It’s the long one, folks. You get limp claps from me if you get through the whole thing. Only limp ones, though, considering I’m doing all the work here.
So, Obedience. The book starts with Milgram, whilst the specification starts with agentic state and the legitimacy of authority. You do need to know what Milgram did, but I’m going to do here what I did with Asch, or the whole thing is clumsy and it won’t flow. Sue me, I like things to read like books.
The Agentic State. This is when people attribute responsibility to another person, usually an authority figure, and as a consequence, do not see themselves as responsible for their own actions. The transfer of responsibility onto someone else is called an agentic shift. Milgram suggested that most people in his study on situational variables in obedience had undergone an agentic shift. They claimed that they had only administered “electric shocks” of a high voltage to the ‘learner’ in the study because they were told to do so by a confederate overseer. This had the consequence that the ‘teacher’ felt responsibility towards the overseer, but not towards themself. Even so, if the teacher and the overseer were in different rooms, the voltage of shock that the teacher was willing to give the learner fell considerably, which is interesting as it suggests that if you can’t see the authority, they are no longer legitimate. Consider this when we talk about the legitimacy of authority.
It should be noted here that this was an ethical issue in Milgram’s study, as the overseer would give prods such as ‘you must continue’ if the ‘teacher’ in the study asked to stop administering “shocks” to the ‘learner’ (a confederate), which takes away their right to withdraw. You will also have noticed that I’m using words like ‘teacher’ and ‘learner’ in single quotes. This is because Milgram lied about the purpose of the study to remove demand characteristics – but this is deception, another ethical issue.
It is theorised that people adopt an agentic state to maintain a healthy self-image, based on the idea that taking responsibility for some pretty dreadful actions – like giving someone a 450 volt shock, as in Milgram’s study – is a surefire way to make you hate yourself. When you’re in an agentic state, there’s no longer a need for you to evaluate your own actions, so you can revoke any claims or thoughts that you are responsible for someone else’s suffering.
When someone enters the Agentic State, they often stay in it, regardless of whether they would usually follow the authority’s orders. This is generally believed to be a matter of worry over how other people will view the individual, as it is considered impolite and – for want of a better word – flakey – to go back on something you’ve said you’ll do – regardless of the morality of the situation.
Now, we have Legitimacy of Authority. Agentic State is most likely if the person views an authority as ‘legitimate’. This is actually quite easy to understand in terms of day-to-day behaviour. When a classmate yells for everyone in the hall to be quiet, they’re usually just ignored – it’s not their place. When a teacher steps out of a classroom to yell at everyone in the hall to be quiet, most students listen and obey.
This is an example of a few things that you need in order to have a legitimate authority: the first is for the figure to be based on position, not personality. The second is that an institution must be present in order for the authority to really be considered ‘legitimate’, which also makes quite a bit of sense – there’s no point in there being a legitimate authority figure when you’re on your own in a room: it’s sort of a given that you have power and authority, in that case.
If a legitimate authority provides a definition for a situation, people who are not the legitimate authority are likely to take that definition as read – as was the case in Milgram’s study. The learner’s suffering convinces the teacher that they should quit, but prompting from the overseer urges them to continue – and in most cases, they do so, suggesting that a definition provided by a legitimate authority is usually taken, regardless of the teacher’s actual feelings about it. This is in spite of the fact that it is the teacher, not the legitimate authority, who is performing the action.
It has also been studied in the context of aviation accidents, which I’m sure sounds a little bit strange at first glance, but it actually makes a lot of sense. See, Tarnow studied a record of serious aviation accidents from 1978 to 1990 where a ‘black box’ was available, and found excessive dependence on the pilot’s definition of the situation from the crew. In one case, an officer reported that he had noticed that the pilot’s flight behaviour was risky, but that since the pilot was the pilot, he must have known what he was doing. This attitude is purported to have caused 19 out of 37 of the accidents reported in the study.
As I mentioned a moment ago, a legitimate authority requires an institution. I know I sort of explained it, but I’m going to explain it again in a way that’s slightly more science-y. The institution does not have to be reputable to have an impact. This is again seen in Milgram’s situational variables on obedience, in which the study was moved from a laboratory at Yale University to a rundown office in downtown Bridgeport, which was supposedly lacking in credentials – yet there were still very high levels of obedience amongst participants in spite of this. That being said, the levels of obedience were higher still if the overseer was in uniform, suggesting that to some level, reputability impacts the extent to which an authority is seen as legitimate.
These theories have been used to attempt to explain some intense atrocities committed by people who by all reports are nice, good people, under the influence of an authority figure. Such examples would include those who have committed atrocities at war, under the orders of a commander. In this way, the legitimacy of authority is a negative agent through which people can justify the harm of others under claims that their actions were authorised.
This being said, Lifton found that – in a study of German doctors in Auschwitz – there was a gradual and, most crucially, irreversible change in the doctors. Preceding Auschwitz, they were supposedly only concerned for patient welfare, but during and afterwards, they were capable of carrying out vile and unspeakable acts of cruelty. Staub suggests that agentic state was not responsible for this shift, but a desensitisation to the acts of evil that these people had become used to carrying out.
