Analysis of The Extent to What Obedience Research Has Helped to Explain Real World Atrocities

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Words: 2375 |

Pages: 5|

12 min read

Published: Sep 1, 2020

Words: 2375|Pages: 5|12 min read

Published: Sep 1, 2020

Obedience can be widely defined as a type of social influence in human behaviour, including but not limited to the extent to which we are influenced by other people in relation to following a direct order, as opposed to responding to social pressure, real or imagined, which would be classed as conformity. It is noted that the person giving an order is usually perceived to have significant authority and the power to punish when obedience is not forthcoming. According to Fiske (1993) authority figures display the phenomenon of ‘social power’ which enables them to create the desired obedience when it should or should not be received through anxiety of the consequence of disobedience. This hierarchical figure changes depending on the social context, time or age of the person obeying. For example, a teacher and student relationship or parent and child relationships are built on principles of age and status. Another example, this time based on conduct authority, would be a prisoner and prison guard relationship such as that explored by Zimbardo’s conformity study in 1973, which highlighted the importance of situation in explaining conformity to the roles of brutality toward prisoners in late 1960s USA. There has been a variety of obedience research with many research studies highlighting the importance of a number of variables, of which, have revolutionised the way in which we perceive the occurrences of a variety of real-world atrocities. The essay will focus on historical examples of obedience and how they can explain instances such as the Nazis and Hitler’s behaviour in the Holocaust, the 2003 and 2004 Abu Gharaib Iraq occurrences, as well as the Massacre at My Lai near Quang Ngai, Vietnam, among others.

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One of the most historically significant examples of influential obedience research would be Stanley Milgram’s 1963 original obedience study. The inspiration for the study was sparked by the 1961 Nuremburg trials, in particular the trial and eventual execution of Adolf Eichmann, the late Nazi soldier who was famously quoted (following his orders were the) ‘most important thing in my life’. The quote inspired Milgram leading him to draw up his first hypothesis, ‘are German’s different’. After months of research preparation, he developed his baseline study, one against which all others would be compared to. The original study consisted of 40 male participants divided into teachers and learners. A word association game was carried out with flash cards and when the learner gave the wrong card to a question, the teacher was requested to give the learner an electric shock, which increased with each subsequent mistake up to a maximum of 450 volts, a deadly shock. All participants believed the shocks were real, and when they did not want to administer the shocks, they were given a sequence of demands by an experimenter dressed in a lab coat. 1-3% were estimated to obey by a leading group of researchers at the time when in fact, 65% showed full obedience to the highest shock voltage. In a replication of the study carried out in order to precisely define the root cause of obedience, several situational variables were manipulated whilst the original procedure was conducted, uniform, proximity and location. Interestingly, all situational variables markedly impacted the obedience rate. Moving the location from Yale University to a run-down office caused obedience to drop from 65% to 47.5%. Teacher and learner proximity down to the same room caused the obedience to drop to 40% while changing the experimenter who was dressed in a lab coat to a civilian caused the most dramatic reduction from 65% to 20% overall obedience.

Similar findings have been investigated by Bickman et al’s 1975 uniform obedience field study who carried out an experiment in New York City where three different people wearing three different uniforms asked 152 passers-by to obey requests such as ‘put a dime in the meter’, ‘stand at the other side of the bus stop’ and to ‘pick up that litter’. Out of three uniforms, a milkman produced the median level of the obedience scores 56% whilst the security guard uniform got well over twice as much obedience at 89% than the civilian uniform 39%, not only supporting Milgram’s studies, but also providing a basis for the interpretation of atrocities involving situational factors, such as the Holocaust. More than 6 million Jews, Gypsies and members of other minority groups were killed during the Holocaust, and, the research above shows that, just like the experimenter, Hitler and Stalin had legitimacy of authority as they had the power to punish, a professional uniform, the hierarchical status and close proximity to their soldiers. Evidence from one Nazi officer, Eichmann, giving us increased insight into why so many officers may have obeyed. This may also give us increased insight into the 2003/2004 events in the Abu Gharaib prison where American Military guards performed violent, sexual and humiliating acts on Baghdadi prisoners, although this case is still disputed as to whether the main process was obedience or conformity, or a mixture of both which is an important argument to make, that more often than not, there are many explanations for a phenomena, and it seems plausible that obedience research should be questioned in terms of its validity. It is unacceptable to reject counter theories. Zimbardo’s 1973 study showed, some of their guards identified more so with their role than others. For example, 1/3 of the prison guards actively empathised with the prison guards, offering them cigarettes and reinstating privileges. Fromm 1973 also accused Zimbardo of ignoring the impact of dispositional influences and relying too heavily on the effects of the situation, which is a finding that has been investigated by many other researchers and is one we will come to later on in the essay.

Other than Legitimacy of Authority, another social-psychological explanation of obedience concerns the Agentic State Theory. Autonomy is the exact opposite of Agency and it means to be free to make your own choices unaffected by other people’s wishes. Agency means that the person carrying out the order has gone through the Agentic Shift. Switching from Autonomy to Agency involves perceiving others as a figure of authority through social hierarchy and being able to carry out the demands as if it was not personally conducted themselves i.e. through the wishes of their master or leader. Binding Factors allow the person to carry out the activity minimising the effect of anxiety on the person by shifting the blame or ignoring the consequences. This social-psychological phenomenon is particularly helpful in understanding the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War. In 1968, 504 innocent civilians were executed by American soldiers. Women were gang raped and people were shot down emerging from their homes with their hands up. The same response was given by the soldiers here as the Nazi soldiers that they were only obeying orders. This could be explained through Agentic State and Binding factors which enabled them to minimise the personal distress felt in a similar way as a defence mechanism.

