience (most of those who disobeyed did so at the 300 315 volt level).

Milgram varied the situation over several months. Sometimes the victim said he had a heart condition. Sometimes he was isolated in another room, sometimes he was in the same room (and would jump around in pain). Sometimes the subject had to actually hold the victim’s hand down on a shock plate before he delivered the volts. People obeyed, sometimes more, sometime less, but they obeyed more than anyone expected.

The Perspective

Try to examine Milgram’s situation through a social psychologist’s eyes. What is it about the experiment that is so fascinating? The surprising degree of obedience shown by the people who served as subjects? The nervousness and anxiety that gripped the teachers as they forced themselves to continue to deliver the shocks? The remarkably diverse reactions of people asked to perform identical actions? The apparent immorality of the subjects recruited by Milgram? All these questions, and many others, come to social psychologists’ minds when they examine Milgram’s procedure. Milgram studied obedience in his research, but many more social- psychologically interesting processes, mechanisms, and phenomena are seen in the obedience setting he created.

Did People Want to Hurt the Learner?

Social psychologists admit that, in some cases, we treat others badly. We often use verbal aggression against others, derogating and insulting them. These verbal behaviors are often paired with nonverbal ones, in which people attempt to harm others. Such violence ranges from the pushes and shoves shown in the video of the little boys working in their after school clubs to the murder and genocide of the Nazis.

Some people, hearing about the Milgram study, assume the subjects were sickos, filled with aggression and violent tendencies, who reacted to the opportunity to hurt another by doing what they secretly wanted to do: they attacked the victim. And, indeed, a small minority of the participants seem to have been using the shock machine as an aggressive weapon. Feeling that the learner’s poor performance reflected negatively on their teaching ability, one subject said, “The only time I got disgusted is when he wouldn’t cooperate” (Milgram, 1974, p. 46).

But social psychologists assume that even people who are frustrated and angry don’t act on their impulses unless something in the situation “pulls the trigger.” This viewpoint is expressed most clearly in the famous frustration-aggression model of violence.

John Dollard, Neal E. Miller, and their colleagues at Yale University used this motivational approach to explain aggressive behaviors. They believed that whenever external conditions thwart our attempts to reach our goals, we become frustrated. Frustration then arouses an aggressive drive, which surfaces at the behavioral level in the form of (1) an attack on the source of the frustration or (2) displaced aggression aimed at some other person or object. Fifty years of research, however, has clarified and extended their original explanation of aggression. We now know that a host of aversive events in addition to frustration can stimulate aggression. We also know that Dollard and Miller overstated the strength of the relationship between frustration and aggression. Aversive events may leave us ready to be aggressive, but frustrated and irritated people are not always aggressive people.

Strange, abnormal subjects?

So some of the Milgram subjects were angry, and they released this anger by delivering the shocks. But the video footage shows that very few of the subjects were angry or aggressive. They kept their heads down. They pushed the buttons. But they tried to stop, and were ground down by the relentless commands of the authority.

But maybe they were just weak people. You know, compliant conformist types. This was the 60s, after all, and the men in the video looked like they were conforming kinds of people. Perhaps they had authoritarian personalities: they possessed traits that prompted them to conform to authorities’ commands. Perhaps, too, they were immoral. They had a badly developed sense of right and wrong.

Social psychologists reject these purely personality explanations of obedience. Yes, people vary in their personal qualities, but saying “They were conformists” or “They were bad people” is simplistic. They weren’t. They were normal, average people, caught up in a powerful situation. But where did the “power of the situation” come from? Why makes a social situation coercive and influential?

Social influence (The power of the situation)?

Perhaps some people were acting aggressively. And some were weak, obedient personalities. But social psychologists, when considering the Milgram study, stress the power of the situation. The subjects found themselves trapped in an influential, involving situation, and they acted in ways the situation demanded. They conformed. Their role required obedience. They had little sense of responsibility.

