Explanations for obedience - Social influence

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Explanations for obedience
Social influence


Situational explanations focus on environmental factors associated with obedience.

The agentic state (part of the agency theory) is one such explanation, which sees humans as socialised from an early age to learn that obedience is necessary to maintain social order. This involves individuals seeing themselves as agents of an authority figure and thus giving up and transferring personal responsibility onto that authority figure. (The opposite state in the agency theory is the autonomous state, where individuals see themselves as personally responsible for their actions.) The agentic state occurs in hierarchical social systems (where people are in ranks), with people obeying those of perceived higher ranks.

The legitimacy of authority is another situational explanation, where individuals accept the power and status of authority figures to give orders, which should be obeyed, as such figures are seen as being ’in charge’. This links to the agency theory, as individuals are again seen as being socialised to accept that obedience to authority helps maintain social order. Individuals learn from experience examples of social roles relating to ’master and servant’ relationships, such as parent—child, worker—boss etc., which involve accepting that we have a ’duty’ to obey those higher in a social hierarchy.


Fig 1.6 Wayne Jowett died after a junior doctor unquestioningly obeyed the wrongful orders of a more senior colleague

Focal study

Milgram (1974) reported on several variations of his study that were designed to identify important variables associated with obedience. In a remote authority variation, where the confederate researcher was not in the same room as the real participant, but gave his orders over a telephone, obedience declined from the 62.5 per cent seen in the original study to 20.5 per cent. This suggests that participants were in the autonomous state (the opposite end of the agentic state) and saw themselves as responsible for their actions. In his original 1963 study, Milgram argued that many participants showed moral strain, for example 3 had seizures, but continued to obey, which suggests they were in an agentic state and felt they had to keep obeying the higher-ranked authority figure. Some participants showed no harm themselves, ignored the learner’s distress and concentrated on ’doing their duty’, thus seemingly recognising the legitimate authority of the researcher.


• Tarnow (2000) found that a major contributory factor to 80 per cent of aeroplane accidents was co-pilots feeling that they could not challenge wrong decisions by the captain, due to the perceived power and legitimacy of his authority. This suggests that the perception of legitimate authority helps explain obedient behaviour.

• Hamilton (1978), in a replication of Milgram’s study, found that when participants were told they were responsible for what happened, their obedience reduced. This suggests that an increase in personal responsibility and the autonomous state leads to a reduction in obedience.

• The Centre of Risk (2000) reported on how 18-year-old Wayne Jowett, on remission for leukaemia, died when a doctor wrongly ordered a toxic drug to be injected into his spine and a junior doctor obeyed, even though he knew the order to be wrong. This illustrates the strength of the legitimacy of authority.

Positive evaluation

Image The socialisation process — whereby people learn to obey legitimate authority figures with higher perceived status — can have a beneficial effect, as it enables hierarchical groups to function effectively. This allows meaningful social life within and between groups to occur.

Image Milgram’s variations allowed explanations for obedience to be highlighted, thereby identifying the reasons why people obey and allowing a deeper understanding of the phenomenon.

Negative evaluation

Image The agentic state involves individuals giving up some of their free will (their conscious control over their thoughts and actions) and therefore their behaviour becomes determined by unconscious forces outside their control. Milgram commented that when his students watched a film of his study they said they would never follow such orders and yet a few months later some of them enlisted in the army to serve in the Vietnam War and follow orders to kill people.

Image Being in the agentic state and following the orders of a legitimate authority involves being deindividuated, that is losing self-awareness, which can result in individuals performing actions with negative consequences that go against their moral code.

Image As well as situational explanations, there are dispositional explanations, such as gender and culture, which focus on personality characteristics that influence obedience.

Practical application

Due to cases such as that of Wayne Jowett (see page 12), staff in institutions like hospitals are now trained to follow official procedures and to have the confidence to challenge wrongful orders from legitimate authority figures, so that similar tragic events do not occur again.