1 in authority or to respect authority,


personality is one of the explanations of obedience. Adorno and Horkheimer conceived the theory in 1950, it
was also the title of their book on the subject. This type of personality will
possess some or all of the following traits: blind allegiance, submission,
aggression, need to be in authority or to respect authority, and dominance
(Psychology World 2017). Authoritarian personalities are evident in Zimbardo’s
Stanfield Prison Experiment in 1973. For example in the study the participants
who became guards, promptly began to humiliate the prisoners, displayed
aggression, were verbally and mentally abusive and handed out degrading
punishments. Following an unsuccessful riot from the prisoners, the guards
conduct, worsened, using threatening behaviour, becoming more aggressive and abusive.
The prisoners became submissive as the operant conditioning from the guards
took effect.  The change in the
personalities of the guards could be attributed to schemas i.e. personal
experiences or perceptions of the role from television or media, or through
self-selection. Research from Carnahan and McFarlands (2007) suggests the
applicants were drawn to the advertisement for the prison study, because they had
dispositions for violence, aggression egotism and authoritarianism and a lack
of empathy. Their findings were based on tests from applicants who had responded
to a very similar advertisment to the Stanford Prison Experiment.

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authority occurs when people feel obliged to obey others who they assume have
authority over them. This authority can come in several guises. For example,
uniforms, titles, royal crests etc., all symbolise authority. Hofling’s study
supports this theory. Nurses working late in a hospital received a telephone
call from an unknown doctor asking them to administer an unauthorised
medication ‘Astroten’ in a 20mg dose, although the label on the bottle warned
the maximum dosage was 10mg. The doctor explained he was late and would sign
the necessary documentation when he arrived. Despite the warning label on the
medication and ignoring hospital policies which were, only to follow orders
from a doctor if he was present, no administration of unauthorised medicines,
and to ascertain the order is from a genuine doctor, 21 out of 22 nurses
attempted to administer the medication. This represents blind obedience to a
perceived authoritative figure. The nurses transitioned from an autonomous
state to an agentic state. This agentic shift occurred because the nurses
believed the doctor was arriving shortly, so the nurses had diffusion of
responsibility. This experiment had high ecological validity. However Rank and
Jacobson disputed Hofling’s findings when the same experiment was conducted in
the daytime with a fully staffed ward, because the nurses had social support,
conformity overruled obedience (Cardwell et al 2000).


Milgram carried out a study of obedience in 1963. Milgram wanted to investigate
The Shirer Hypothesis, which claims that the German population have a trait in
their character which allows them to blindly obey authority regardless of the
nature of the request, even if it is to commit atrocities (Meyer 1999). Milgram
believed that the inhumane behaviour from the Germans during WW2 was
situational attribution and he believed anybody, regardless of race would react
the same way as the Germans in the same situation. Whereas Shirer believed that
it was dispositional attribution. So the aim of Milgram’s study was to
determine what level of obedience that participants would demonstrate when
ordered by an authority figure to administer punishment (Milgram 1963).

placed an advertisement in a newspaper asking for male participants aged
between 20 and 50 from a variety of backgrounds for a study on memory, they
were to be paid $4 and 50c travel expenses. The 40 selected participants took
part in pairs, and were randomly assigned a role of either ‘learner’ or
‘teacher’. The draw was fixed so the participant was always the teacher and the
learner who was a confederate who made it known that he was a family man, and
had a heart complaint. The learner would then strapped to a chair with an
electrode attached to his wrist and his task was to memorise pairs of words,
and by using a multiple choice system, select the correct answer. If he got the
answer wrong he would receive an electric shock from a shock generator in the
adjoining room, the shocks would increase by 15v each time he gave an incorrect
answer. The teacher would have a sample 75v shock to give him a sense of the
pain involved (although he would be unaware the learner would not be receiving
any shocks). The teacher would then go into the adjoining room and start the
experiment. The shock generator had 30 levers which were labelled numerically
and also had warning labels of the severity e.g. Danger, Severe Shock and XXX.
As the experiment progresses, the teacher would be able to hear the progressive
discomfort of the learner (which would be standardised tape recordings). If the
teachers grew concerned about the wellbeing of the learners, they would
encouraged by standardised verbal prods from the experimenter to continue. The
experiment would continue up to the maximum of 450v or until the teacher
refuses to continue. Then the teachers would be debriefed (Cardwell 2000).

of 40 participants, all 40 administered electric shocks to 300v, and 26
participants (65%) administered the maximum of 450v (Holah 2017).

conclusion the findings suggest that humans will disregard any moral
convictions they may have, and obey instructions to inflict pain on others from
figures of authority. (Psychyogi 2015).