There are also a handful of other explanations for the My Lai Massacre. Additionally, as we have seen with all of these examples, destructive authority seems to be a recurrent theme in all of all these atrocities. This occurs when people in positions of power use their powers in a way of providing a basis to behave in cruel and callous ways, leaders such as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and President Mao have all abused their authority throughout time causing widespread pain and suffering. Furthermore, it could be that dispositional factors play a more important role than situational factors. Another historical example of this was given by Mandel 1998 who believes that situational factors provide an excuse or alibi, hence the ‘obedience alibi’ for evil behaviour. In his view, this monocausal explanation is actually an offence to survivors of the holocaust, implying that the Nazi soldiers were victims themselves of situational factors beyond their own control. In his research, Mandel (1998) draws attention to an example from the holocaust which suggests that the behaviour of the Nazis can simply not be explained through factors such as the Agentic Shift in Authority. The incident of relevance was carried out by the German Reserve Police Battalion 101 who were Nazi soldiers who obeyed the orders to shoot residents in a small town in Poland, despite the fact that the men were not directly ordered to do so and were offered to be assigned to other duties instead if they preferred non-physical work. As these men had not been directly ordered to murder the civilians, it is challenging evidence against these explanations of obedience.

The final explanation of obedience that will be explored in this essay is known as the Authoritarian Personality which is a particular personality type identified by Theodore Adorno when he, like Milgram was interested in finding out why so many people during the holocaust obeyed the authority figure and rejected their human morality. In his early research, Adorno (1950) carried out surveys among 2000 white middle classed ethnic groups and asked their attitudes towards other racial groups in an inconspicuous way to identify their unconscious rationale. What emerged was the potential for fascism scale, widely known as the F-Scale. His findings showed that those scoring high on the scale were showing certain trends in their personality such as being conscious of social class, status and respect as well as dismissive to lower social classes and submissive to authority figure. They also found a high level of prejudice and distinctive categorization of right or wrong, no ‘grey area’. They also believed that we need strong and powerful leaders to enforce rules over society. Adorno originally stated that the Authoritarian Personality originated from an overly harsh and disciplined parenting style with little reward or reinforcement, but severe punishment of any perceived wrongdoings by the child causing resentment that scapegoats to others perceived as lower in social class. The description of the Authoritarian Personality type seems to fit hand in hand with the knowledge of the Soldiers and Supporters of Hitler in the holocaust due to their high prejudice of the Jewish citizens and punishment of those who were seen to support them.

The Authoritarian personality could also be used as an explanation for a variety of other atrocities throughout history and present. A good example of this, according to Chien (2016), would be the Chinese Revolution in 1966 where over one million people were killed through president Mao’s purge of the ‘impure’ in a bizarre method of regaining control of the communist state. President Mao’s ideologies were oddly supported by tens of thousands of people across the country and his soldiers killed many people on the order of their leaders and Mao. If the individuals have followed their orders in such a way and have such respect for their leader then the Chinese Revolution may well be explained through the authoritarian personality. A more modern example of behaviour that could well be explained with the authoritarian personality could be the country and state of North Korea and the leader, Kim Jong Un. Although little about the country can be revealed, it has been suggested that propaganda, respect, obedience and submissiveness towards their leader and his rules can be explained through the authoritarian personality. For example, residents cannot use the internet, may not leave the country, wear denim, have certain hairstyles etcetera. Although the Authoritarian Personality seems to be an obvious explanation for such atrocities, there are a handful of limitations attached to it. For example, both of the examples above can be explained through the Social Identity Theory which suggests that we identify with our ingroup and create a divide with the perceived outgroup, which could be either the scapegoating of Jews during the Holocaust, the non-North Koreans from Kim Jong Un and followers or the ill, Elderly or Uneducated from Mao’s purge as per the examples above.

The research from Milgram and Adorno’s key studies in the 1950s and 1960s inform our understanding of the callous, cruel and unforgivable acts carried out by creating the most significant psychological and dispositional theories. Despite the value of the obedience research, there are numerous limitations in what research can nomothetically conclude. Both studies were conducted in the 1950s and 1960s. Research has come a long way and new developments from studies on minority and majority influence, as well as social change and social identity theorems may have outdated its predecessors, reducing the historical validity of past obedience research, meaning they only hold true to the context with which they were first created. There are also cross-cultural differences in obedience, for example(Kilham and Mann (1974., found that, in a replication of Milgram’s study with Australian participants that only 16% fully obeyed the researcher. On the other hand, Miranda et al. (1981) found an obedience rate of more than 90% among Spanish students suggesting that there is a degree of cultural differences, as well as participant variables as well. Moreover Smith and Bond (1998), make the important note that most replications are based in counties in the Western world, making it implausible to generalise the findings to people everywhere. According to Fattah E. Darwish (2003), countries such as America and England were previously more collectivist as a society, where fitting in with the social group and obeying the norm was observed more highly than today where people are free to live how they please. Individualist cultures and freedom in the Western World may explain a lower level of obedience, however, a lack of punishment may also explain this. For example, homosexuality is illegal in certain countries, for example, Saudi Arabia, where offenders can be executed with the death penalty. This could explain why many residents ‘obey’ the law, as it were.

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Additionally, new developments build on older theories of obedience. A revolutionary development produced by Dahlman (2009), concerns the categorisation of different types of obedience, ‘Obedience Assumed’ and ‘Obedience Accepted’ and defines a clear difference between them. Understanding and developing research into obedience and perhaps why people resist obedience by looking at their personality differences may give a greater understanding of what those who obey ‘lack’ that those who disobey have. Studying these mechanisms may unlock how obedience operates in different settings and applies to the historical atrocities previously mentioned.

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Analysis of the Extent to What Obedience Research Has Helped to Explain Real World Atrocities. (2020, September 01). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 22, 2024, from
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