top of page


Situational Variables

Milgram's Research (1963):


Milgram set out to to prove that Germans were different.


He recruited 40 male American participants via an advertisement in a newspaper published in the New Haven area of America. He asked for males aged 20 to 50 years old to take part in a study about learning and memory. The volunteers were told they would be paid $4.50 to take part. When the participants arrived at the university, they were told that the study was about learning and punishment. They were introduced to a confederate who was called Mr. Wallace and an experimenter who was dressed in a white lab coat. They were both confederates of the experimenter. The naïve participant drew lots for the role of teacher or learner with Mr. Wallace. This was rigged so that Mr. Wallace, who was a confederate of the experimenter, was always the learner and the real naïve participant was always the teacher.

Then the participant was shown the shock generator which displayed a number of dials which went from 15 V to 450 V in 15 V increments. The participant was then given a sample shock of 45 V. The teacher (the naïve participant) was instructed to give the learner an electric shock every time they made a mistake on the task. The teacher was told to read out a series of word pairs to the learner and every time the learner got an answer wrong they were instructed to give the learner a shock. If the teacher started to hesitate, the experimenter in the white lab coat was instructed to give them a series of verbal prods. There were four in total.


Milgram found that 65% of the participants continued to give shocks up to 450 V. The highest level on the shock generator.

All of the participants went up to 300 V at which 12.5% (five participants) stopped

Milgram found that the participants showed signs of extreme tension.

They started to sweat, shake, dig their fingers into their hands, and three of them were described as having full blown uncontrollable seizures.

Before the Study, Milgram asked 14 psychology students to predict what they thought would happen. They estimated that less than 3% would continue to 450 V.

After the study, all participants were debriefed, and 84% of the participants said that they were glad to have taken part in the study.


Milgram concluded that people will obey a legitimate authority figure even when they know that their behavior will cause harm to another person. Milgram also went on to test a number of situational factors which he found were likely to affect obedience levels.


1. One strength of the research is that it has been replicated and similar results found. It was reported that a French TV game 'The Game of Death' show replicated Milgram. Contestants were paid to give electric shocks to another participant. It was found that 80% gave the maximum 460 V to an apparently unconscious man. This adds validity to Milgram's study.

2. A Limitation of the study was proposed by Orne &  Holland in 1968. They were big critics of Milgram and argued that the participants had guessed that the shocks were fake and they were merely play acting . This was supported by Perry (2013) who analyzed the tapes of Milgram's studies and found that the experimenter frequently went off script and the participants often voiced suspicions that the shocks were not real. Therefore, this suggests that the participants were responding due to demand characteristics, and this therefore limits the internal validity of the study.

However, Sheridan and king (1972) set up an experiment where participants were required to give real shocks to a puppy. They found that 54% of males and 100% of females delivered what they thought was a fatal shock. This suggests that the obedience shown in Milgram study might actually have been genuine.

3. Another limitation comes from Haslam (2014) who focused on the verbal prods that the experimenter gave. In Milgram's study it was found that when the first three verbal prods were used by the experimenter, the participant continued to give shocks. It was only when the fourth verbal prod was given that the participants disobeyed and stopped the study. Haslam referred to social identity theory and suggested that the initial three verbal prods were all were obeyed because they required identification with the science of the study. It was only the fourth verbal prod which required the participant to “blindly obey” - you have no choice you must continue. This shows that the findings of the Milgram study might be better explained by considering how the participants identified with the scientific nature of the study, and not just blind obedience as Milgram suggested.

4. One key criticism of Milgram's study is that there are a number of ethical issues. The participants were repeatedly deceived during the study. The original advertisement, did not outline the true nature of the study. Participants were also deceived into thinking that the selection of teacher and learner was random. Furthermore, they were deceived about the nature of the shocks,  as they thought they were genuine because they had experienced a “sample shock”. Baumrind (1964) felt that this serious deception could have consequences for the participants as there was no informed consent. Therefore, this can damage the reputation of Psychology and participants may be less inclined to participate in later psychological studies.

Milgram's Variations:


In the original baseline study, the teacher could hear the learner but not see him. In the proximity variation, the teacher and the learner were in the same room and obedience dropped from 65% to 40%.

In the touch proximity variation, the teacher forced the learners hand onto a shock plate. In this case the obedience rate was 30%.

When orders were given by telephone (the remote instruction variation) the obedience rates dropped to 20.5% going to 450 V.


