Situational variables affecting obedience - Social influence

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

Situational variables affecting obedience
Social influence


Situational variables form an external explanation of obedience, where aspects of the environment are seen as affecting obedience. Milgram’s variations (see Other studies) identified several important situational variables. One such variable is proximity, which concerns how aware individuals are of the consequences of obedient behaviour. The closer the proximity individuals have to the consequences of obedient behaviour that has a negative outcome, the less able they are to separate themselves from such consequences and the more likely it is that obedience rates will be lower. For example, most people find it easier to obey an order to press a button that releases a missile that kills people hundreds of miles away, than obey an order to shoot someone, as the proximity from the consequences of such behaviour would be much closer when shooting someone up close. Another such variable is location, with people likely to be more obedient in environments/situations that add to the level of perceived legitimacy that an authority figure issuing orders has. For example, obedience will be higher in institutional rather than non-institutional settings, as with a teacher in a school. An additional variable is uniforms, as the wearing of uniforms gives an impression of increased legitimacy to an authority figure issuing orders, as with an army officer.


Fig 1.7 Uniforms give a sense of legitimacy to authority

Focal study

Bickman (1974) investigated the effect uniforms have on obedience. In his study, a researcher, dressed either in civilian clothes, as a milkman, or as a security guard, ordered people in the street to pick up rubbish that they had not dropped, loan a coin to a stranger, or to move away from a bus stop. Overall, he found 14 per cent of participants obeyed when the researcher dressed as a milkman, 19 per cent when he dressed in civilian clothes and 38 per cent when he dressed as a security guard. This supports the idea that people obey those in uniform, as it gives them an increased sense of legitimate authority. In a variation of the study, Bickman found that people still obeyed the researcher when dressed as a security guard, even if he walked away after giving the order. This further illustrates the power of uniforms in increasing a sense of legitimate authority.


• Milgram (1974) reported that in a variation of his study, when the teacher and learner were in the same room so that the teacher could see the learner’s distress, obedience declined from the 62.5 per cent seen in the original study to 40 per cent. When the teacher had to force the learner’s hand onto a pretend shock-plate, obedience declined further to 30 per cent. This illustrates the effect of proximity on obedience levels.

• Milgram (1974) reported that another variation, performed in a run-down office, saw obedience fall from 62.5 per cent down to 47.5 per cent when performed in high-status Yale University. This illustrates how location can affect the degree of legitimacy that an authority figure has to deliver orders.

• In Milgram’s (1963) study the confederate researcher wore a laboratory coat, which gave him a sense of increased legitimacy of authority and is assumed to have contributed to the high overall obedience rate.

Positive evaluation

Image Bickman’s 1974 study occurred in a real-life setting and so is high in ecological validity. Participants did not even know they were in a study, which implies their actions were not artificial.

Image Milgram’s variations turn each study into an experiment (something the original study is not) as they create independent variables (IVs) through comparison with the findings from his standard procedure. For example, when the learner is in the same room as the teacher, it creates an IV of whether the learner was visually present or not.

Image Milgram’s variations isolate individual situational variables, allowing us to see their specific effects on obedience levels.

Negative evaluation

Image Orne & Holland (1968) argued that Milgram’s studies lacked internal validity, because participants knew the shocks were fake. However, 80 per cent said they had ’no doubts’ about the authenticity of the study.

Image Other situational variables exist too, like entrapment, where participants were increasingly ’sucked into’ the study by being told to give shocks of ever-increasing voltages. As the voltage of the shocks they gave increased, not obeying became increasingly difficult.

Image Participants may also have obeyed due to dehumanisation (degrading people by lessening their human qualities). Milgram (1963) reported that some participants made comments like ’that guy in there was so stupid he deserved to be shocked’.

Practical application

The knowledge gained from studying situational variables has helped psychologists to form methods and strategies for resisting obedience (and conformity), such as the provision of social support.