Outline & Evaluate one or more Explanations of Why People Obey. There are many reasons as to why people obey which have been justified gradually over several decades. Milgram (1974) argued the fact that in an obedience situation, people tend to pass all sense of responsibility onto the authoritative figure. Milgram said that people are in an autonomous state when taking their responsibility but move into an agentic state when passing this responsibility to an authoritative figure; this shift in state of mind is called an agentic shift.
For example in Milgram shock experiment (1963), many participants reported after they were debriefed that they knew delivering the shocks was wrong but they felt that the experimenter was to be held responsible and not them. Similar to at the Nuremberg trials as many Nazi soldiers defended their actions saying they were just following orders so it was not their fault. Another explanation to why people obey being this idea of Gradual commitment, which has a snowball effect of starting of small and therefore making it easier to progress to something more extreme. If we look back at Milgram’s experiment, all participants were started at the same, relatively harmless, 15 volt shock. The shock levels gradually increased in increments of 15 volts and did not become painful or dangerous until several shocks had been administered. However, had participants been asked to deliver one large shock initially, it is less likely that they would have done so, but the method of gradually increasing bit by bit made the previously unthinkable seem like just another step. The idea of gradual commitment could perhaps be applied to the actions carried out my Nazi soldiers, they began small: name calling, minor violent attacks, more serious attacks, then it grew more serious: murder and mass extermination. However Milgram’s study lacks ecological validity and can therefore not be used definitively as explanations for real life situations. The role of Buffers is also another explanation as to why people obey.
Buffers are defined as “anything that reduces the immediacy and impact of the orders given, or reduces the depersonalisation of the victim”. When one is to look at the statistics of Milgram’s study, obedience rates dropped to just 20% if the authority figure was placed in a different room to the participant, therefore harder to refuse to follow an order when in closer proximity to authority figure. Obedience levels dropped to 40% when the participant could see the victim and then to a further 30% if they were close enough to touch the victim, therefore proximity to the victim you are causing harm to also can have an effect on how well one obeys. Environment also plays a key role in obedience, for example obedience levels dropped to 48% when participants were moved from a university to an office building. Furthermore the legitimacy of the authoritative figure can also rationalise why people obey. In Milgram’s experiment (1963) the experiment was made to wear a light grey lab coat to symbolize a legitimate figure of authority and power. Other examples of uniform that implicate the legitimacy of authority are; nurses, police officers, security guards etc. The power effect a uniform has on someone in order to influence them to obey was demonstrated by Bickman (1974); he used 3 male actors (one in normal clothing, one as a milkman, and one as a security guard), the actors would ask passers-by to pick up rubbish or spare them some change. It was found that the passers-by were more likely to obey the actor dressed as a security guard and less likely to obey the actor dressed in regular clothing. Although Bickman’s experiment was a field experiment therefore high in ecological validity, it was an opportunity sample so cannot be generalised beyond those who had so happened to be passing by.