Stanley Milgram (1974) conducted a study to find out if people would obey an authority figure if it meant physically harming another person. Milgram paid 40 men to take part in his study. Each participant was a ‘teacher’, whilst the ‘learner’ was a stooge set up by Milgram. The teacher presented the learner with memory tasks, and each time the learner answered a question incorrectly, the teacher was instructed to administer an electric shock starting from 15 volts to 450 volts. Milgrams first experiment resulted in 65% of the participants administering the highest electric shock, these results shocked Milgram, and so to find out why the obedience levels were so high, he conducted several variations of his original study.
Milgram conducted 18 studies between 1960 and 1963, throughout these studies, Milgram manipulated aspects of the laboratory situation. By Milgram doing this, we can establish the different factors that lead to increased obedience.
Remoteness of the victim is a factor that leads to increased obedience. Milgram found that when the teacher and the learner were in the same room, obedience dropped by 40% and when the teacher had to make physical contact with the learner, by pushing his hand onto a ‘shock plate’ obedience dropped by 30%. This tells us that people obey authority figures more if they are not fully aware or knowledgeable of the implications of their actions by obeying the authority figure.
Closeness and legitimacy of the authority figure is a factor that leads to increased obedience. When Milgram manipulated the study and the experimenter left the scene and gave the teacher orders by phone, or when an ordinary person took over and gave orders, obedience fell to 20%. This shows us that if the authority figure is in close proximity and if people believe that the authority figure is legitimate, then people obey and obedience is increased.
Responsibility diffusion is another factor that leads to people obeying authority figures and increased obedience. In another variation of Milgram (1974) another participant flipped the shock switch and the real participant only had to carry out a different part of the task. This variation resulted in 93% obedience. Another study of obedience conducted by Harvey Tilker (1970) made the participants feel fully responsible for the learners’ welfare, and the obedience level was zero.
This demonstrates that people will obey and levels of obedience will be higher if somebody else carries out the majority of the ‘dirty work’.
From Milgram’s experiment we can identify the different factors that lead to increased obedience. People obey authority figures out of fear or out of a wanting to seem cooperative, even when acting against their own better judgment. Remoteness of the victim, the closeness and the perceived legitimacy of the authority figure and diffusion of responsibility are all factors which lead to increased obedience.