Milgram (1963) destructive obedience Essay Example
Milgram (1963) destructive obedience Essay Example

Milgram (1963) destructive obedience Essay Example

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  • Pages: 9 (2226 words)
  • Published: August 2, 2016
  • Type: Case Study
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Milgram (1963) claimed that destructive obedience is not a consequence of moral weakness or an evil character; rather it is a response to a particular set of situational factors. Evaluate this statement. In order to evaluate this statement it is important to first understand what Milgram meant. This essay will first consider what is meant by destructive obedience and briefly look at Milgram’s work. It will then look at what is inferred by situational factors, focusing on conformity, socialisation, obedience to authority and group dynamics and what Milgram termed the agentic state.

The essay will consider the work of Asch and Zimbardo to cross reference and build on Milgram’s work. In conclusion it will evaluate the statement and why Milgram’s work and statement has been disregarded by other social psychologists. Stanley Milgr


am was a social psychologist who after critiquing Asch’s work (1951) into conformity, researched what made a person obey. His work was inspired by the trial of Adolf Eichmann; a Nazi official charged with planning and instigating Hitler’s Final Solution.

Milgram’s research aimed to answer why a person may act in this way, whether it was inherent evil or if it was simply obedience to authority. His work investigated under what circumstances ordinary people would act on instructions which would potentially harm others (Hogg and Vaughan 2010). In this situation destructive obedience can be seen as the instance when the outcome of obedience has the potential to harm others. Milgram’s experiment created a test situation whereby a person would act as a teacher and question a pupil on word association, for every wrong answer given the teacher would administer a

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level of electric shock.

The level of shock was clearly labelled as such and increased for each wrong answer given: http://www. lermanet. com/exit/milgram/conform. htm The clarity of the control panel indicates that the teacher would be aware of shock intensity and the potential harm to the pupil. The results of the experiment showed that up to 65% of teachers administered the lethal ‚ÄúXXX‚ÄĚ shock. There were variations to the experiment to identify situational factors which may cause a person to disobey.

These included the pupil being in the same room as the teacher, the teacher hearing only the pupil and also the proximity of the figure of authority to the teacher. This provided different results but generally it was proven that people, when instructed, would endanger the life of another (Milgram 1974). Hannah Arendt (1963) also followed the trial of Adolf Eichmann and attempted to understand his behaviour. She reported that Eichmann had pled not guilty to the charge of crimes against humanity and insisted that he had obeyed the orders of his state.

Considering Milgram’s statement that obedience is due to situational factors such as the authority of state it is possible to conclude that Eichmann was not guilty of anything other than destructive obedience. Pennington et al (1999) describe situational factors as those relating to social class, race, economics, ethnicity and religion. In this sense Eichmann’s behaviour can be attributed to his obedience to the state as a result of social class. Indeed Milgram (1974) concurs by saying that willing obedience stems from society’s acceptance of the directions given by establishments.

The conformity of a person to authority or

the behaviour of a group is another area which has been well documented. Sheriff (1936) found that people conformed when in ambiguous circumstances, which was further proved by Asch in 1951. Asch’s work focused on how people behave in group situations when a person is unsure. He brought together a group of people and one actual confederate and asked them to match up lines. He found that when faced with answers that were wrong a person would change their answer to match that of the group, thus conforming to the group’s consensus.

75% of respondents conformed at least once during the experiment. (Pennington et al, 1999)To transfer this to Milgram’s work it can be seen that a person will follow the behaviour of others when faced with a difficult situation. Indeed of those interviewed after Milgram’s experiment many commented that they had administered the lethal shock level because they had been ordered to by a figure of authority (Hogg and Vaughan, 2010). Considering this it is plausible to see that ambiguity is another situational factor that would affect a person’s decision to obey.

Another situational factor that may affect a person’s decision to obey is their socialisation, this links to Milgram (1974) and Arendt’s (1963) opinion that Eichmann was following the authority of the state. From an early age we are socialised to respect figures of authority and obey their instructions, starting with family members and further developed through education (Milgram, 1974). For example parents will instruct children on how to behave and what activities to do; the child will learn through socialisation that they must obey these orders.

When in school

there is a clear hierarchy of authority and through this a child develops the understanding that they must follow the orders of their superiors in order to succeed. Milgram (1974) explained that in the situation when a person is faced by the orders given by a superior they are more likely to comply. This is because personal values are ignored in the face of authority as we are predisposed to follow their orders and to ignore our own. Hofling (1966) tested Milgram’s theory by using a fake doctor over the telephone to instruct a nurse to administer medication to a patient.

The dosage was incorrect, yet 21 out of 22 nurses began to administer the dose without questioning the instructions given to them, as they were given by an authority figure (Macleod 2008). Buger (2009) replicated Milgram’s study to investigate whether people would still obey to the same extent also suggested that our culture socialises individuals to obey authority figures. In addition to society’s pre-disposition to obey authority figures, is the effect of group dynamics on behaviour. As shown in Asch’s work (1951) people will conform to the ideas of others partly due to fear of ridicule.

This can be transferred to the concept of obedience, as a person may conform to another’s wishes, as they see that the behaviour will allow them to be part of a group. The person’s place within a group or indeed desire to be within the group can be viewed as a situational factor which may encourage a person to obey orders even if they are destructive in order to fit in. According to Hogg and Vaughan

(2010) we look to the behaviour of others to normalise our behaviour, therefore if the group’s behaviour is destructive we will not see it as such.

