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Obedience to Authority in Milgram’s Study Essay

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Updated: Jun 15th, 2020

Abstract

This paper focuses on the findings of Milgram’s study, which investigated people’s obedience to authority. The paper explains how other researchers replicated the study to find out if Milgram’s findings apply today and how people would respond to the same research factors (that he used) if they learned about blind authority. Comprehensively, this paper affirms that authority corrupts people because of cultural and social programming. This view highlights the findings of Milgram’s study. Lastly, this paper proposes that future research should investigate the role of compassion in shaping social interactions and obedience to authority.

Introduction

Stanley Milgram conducted several experiments to understand people’s affinity to obey authority. The experiments involved three participants – the subject, the teacher and the experimenter. Using a sample of 40 teachers, Milgram found out that 26 of them (60%) were willing to obey authority by inflicting maximum pain (450 volts of electric shock) on their subjects (Myers, 2014). These findings prompted him to develop two theories. The first was the conformist theory (people who are unable to make decisions often leave the decision-making authority to the group setting) (Myers, 2014). The agent state theory was Milgram’s second finding. It proposed an obedience model, which affirmed an agency relationship between people who followed instructions and the instruction givers.

The above findings inspired new studies from researchers who sought to find out if the above outcomes apply today (Milgram conducted his studies in the 1960s and 1970s). This paper analyzes two articles of this nature. The first article is by Graupmann & Frey (2014). It relates to Milgram’s study because it analyzed the views of a set of university students regarding their opinions of blind authority. The last article was by Burger (2009). It replicated Milgram’s findings by investigating if the same outcomes (that Milgram found in the 1960s) still apply today. As part of these discussions, this paper also presents my personal views of the researchers, their recommendations, and possible areas of future research that the scholars need to focus on.

Replicated Studies

Bad Examples: How Thinking about Blind Obedience Can Induce Responsibility and Courage”

In a paper titled, How Thinking about Blind Obedience Can Induce Responsibility and Courage, Graupmann & Frey (2014) completed two studies to explore people’s willingness to comply with authority. In the first study, the researchers exposed a group of 52 students (46 female students and 6 male students) to Milgram’s experiments and measured their levels of courage and responsibility. The second study involved a larger sample of 111 students (78 female students and 33 male students). It measured the same factors, but after exposing the students to Milgram’s documentary. The studies showed that when the students learned of blind obedience, they developed courage and a strong sense of responsibility (Graupmann & Frey, 2014). This way, the researchers established a high correlation between a strong sense of individual responsibility and a high negative affect among the respondents. Although this finding was definite, Graupmann & Frey (2014) could not point out the true motivations for the students’ reactions to Milgram’s findings. However, they narrowed their participants’ behavioral responses to contextual and personal factors (Graupmann & Frey, 2014). Stated differently, when the participants explained the behaviors of Milgram’s subjects, they referred to either contextual or personal factors (Graupmann & Frey, 2014). Those who believed such responses came from personal factors reported the highest levels of courage, after watching Milgram’s documentary.

Replicating Milgram”

In a field study titled, Replicating Milgram, Burger (2009) replicated Milgram’s research, in an experimental study, to find out if people would adopt the same behavioral responses, as noted in the 1960s (when Milgram first conducted the first psychological tests). Although the degrees of responses varied, Burger (2009) reported the same behavioral outcomes as Milgram did. In fact, he had to stop 70% of his respondents because they were willing to use more than 150 volts of electricity to shock their subjects. Comparatively, 79% of Milgram’s respondents were willing to do so. Both studies had a 9% statistical difference (Burger, 2009). The failure of the respondents to behave differently, despite their ability to see a confederate, surprised the researcher. The study did not show any gender bias, but personal issues, such as empathy, significantly determined the respondents’ behavioral outcomes. Therefore, Burger (2009) affirmed Milgram’s findings by showing how easy it was to corrupt people.

Analysis

I support the findings of Burger (2009) and Stanley Milgram because I believe authority corrupts people. Social conditioning and cultural influences explain this outcome because many societies “program” their members to respect authority. For example, Christianity expects children to respect their parents, managers want company policies followed, police officers expect citizens to abide by existing laws, and teachers expect students to follow what they tell them. Therefore, it is unsurprising that Burger (2009) and Milgram found out that power corrupts most people. Variations in blind authority stem from personal convictions, beliefs and values. This was the framework used by Graupmann & Frey (2014) to explain their findings. However, their analogy draws our attention to the influence of awareness on people’s behavior. When people learn about blind authority, they prepare to counter it through an opposite response. These responses outlined the students’ reactions to the lessons they learned about blind obedience. Therefore, naturally, they developed an opposite reaction to what Milgram’s findings showed (responsibility and courage).

Comprehensively, this paper has analyzed three studies and found out that authority corrupts people. Therefore, Milgram’s studies have remained relatively unchanged in the past few decades. However, Graupmann & Frey (2014) drew our attention to the willingness of people to show courage and individuality when they learn about blind obedience. Nonetheless, these studies show a lot of information regarding people’s willingness to follow authority. This is why Milgram’s findings are globally recognized (Graupmann & Frey, 2014).

Conclusion

Milgram’s study revealed one important lesson – people can do horrific acts by following authority. In fact, Milgram’s findings shocked him because he did not expect Americans to comply with blind authority the way Germans did. Although Milgram argued that his findings were realistic, it showed a dark part of our human nature – lack of compassion. Similar research aimed at evaluating the behavior of monkeys reveals that compassion shapes social interactions. For example, in one study, researchers observed that monkeys could deny themselves food if they knew their quest to get it would harm another monkey. Future research should build on this finding and investigate if compassion would yield to different obedience levels. Similarly, it would be interesting to observe if the teachers would be less empathic on the learners (as Milgram observed) if they experienced the shock before administering it, or if they did not know whether they were the ones to receive punishment, and not the learners. These recommendations should expound on the willingness of human nature to obey authority.

References

Burger, J. M. (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would People Still Obey Today? American Psychological Association, 64(1), 1–11.

Graupmann, V., & Frey, D. (2014). Bad Examples: How Thinking About Blind Obedience Can Induce Responsibility and Courage. Journal of Peace Psychology, 20(2), 124–134.

Myers, D. (2014). Exploring Social Psychology (7th ed.). London, UK: McGraw Hill Education.

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