Bickman conducted a study into obedience in 1974. Bickman’s study wanted to
discover if obedience was greater if an order came from someone wearing a

method he used was to get an experimenter (one of three) dressed in one of
three different outfits; a security guard, a milkman and regular clothing. The
experimenter wearing one of the outfits would approach a random member of the
public and ask him to do one of three requests; to pick up a piece of litter,
to give a dime for a parking meter or to move to a different side of a bus

of the study were, out of 153 participants, 89% obeyed the guard, 57% obeyed
the milkman and 33% obeyed the civilian.

conclusion it appears that people will more readily show obedience to someone
wearing a uniform, and the more status that the uniform has, the more the
greater that obedience becomes (Ramos 2017).

Milgram’s and Bickman’s studies support the legitimate authority theory as in Milgram’s
experiment,  the authority came from, the
venue which was Yale University, the experimenter’s lab coat and Milgram’s
title of Professor, in Bickman’s study, the legitimate authority came from the
uniform of the guard. Both studies also were reliable because they both used
standardised procedures. In Milgram’s study all the teachers heard the same
audio tape which showed the learner’s discomfort at the same points, the
teachers also received the same prods from the experimenter and the learners
received the same questions. In Bickman’s study, the three experimenters wore
the same uniforms and made the same requests. However the two studies have
different ecological validity. Milgram’s because it was undertaken in a
laboratory has low ecological validity, and Bickman’s has high ecological
validity as it was in a real life setting.









psychological research has to follow codes of conduct and ethical guidelines. Research
undertaken in the past would breach modern guidelines set by the British
Psychological Society and American Psychological Association. For example in
Bickman’s study into obedience, there were several breaches. The participants
were not aware they that were part of a study so there was deception, no
informed consent and no right of withdrawal or debriefing. There was also no
consideration given to protection from harm, as being told to pick litter up,
or give money or ordered to move, could of caused embarrassment, distress and
anxiety. However the research would not of had high ecological validity if all
the above points had of been met. So in Bickman’s study the deception was
necessary to give support to the situational attribution explanation of
obedience. In Milgram’s study the participants were deceived as they did not
know the true nature of the study so there was no informed consent. Also the
right to withdraw was difficult for them to achieve as the experimenter issued
verbal prods. Protection from harm was breached as the participants showed both
physical and emotional stress, nervous laughing, twitching, scratching all
demonstrated high levels of anxiety. Also there was a possibility of Post
Traumatic Stress Disorder. Milgram however did ensure a thorough debriefing
took place. The deception was necessary to see when there is a diffusion of
responsibility, how far obedience can be taken. The study also debunked
Shirer’s Hypothesis of the blind obedience trait of the Germans.








and Zimbardo’s studies have both received lots of criticism for the lack of
ethical considerations during the experiments and also for the anxiety and
stress that the participants suffered. The multitude of ethical issues which
arose, such as, no informed consent, deception, protection from harm, and a
difficult right to withdraw, all cast a shadow on the studies (Baumhind (1964).
Adding to the negativity of the studies is that almost all the participants in
both studies displayed stress to varying levels. In Milgram’s study 3 participants
had seizures and one of Zimbardo’s participants went on a hunger strike
(Effectivology 2017). However it can be argued that both studies can be
justified. It has given psychologists worldwide a better understanding of the
influence legitimate authority has over people and the willingness with which
they will obey orders from the same, regardless if it involves being sadistic.
Both studies have also shown the importance of situational factors in
influencing a person’s behaviour (Davis 2012). In conclusion despite the
benefits of the experiments, because of the serious ethical concerns in particular,
protection from harm, both experiments were not justified.