Milgram wanted to understand why so many of his participants administered the full 450volts shock. In an everyday situation we are said to be acting in an autonomous sate. This means that we are acting independent or freely. Milgram’s agency theory (1973) suggests that we can move from this autonomous state and shift to an agentic state.
The agentic state is when we act on the behalf of another person, usually an authoritative figure. We feel little to no responsibility of our actions and therefore take little consideration for the consequences of our actions. This could involve obeying destructive authority figures and cause harm to others.
Milgram suggested some binding factors that kept participants in this agentic state and reduced the personal accountability of their actions. Some participants identified with the experiment and did not want to disrupt it so continued with the instructions from the researchers. This may have also been influenced by the fact that the participants had already been paid and therefore they almost felt they had an obligation to continue with the demands. The location of the experiment may have also had an impact on participants as they may have seen the “authority” as more legitimate due to the fact the experiment was ran at a prestigious university.
Legitimacy of Authority
We may also obey due to the natural societal hierarchies that in general we agree to. There are specific jobs or roles in society that we would recognise of having authority such as our parents, police, teachers and so on… This perceived authority is recognised as the role involves the individual to be a source knowledge or legal power. Parents, teachers and police officers are likely to punish if orders not obeyed and therefore, we are more likely to obey.
We see legitimacy of authority in Milgram’s study as the experiment was ran in prestigious university. Participants would have regarded the experimenter in the grey lab coat as an authoritative figure and therefore obeyed. When the experiment was repeated in a different location or with a “member of the public” or over the phone this questions the legitimacy of authority and therefore the rates of obedience fell.
Legitimacy of authority has the power to very destructive as we have seen in history and therefore it is important to understand why people obey and to minimise the chances of individuals taking advantage of their status in society.
Social-Psychological Factors – Strengths
Milgram interviewed his participants following his experiment. Many agreed that they would not have gone as far if they were in the room themselves. The experimenter, with his insistence they continue, forced the agentic shift and participants felt that he would take responsibility of their actions as he had given the order to continue with the 4 prods. This is further supported by variations of Milgram’s study and the decrease in levels of obedience when the level of accountability increased and/or the legitimacy of authority questioned.
Blass and Schmidt (2001) showed clips of Milgram’s experiment to their students. They then questioned them on how they thought was to blame. Students blamed the experimenter as they believed he had authority in the situation.
There is also research that supports the legitimacy of authority. Bickman (1974) designed an experiment that involved a confederate dressed up as either a milkman, security guard or a member of the public. The confederate would ask members of the public passing by to pick up some litter. The level of obedience was greater for the security guard as they are higher in the societal hierarchy in respect to authority.
Social-Psychological Factors – Limitations
Agentic state and legitimacy theory have been used to help explain destructive authority such as the Mai Lai Massacre. However, some psychologists argue these theories may be used as an alibi and should not try to diminish the responsibility of people’s actions in such extreme cases. For example, Mandel (1998) described a German Reserve Police Battalion shoot civilians even though they were not ordered to do so.
Although these theories can explain why some people obey, they are limited to only that. These theories are incomplete as they do not account for people who act on their own accord or for those who do not obey.