We spoke about Zimbardo not long ago, and the assertion based on his research from some psychologists is that people do not slip into an agentic state under the influence of a legitimate authority, but are instead simply cruel people committing cruel acts, as the guards in the SPE had no influence from a legitimate authority, instead simply being cruel for the sake of it.
This provides a nifty segue into our next point, which is about the Authoritarian Personality and other dispositional factors influencing obedience. For anyone new to psychology, we use dispositional to refer to factors innate in the personality. You might have heard of an animal having a ‘nervous disposition’, and that means that they’re naturally anxious and jumpy. Your unsolicited fact about the Author is that I have a very nervous disposition indeed.
But, we’re not talking about nervous dispositions. We’re talking about the Authoritarian Personality. Adorno used something called the California F-Scale to measure the different facets of the Authoritarian Personality – with ‘F’ standing for Fascist. The California F-Scale was measured by people’s agreement with statements like ‘rules are to be followed, not changed’, with more agreement meaning a higher score for the Authoritarian Personality. These people are thought to be rigid thinkers with fixed ideas on the way that things should be.
Think Inspector Javert from Les Miserables – whilst the Authoritarian Personality hadn’t yet been defined when Victor Hugo was writing, it’s arguable that Javert’s Authoritarian Personality was his most fatal and tragic flaw. If you aren’t into Les Mis, Boromir from The Lord of The Rings is another example. If you don’t know any of them, I can’t help you. I have only read two books in my entire life, you see. (False.)
Milgram examined the participants of his original study under these, defining them as ‘obedient’ or ‘defiant’. He found that those who were classed as obedient tended to have higher scores on the California F-Scale than those who were classed as defiant. The differences between the two types of participant were also synonymous with the dispositional factors suggested by the California F-Scale.
In spite of this admission by Milgram, he still felt that the social context, or situational variables – the ones about uniform, location and proximity we covered above, were more important than dispositional variables. This is a good place to ease Asch into your research, if you’re feeling adventurous. Or – not even feeling that adventurous, really. I think that’s just as accurate.
In order to cover for the demand characteristics induced by participants’ suspicion that the shocks they were giving were not really real, Dambrun and Vatiné replicated the study, but told the participants beforehand that they were participating in a virtual simulation. The results mirrored Milgram’s, with those who had high RWA scores giving higher voltage shocks than those with lower RWA scores.
Children with Authoritarian Personalities tend to have been brought up by parents with an Authoritarian Parenting Style. This, in turn, means that the child takes this behaviour as the expected norm in social interactions. A series of learning and imitation (Social Learning Theory, which we’ll learn about later, is the technical term for this) means that the child adopts these behaviours into their personality.
Some psychologists have quite rightly pointed out that many of Milgram’s participants reported having strong relationships with their parents, whether they had been classed as obedient or defiant. These psychologists point out that it is therefore something of a stretch to suggest that every single obedient participant had harsh and punitive parents. This one is common sense, which is always fun to be able to use in exams. Don’t rely on it, though. You need to know stuff, too. I learned the hard way. (False.)
This also came up in Milgram’s study, as he found that those whom he had classed as ‘obedient’ were more likely to report a poor relationship with their fathers than those classed as ‘defiant’, reporting a more distant relationship and using more negative terms to describe them. The Obedient Participants tended to also report feeling that the authority figure in the study was admirable, whilst the defiant participants did not. This led Milgram to suggest that most obedient participants had an Authoritarian aspect to their personalities.
Altemeyer refined the concept of the Authoritarian Personality using a set of concepts he referred to as Right-Wing Authoritarianism. He claimed that there were three main parameters which predisposed a person to having an Authoritarian Personality: Conventionalism, Authoritarian Aggression, and Authoritarian Submission. I’m going to go right ahead and use a similar analogy to the one I used in the overview for Social Influence here: “you aren’t doing what they said we should be doing (Conventionalism) like me (Authoritarian Submission), so I’m going to meet you with extreme disapproval and ostracism (Authoritarian Aggression).”
It’s an interesting note that people who define themselves as having more Left-Wing political views are actually less likely to show an Authoritarian Personality, according to Begue, who carried out a game-show style study and asked participants to fill out a ‘World Values Questionnaire’. The disclaimer here is of course that people who have Right-Wing political views are not necessarily Authoritarian, and vice versa for people with Left-Wing political views.
Altemeyer tested this by replicating Milgram’s study – but with the participant shocking himself. He found that participants with high RWA scores were more likely to give themselves stronger shocks. However, he found that when participants were instructed to press a red button saying ‘Do Not Press This Button Unless Instructed To Do So’ as a punishment for not trying, most did it without question, regardless of RWA scores.
We’re done. Honestly? Unprofessional as it is, I’m celebrating. This took a solid two hours to write, which takes up a lot of revision time. Step it up, AQA Psychology. Step it up, me.