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What have we learned from obedience to authority
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Psychology
Jan 9th, 2020

What have we learned from obedience to authority

Within society, obedience to authority is an essential part of human behaviour. Without this behaviour, it would be difficult for society to function properly. Obedience to authority is used during different social settings. Examples of this would be, university lecturers having authority over their students, and parents having authority over their children. Although obedience to authority is essential, it also has issues, which cause conflict within society. Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments, raising awareness of how this behaviour is necessary in life, yet how conflicts can lead an obedient to follow a command from a high authority. This can cause an act of cruelty, such as murder on innocent victims. His main reason for conducting these types of experiments was to understand more about the Holocaust, and as a Jew himself, the reason behind why the Nazi’s caused such destructive behaviour due to obedience. (Benjamin Jr & Simpson, 2009).

Stanley Milgram (1963), developed a shocking experiment that was set out to look into obedience to authority. Male volunteers took part in an experiment in which they believed they had to shock another participant, (which in fact was an actor) from another room. The volts started at 15, all the way to 450. Every time they answered a question wrong, the volunteer had to give an electric shock. A voice recording of distressing behaviour was played as the voltage increased, making the volunteers believe the other participant (actor) was in serious discomfort. Some of the volunteers felt uncertain about participating further in the experiment, but when the scientific researcher used prods such as “please continue”, and “it is absolutely essential for you to go on” (Stanley Milgram, 1963, p 374), the majority of the volunteers would obey his commands, and proceed further. Although a few volunteers refused to participate once hearing the distressing behaviour on the tape recording, 65% of the volunteers continued to the end of the experiment. This obedience experiment has had a huge impact on ethical, personality and social psychology issues within scientific research and society.

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Milgram’s (1963) experiment, has been proven to be one of the most influential of scientific research (Benjamin Jr & Simpson, 2009), but it has also caused a lot of controversy on the grounds of ethical issues. Milgram’s (1963) article expresses how his participants were subjected to extremely distressing behaviour throughout the experiment, such as “trembling” and “stuttering” (p.375). Diana Baumrind (1964) critised Milgram’s experiment due to the lack of involvement of ethics, deception and informed consent. She explained that this behaviour experienced by the participants could lead to other future issues, such as the inability to trust anyone, low self-esteem/image and possible psychological harm. In Milgram’s 1964 article (as citied in Benjamin Jr & Simpson, 2009), he argued Baumrind’s criticism by gathering data from his experiment, that provided high percentages of what people thought of the experiment, for example, they learnt a lot, and that more types of these experiments should be done in the future. The participants were also debriefed after the experiment, to make sure that the volunteers had not been subjected to potential harm. (Milgram, 1963). Milgram’s obedience studies have had a huge impact on scientific research, so much, so that his experiments are not allowed to be replicated within scientific research. This is due to the changes in ethical guidelines. Many psychologists believe that Milgram’s experiments are responsible for these ethical changes (Benjamin Jr & Simpson, 2009), in order to protect the participants from potential harm when taking part in any form of scientific research.

Although Milgram’s obedience studies had an impact on ethics, is also impacted personality within scientific research. It initially focused on looking at internal explanations of individual’s personality traits, such as their mood or attitude in which caused their behaviour at the given time of the situation. However, in the 1960’s, due to political and social changes, it shifted to situational and environmental explanations. This therefore focused on how an individual’s personality differs depending on the situation they are in, instead of just their internal characteristics. (Benjamin Jr & Simpson, 2009). During the 1960’s, Walter Mischel’s (as cited in Benjamin Jr & Simpson, 2009) studies were the most modern and relevant to this shift from internal to situational explanations, in finding evidence that individuals personality traits had little affect on the outcome of their behaviour. It further developed in the 1970’s by introducing the person-by-situation interaction, which looks at how people react or respond given the type of situation they are in, having more of an impact on how scientific research is viewed on the grounds of personality. (Benjamin Jr & Simspon, 2009).

Another impact on Milgram’s studies for scientific research was social psychology. In the 1950’s social psychology was studied by examining how different social situations could have an influence on how individual’s behaviour changes (Benjamin Jr & Simpson, 2009). Asch (as cited in Benjamin Jr and Simpson, 2009), influenced social psychology within Milgram’s experiments, due to Asch’s work conducted on conformity, which examined the power of a situation. Milgram’s studies has also had an influence on further research, such as Zimbardo’s prison experiment, which examined conformity and also obedience (Zimbardo, as cited in Benjamin Jr and Simpson, 2009). The impact of social psychology has manipulated the way experiments are now conducted within scientific research. Before Milgram’s obedience studies, many experiments were conducted in laboratory settings with high experimental realism, therefore not many experiments were conducted within real life settings, thus having a low mundane realism. (Benjamin Jr & Simpson, 2009). Due to his studies, there has been a shift in how research is conducted, and there has also been changes in IRB rules and regulations, therefore allowing more experiments to be examined in real life settings, rather than laboratory settings. In laboratory settings, individuals are likely to follow researcher’s orders, due to believing they are of a higher authority. In addition, what they are wearing could have an influence on their behaviour, such as wearing a white lab coat. By conducting these experiments in real life settings, the research findings will have a higher ecological validity than of those in laboratory settings. (Benjamin Jr & Simpson, 2009).

Milgram’s studies have also affected society. During the Holocaust, the Nazi’s said they were not responsible for the killings and destruct they caused as they were just following orders (Benjamin Jr & Simspon, 2009). In March, 2010, a French game show replicated Milgram’s experiment called the ‘Game of Death’ (Chazan, 2010). This proved that 80% of participants continued to the end of the game, due to pressure off the audience members and commands from the presenter. Due to ethical issues from Milgram’s studies, individuals are now aware of their human rights, and entitlements in life, for instance, choice of medical treatment. So, why do people still obey in society? As children we are learnt to obey from our parents and not disobey, therefore making it easier to obey someone of a high authority. This impacts personality and social psychology, as it suggests that the power of the situation is more likely to have an influence on an individual’s change in behaviour. The impact on personality within society is manipulated dependent upon the situation, and not due to personality traits from upbringing. Having a structured situation, for example, hospitals, there is less likely to be changes in personality due to feeling safe, as the doctor is of high authority and can be trusted, than of unstructured situation such as the game show. (Benjamin Jr & Simpson). People of high authority are aware of their influence within society, and are therefore not allowed to influence individual’s, but who is believed to be of high authority? Milgram’s studies were conducted in lab settings, thus proving he is of high authority, but in the game show the high authority seems to be the audience and presenter, suggesting the power of the situation impacts individual’s behaviour.

In conclusion, due to the impact of ethical, personality and social psychology within scientific research and society, Milgram’s studies seemed to have more of an effect on scientists than members of society. Due to huge concerns on how he conducted his experiment, many things have been changed on the grounds of ethical issues, in order to protect participants. Also due to the nature of his experiment, it cannot be replicated, meaning further research on obedience is not allowed to be conducted. Even though Milgram’s experiment has had an influence on these scientific changes, it has not seemed to have much of an influence on society. This is because people are still obeying orders off people they believe to be of a higher authority, for example, terrorist attacks, and people in the war, where acts of cruelty is caused, therefore thousands of innocent victims are dying.

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