It was thought that the prestigious university building (Yale university) played a role in the extent to which participants obeyed and gave electric shocks to the learner. The study was replicated in a rundown office building and it was found that obedience rates dropped to 47.5% going to the maximum shock level of 450 V.


In another variation of the study the experimenter instead of wearing the lab coat wore their own every day clothes. In this situation, the obedience of the participants fell to 20% from the maximum shock of 450v . It was therefore suggested that the uniform symbolized that the person giving the orders had legitimate authority.



1. One strength of Milgram's research is that it has real world support from the study of Bickman (1974). Bickman asked a number of confederates to dress in different outfits and go up to people and ask them to perform a number of tasks. One of confederates was dressed in a security guard uniform, whereas another was dressed as a milkman. A final condition involved a confederate dressing in a jacket and a tie. They were then asked to go up to people and asked them to do things such as pick up litter which was on the street. He found that people were twice as likely to obey when the confederate was dressed as a security guard compared to when they were dressed in a jacket and tie. This shows that situational variables have an effect on obedience.

2. Another strength of Milgram research that has been replicated in other cultures.

3. A limitation of research comes again from Orne & Holland (1968) who suggested that the original study lacked validity and that these studies where he changed, the variables made the participants even more suspicious, and therefore, once again just act him.

Situational Explanations

Agentic State

Milgram proposed that obedience to a destructive authority, occurs because a person does not take responsible responsibility for the actions. Instead, they believe they are acting on behalf of someone else. This is referred to as the agent state. An agent is anyone who acts on behalf of that legitimate authority figure.

Autonomous state.

The opposite of being in an agent state is that of being in an autonomous state. When someone is behaving in an autonomous way, it means that they are acting independently. Therefore, a person who is in an autonomous state acts and takes responsibility for their own actions.

The change from autonomous to agency is referred to as the agent shift. 

Binding factors

Milgram found that many of the participants wanted to stop doing what the authority figure was asking them to do, but they felt that they couldn’t. He suggested that the reason for this is because of binding factors. Binding factors refers to aspects of the situation that make that person minimise the impact of their behavior. It helps them to deal with the uncomfortable tension that exists because they are being asked to do something which they don’t fully agree with. Milgram suggested that people employ a number of strategies, including shifting the responsibility onto the victim. This victim blaming include the participants in Milgram's electric shock study, blaming the learner for not getting the answers correct. Another strategy is that they might minimise the damage that they have caused to the victims. Using the experimenter's reassurance that there was no damage caused by the electric shock to justify their actions.



1. One strength of this explanation is that it has research support from Blass & Schmitt (2001). They showed students videotapes of Milgram’s experiments and then asked them who they thought was responsible for the harm caused to the learner, Mr. Wallace. They found that the students blamed the experimenter rather than the teacher (the naive participant). for giving the shocks. They said that the responsibility lay with the experimenter as he was the legitimate authority figure. Furthermore, it was the experimenter because he was a scientist and had expert authority,


2. One weakness of the agentic state explanation is that it cannot explain the research findings of Hofling et al 1966. In this study a bogus doctor phoned a ward and told the nurse to give a drug to a patient. The drug dosage was in fact an overdose. Hofling found that 21 out of the 22 nurses were going to obey the orders given by the doctor and give the drug to the patient. This is a weakness for the agent state explanation as none of the nurses showed any signs of anxiety and remained in an autonomous state.


3. Another strength of the agentic state explanation is that it has been used to explain real life instances where people have committed atrocities in war. For example, the My Lai massacre which happened during the Vietnam War in 1968.  504 unarmed civilians were killed by American soldiers because the soldiers were 'just following orders'. Only one soldier faced charges for the massacre, Lieutenant William Calley, and he to also said he was just following orders. However, this explanation has been criticised because it cannot explain why many of the soldiers committed atrocities which went far beyond just killing the innocent women and children who were in the village at the time of the massacre.


 Legitimacy of authority.

Legitimacy of authority is the idea that some people in society hold positions that give them authority over others. For example, in the workplace, this might be your boss, in schools this might be teachers and in wider society, it could be police officers. In order for someone to have legitimate authority there usually has to be a hierarchical structure, which is socially accepted that the person is in a position of power.

Problems arise, sometimes when that legitimate authority becomes disruptive. For example, throughout history, we have seen examples where powerful leaders have used the authority in order to create destructive purposes. In Milgram's study, this was the experimenter who used verbal prods to participants to continue giving shocks to a learner.



