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The Obedience To Authority Psychology Essay

The Obedience To Authority Psychology Essay

whatsoever, allowing them act so harshly and in no way limited by the feelings of compassion, love. He therefore then carried out study in 1963 to explain the extent to which people obey to a person in authority. [1]


The aim of Milgram’s study was to examine the level of obedience that participants would display when told by an authoritative character to administer electric shocks to another person. (Cardwell and Flanagan 2003)


People who decided to be part of this study were taken to a lab for the experiment to be carried out. They consisted of 40 males and they fell within the age of 20-50, the participants consisted of unqualified to qualified individual in regards to their jobs. At the beginning of the experiment the participants (teacher) were introduced to another participant (the learner), who was actually a partner of the experimenter. The partner (the learner) got tied to a chair in a separate room from the teacher which was filled with electrodes. The learner was read out pairs of words in which they were to remember once the teacher felt that the learner had memorised the word, the teacher would then call out a word and the learner had to say the word that was paired with the word the teacher called out. When they got it wrong, the teacher was told to give the learner an electric shock, the more the learner paired the words wrongly the higher their shock got. On the shock generator the voltage level started from 15 (less danger) to 450 (very dangerous) and this consisted of 30 switches. [2]

The learners gave the wrong answer knowingly because they were actors and they had been instructed by the experimenter to do so but the teachers didn’t know they were. When the teacher felt that they shock was too extreme they turned to the experimenter hoping he would tell them to stop, and they were just given the standard instruction (consisting of 4 prods): “Please continue, the experiment requires you to continue, it is absolutely essential that you continue, you have no other choice but to continue.” [2]


At the end of this experiment it was discovered that 65% which was two-third of the participants (teachers) continued to the highest level of 450 volts


At the end of this experiment it was very clear that people are likely to follow orders given to them by an authoritative individual, even if they had to take the life of an innocent individual. Obedience to authority is imbedded in every individual in regards to the way they have been nurtured by their parents, teachers, because we see them as an authoritative figures over us we obey them. (Cardwell and Flanagan 2003)

The term ‘Ethics’ describes as study value, beliefs and culture of an individual or groups of individuals. The application of ethical issues can be applied in different fields like business, politics but it is very crucial in the application of psychology. BPS (1993) – APA (1990) are ethical guidelines followed by psychologists it is put in place in order to decrease situations whereby participants are caused to be distress and also to preserve the participants welfare and dignity. The main concept of ethical components in psychology are deception (this is used so that when participants are giving results of experiments being carried out there are not bias because in some cases if the participants know the true nature of an experiment they might tend to take sides. Solution to deception is debriefing), participants welfare (in this situation the participants needs to be protected from any physical harm), confidentiality (names of participants should never be encoded), debriefing (filling the participants at the end of the experiment the true nature of the experiment if deception was used) and informed consents (need to get approval of participants regarding the experiment and participants should be able to get in contact with the experimenter).

Thomas Blass (2004) felt that Milgram’s study included an imaginative and modern experimental design that involved compelling individuals to see how far they would go to inflict pain on a total stranger. He felt this question was down the psychological and moral state of an individual, he was also astonished by the outcome of the experiment that most of the participants continued all the way to 450volts.

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Ethical issues regarding Milgram’s study

This study proves that obedience can have a very great influence on people because people tend to obey people they feel are in authority. Benjamin and Simpson (2009) felt Milgram’s study was unethical because the participant did not know the true aim of the study, they were deceived and did not know the real focus of the experiment and this caused severe intensity of nervous pressure in the participants (the teacher), also the participants (the teacher) showed some form of distress another unethical issue regarding this study was the fact that the participant (the teacher) were not given the right to withdraw, they were indirectly forced to continue with the experiment. Although Milgram made clear that he was very surprised at the high level of compliance because a lot of expert before the study was carried out had predicted that none of the participant would be like to continue till the end and yet 65% of people did rendering shock all the way to 450volts.