But situational factors that influence us are often vague and difficult to see, so let us return once more to the Milgram experiment to see how subjects’ reactions were influenced by interpersonal relations and group processes. To begin with a very basic question, we might ask, “What pressures to conform were operating in the obedience situation?” Many people underestimate the impact of social pressures. Social psychologists, however, believe that our actions are often controlled by other people. Consider the experimenter’s social power. He could not punish subjects for refusing to give shocks, but they considered him to be a scientific expert. Many also thought that he had the right to demand obedience because he was a researcher at Yale. These situational factors created powerful pressures, which few of the subjects could resist. In subsequent studies Milgram found less obedience when he reduced the experimenter’s social power. When, for example, he moved the study from prestigious Yale University to a nearby industrial city (Bridgeport, Connecticut), obedience dropped to 47.5%. And, when the experimenter’s role was given to an ordinary person who was supposedly also a subject, only 20.0% of the subjects were obedient (Milgram, 1974).

One of the best known studies of conformity to groups was conducted by Solomon Asch in the 1950s. People in this study were asked to make judgments of line lengths. Amazingly, even though the groups were temporary ones and unimportant to the subjects, they nonetheless conformed and made the wrong decision. Imagine how people would act in more powerful groups!

The experimenter’s role also gave him power, just as the subjects’ role stole power from them. A role is a set of expectations for behavior created by the social situation. We are nearly always in a role. In class, we find ourselves occupying the teacher role and the student role. Visiting the doctor you are in the patient role, he or she is in the professional expert doctor role. Going home for Thanksgiving college students return to the son-daughter role and parents are back in their parents role. These roles restrict behaviors in substantial ways. Teachers lecture and profess, because that is their role in class. Students sit in class, take notes, ask questions, because that is what the role of student’s demands. Roles constrain us in powerful ways.

Milgram also found high rates of obedience because subjects didn’t feel very responsible for their actions. Their role was that of subject, and they were told what to do. They were supposed to follow orders. So they did. Many of the subjects some subjects refused to take any responsibility for their actions; they claimed the experimenter forced them to give the shocks. In one subject’s words, “Mr. Williams has the biggest share of the responsibility. I merely went on. Because I was following orders . . . I was told to go on” (Milgram, 1974, p. 50). Others blamed the victim for having volunteered to be the learner, or for being so stupid that he couldn’t solve the problems.

The most disobedient people in the study felt responsible, and retained their sense of control and choice. In contrast to the obedient subject’s reaction, one answered the experimenter’s prod of “You have NO choice” (Milgram, 1974, p. 51) by explaining:
I do have a choice. Why don’t I have a choice? I came here on my own free will. I thought I could help in a research project. But if I have to hurt somebody to do that, or if I was in his place, too, I wouldn’t stay there. I can’t continue. I’m very sorry. I think I’ve gone too far already. [Milgram, 1974, p. 51]
Isn’t that a wonderful quote. Give me chills.

Conformity, roles, and responsibility diffusion often influence how we act when we are in groups. Consider, for example, actions that take place in groups: clubs, meetings, teams, work units, military squads, study groups, friendship cliques, and so on. What would have occurred if the teacher had been part of a group of two or three others who blithely went along with the experimenter’s commands? Would obedience have been even greater? Or what if the others in the group had refused to administer the electric shocks? Would disobedience then have been the rule rather than the exception? Documenting the importance of group dynamics, Milgram found that subjects were more obedient when they were alone than when they were with others who refused to obey. In the situation the subject still gave the shocks, but two other subjects helped with related tasks, such as reading the questions and giving feedback. Only the individual giving the shocks was a real subject, however; the other two were confederates trained to refuse to continue with the shocks at the 150-volt level and 210-volt levels, respectively. In this situation, Milgram found that only 10 percent of the true subjects were completely obedient.

The Power of the Situation

If social psychology has a single take home message, its likely the power of the situation. The situation, which includes other people, can prompt us to behave in ways that, personally, we would prefer to avoid. Yet, social psychological causes can be invisible to the untrained eye, so we must always remind ourselves to avoid the fundamental attribution error by looking to for the hidden external, situational causes of behavior, thought, and emotion.

Categories: Social Processes
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