Milgram (1974) brought together the situational factors of conformity, group influence and the role of authority in his experiment (Hogg and Vaughan, 2010) and concluded that these situational factors cause a person to enter what he described as the ‚Äėagentic state‚Äô (Milgram 1974). This is the state of a person when they see themselves as an agent acting out the orders of authority; the person is no longer acting under their own influences but those of others. This is in response to situational factors and the structure of hierarchy within society that demands that a person respects authority and obeys their superiors.

This is in contrast to the autonomous state whereby a person will act according to their personal beliefs (Milgram 1974). When in the agentic state a person will retain personal values but be more likely to disregard these in order to obey authority and conform as the situation requires. This suggests that there must be a relationship between the person and the authority figure (Reicher and Haslam, 2011), which links to Milgram’s (1974) finding that situational factors such as the proximity of the authority figure affects the level of obedience. He found that when the authority figure gave instructions via telephone obedience dropped by 20. 5% (Milgram 1974).

In 1973 Zimbardo conducted the Stanford prison experiment, which further examined how people behave in a given role. Already Milgram (1974) has suggested that when placed in the role of an agent of authority personal values are

ignored. Zimbardo’s experiment investigated what happens when a person is put into a violent situation. Participants were given the role of either prisoner or prison guard and entered a prison like set-up. The guards were given uniforms and informed that they were to govern the lives of the prisoners as though it was a real prison; no freedom, no privacy.

It was found that the guards readily took on this role and verbally and mentally humiliated the prisoners; some even appeared to relish this (Macleod 2008). When the prisoners began to revolt against the guards they became aggressive and used intimidation to quell the rebellion. Despite the experiment being stopped early due to the stress on participants, it drew some interesting conclusions that concur with Milgram’s statement that destructive obedience is due to situational factors. It found that when put in a role that is not autonomous a person will act according to the instructions given.

This behaviour is encouraged by the group’s behaviour, which legitimises it even if it may normally be considered as destructive or unjust behaviour. However, Gross’ (1994) analysis of the results concluded that it is the character of the guard that creates this behaviour and that their nature of sadism attracts them to the role rather than the role making them sadistic. Considering the explanation given by participants in Milgram’s experiment as to why they obeyed, it is possible to draw a link to the effects on obedience of being in the agentic state; because in the agentic state a person will attribute blame to the authority figure.

This is developed further by Hogg and Vaughan (2010)

who describe people as simply doing their job. This is a rather simplistic view of obedience, considering the levels of analysis; as it does not take into account situational factors other than a person’s role, thus making it an intra-individual analysis (Hunter, 2013). In order to evaluate Milgram’s (1974) statement on the causes of destructive obedience one must take into account situational factors such as culture, identity, and history to reach a more in-depth level of analysis.

Milgram (1974) said that the reasons why people obey or indeed disobey are complex, which is why he conducted his experiment (Milgram 1974). His research has been replicated and re-analysed over the years by others; in different countries and using different sample groups (Hogg and Vaughan, 2010). Most have drawn similar conclusions that people will obey authority even when it may be destructive to others, but the extent to which a person will obey depends on the given situation (Hogg and Vaughan, 2010).

Reicher and Haslam (2011) found when re-analysing Milgram’s original experiment that participants did argue and disobeyed, which indicates that Milgram’s statement that destructive obedience is due to situational factors is not entirely true. Instead it suggests that to an extent people will obey as a result of situational factors but also the effect of personal attributions, such as evil, is still apparent. In evaluating Milgram’s statement that destructive obedience is due to situational factors rather than an evil character it possible to see that there is truth but only to a certain extent.

Looking first at the reason for Milgram’s experiment it can be seen that purpose was to explain to an

extent why atrocities such as the holocaust occurred and why people would act in a destructive manner that contradicts moral and ethical behaviour. This purpose was achieved as it proved that people do obey destructively when in a situation that demands that they ignore their own values and follow those of others. However, it did also show that people will attribute the blame to someone or something else, so in a sense it does not explain fully why acts of destructive obedience occur.

This is because the blame then falls elsewhere (Milgram 1974). At a time when society was trying to understand in order to prevent such humanitarian atrocities reoccurring Milgram’s findings gave clarity to the situation. Yet the experiment and conclusion has been contested and re-evaluated over the years (Hogg and Vaughan, 2010) which suggest that this statement was not enough. Yet Buger replicated Milgram’s experiment and concluded that people still obeyed to a similar level and that this also varied according to situational factors (Buger, 2009).

This suggests in fact that Milgram’s work and conclusion is still valid today and is to an extent conclusive as to the causes of destructive obedience. The method of enquiry has been heavily criticised as unethical due to the extreme situation participants were put under and the consequent stress (Hogg and Vaughan, 2010). It was argued that the experiment was deceptive and the participants were coerced into continuing by the orders of the doctor, which stopped them from terminating the experiment at their wish.

However Milgram argued that deception was necessary to provide a situation that would examine whether or not people would obey.

This adds an element of uncertainty to the results as perhaps the stress induced by the experiment caused the participants to behave in a way that they may not have done in another situation. This however does back up Milgram’s (1974) conclusion that people will obey destructively under certain situations, which were created in his experiment.

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