1. One strength of the legitimacy of authority explanation is that it can account for cultural differences in obedience. For example, Milgram's study was replicated in Australia and it was found that only 16% of the participants went up to 450 V (Kilham & Mann, 1974). In another study, it was found amongst German participants 85% went up to the 450 V limit (Mansell, 1971).

2. One weakness of the legitimacy of authority explanation is that it cannot explain when there are cases of disobedience within a hierarchy, which is clear and socially accepted. For example, there is a study by Rank and Jacobson (1977) where it was found that the majority of nurses disobeyed orders from a doctor to administer an overdose to a patient. Furthermore, in Milgram's studies, there were a number of participants that disobeyed, despite being in the presence of the experimental who was a legitimate authority figure.

Dispositional Explanations

Adorno's Research (1950):

Theodore Adorno wanted to understand the antisemitism of the holocaust. He believed that a high-level of obedience reflected a particular personality type.

Adorno believed that the authoritarian personality showed extreme respect for people they perceived to be authority figures, but contrastingly showed disrespect for those their considered to be lower than themselves within social  hierarchies. People with an authoritarian personality also thought that society was becoming too liberal and therefore weak. They believed that there is a need for powerful leaders to enforce traditional values in order to to regain a strong society with a high-level of morality, and love for the country and the family.

The origins of the authoritarian personality comes from childhood experiences, with an adult parenting style responsible for creating this personality type. Parents tend to tended to be quite harsh and enforce strict discipline within the children. There is an expectation that children raised by these parents show absolute loyalty, and parents would enforce this by using conditional love. 

Adorno suggested that these early childhood experiences lead to the child, feeling frustrated and resentment resentful of their parents, however they are unable to express this dissatisfaction towards their parents so they displace their anger onto people that they saw as weaker than themselves within the social hierarchy. This is sometimes referred to scapegoating. It is a hatred of people who are perceived to be lower than themselves within that social hierarchy. The concept of scapegoating comes from the psychodynamic explanation of personality.

Adorno found that authoritarian personality had a particular cognitive style. They had very strong opinions and stereotypes of others. They believed in traditional values and had very clear ideas about gender role relationships within the family as well as traditional views of sexuality. Adorno also found a strong positive correlation between authoritarian personality and high levels of prejudice.

Adorno's et al 1950.


2000 middle-class white Americans were studied and interviewed about a number of a number of issues including their attitudes towards their parents, their attitudes towards other racial groups and society in general and from this the F scale was constructed. This scale was used to measure the authoritarian personality. Examples of items from that scale include things such as obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues a child can have. People completing this scale how to had to express the agreement with the items statements on a scale of one to six, where 6 equals agree strongly.


People who scored highly on the scale were considered to have an 'Authoritarian Personality' and showed  excessive respect to those who they considered to be above them in the social hierarchy.


1. One strength of the authoritarian personality as an explanation for obedience comes from the research of Milgram and Elms (1966). They interviewed a sample of people who had completed the original Milgram shock experiment and found that those who scored highly on the F-scale were also more likely to give the full 450 V shock to the learner.

2. One limitation of the authoritarian personality as an explanation for obedient behaviour is that it cannot explain a whole countries personality type. Adorno was trying to understand and explain why the atrocities happened in Nazi Germany but it seems extremely unlikely that all of the people who took part in these atrocities possessed one type of personality. An alternative view proposed is that of social identity theory, which suggests that the majority of the German people identified with the antisemitic Nazi state and therefore scapegoated what they saw was the cause of the issue i.e. the outgroup, which was the Jewish population living in Germany.

2. Another limitation of research is the fact that it is politically biased. It only assesses a right wing ideology and links that to the Authoritarian Personality. It could be argued that having an extreme left-wing authoritarianism is just as undesirable and as common as a right wing ideology. It could be that both extreme right wing and extreme left-wing ideology emphasise the importance of obedience to a political authority. Therefore, this means that Adorno's research cannot explain authority across the whole political spectrum

3. A further limitation of research is that it is a  personality scale, constructed based on research conducted on an unrepresentative sample of people within the American population. All participants surveyed by Adorno were white middle-class Americans, and hence lacked diversity in their opinions. Furthermore, the scale itself has been criticized for having an acquiescence bias. The items on the scale, are written in such as way that anyone answering the questionnaire is more likely to agree with the items than disagree. 


Obedience Exam Questions

Obedience Mark Scheme

bottom of page