Baumrind (1964) felt that Milgram did not follow the concept of ethical components in psychology and this caused long term psychological distress to the participants (the teacher) although Milgram used deception the solution which is debriefing was not fully played. She went on further saying that the role of informed consent was not played in this study. Baumrind’s main concern on this study was the long term effect it had on the participants in terms of their loss of dignity, low self esteem and loss of trust in authoritative figures. Finally she felt that the human cost in this study outweighed the main achievements of the study. In reply to this critic, Milgram provided resources from the post experimental questionnaire in which the participant had filled with 74% of the participants saying they had learnt something about themselves (personal importance) and that 84% of the participant said they were glad they took part in the experiment. Although Milgram did not take into place that the participants replies might have been a form of cognitive dissonance (this is a discomfort feeling of anxiety that comes from holding two different thoughts in one’s mind).

Ethical solution to Milgram’s study

Burger (2009) repeated Milgram’s study with some alteration in other to deal with the ethical issues concerned with the study. Burger made several alterations to Milgram’s study like changing the maximum voltage level from 450volts to 150 volts; the participants that were to take part in this experiment were cautiously screened in order to get rid of those who might develop negative reaction to this experiment. Burger felt with this alteration one could be able to estimate what the participants would do if they were allowed to go all the way to 450volts. Another alteration was that participants were allowed to withdraw from the experiment the moment they felt any form of discomfort, also a very mild shock was administered to the participant of 15volts rather than that of Milgram’s which was 45volts. Also immediately the experiment was over the experimenter told the participant (the teacher) the real purpose of the experiment and that no shock was delivered and the learner was allowed to come in to assure the teacher that they were perfectly fine. Finally the experimenter was a clinical psychologist who was told to end the session if participants showed high level of stress. However, the result of the replicated study showed that the level of obedience today was at the same level as that of the experiment carried out in the early 1960s.

Dambrun and Vatiné (2010) used the same commonly accepted views (paradigm) as Milgram did in his study but using an immersive video environment. But before he carried his study, the participants were asked to fill in a questionnaire which was to measure their state of depression, anxiety and anger. Also, the participants were told that the learners were actors and no shock was actually being delivered i.e. no form of deception was used. During the study, the learner’s visibility and ethnicity were manipulated. When the learners were not seen by the teacher the level of obedience was high just the same as Milgram’s experiment. Although when the learners were seen the level of obedience decreased significantly. At the end of this experiment, the percentage of obedience was not significantly different from that of Milgram’s study but the tension the participants felt was very low compared to that of Milgram’s study.

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In conclusion, both studies manage to fully replicate Milgram’s study and also, both studies shows that the use of deception is not necessary to achieve the aim of a study or an experiment that is needed to be carried out.

Nicholson (2011) criticised Milgram’s debriefing because not all the participants were debriefed causing them to lose their self-esteem and making them feel depressed about their actions. Nicholson argued that the fact that Milgram based his experiment study on what happened with the Nazis was very wrong because the Nazis were fully aware of the actions they carried out and their hatred for the Jews was their motivation. Although in Milgram’s study, the participant were not familiarised with the context of the study, they also felt pressured by the experimenter.

In conclusion, I feel Milgram’s study can be learnt from. Although this experiment is not ethical but I feel obedience to authority has to with individual personality. For example in the video of Milgram’s study a man walked out on the experiment because he could not continue so obeying an authoritative figure falls on we as individual. In some situation people might obey authoritative figures because they are frightened, thinking that if they do not obey they might be punished so in order to avoid punishment they carry out the task without thinking twice. In the case of the Nazis I feel their obedience to obedience was based on moral, it is obvious that the Nazis did not like the Jews and felt there were to be killed so the Nazis soldiers did not have to be forced to carry out their action but because their hatred for the Jews is what they have grown up to know, they felt it was the right thing to do.

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