A Research Of Social Influence Through Obedience

Social influence can be explicated as “an attempt to understand and explain how the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others” or further, as 'the actions, reactions, and thoughts of an individual that are influenced by other people or groups'. It takes three major forms: conformity, compliance and obedience. The focal point of this essay will be social influence through obedience, delving into Stanley Milgram's study and then looking at the ethical issues as well as situational factors that Milgram explored in order to determine why an individual will obey.

Obedience is a form of social influence in which an otherwise considerate individual receives order(s) from an authoritative figure and obeys them (although it may comprise destructive activities), as opposed to conformity in which requests are involved rather than orders, and compliance which involves altering your behaviour at the demand of another individual. Obedience requires hierarchy, in terms of power or authority, where another individual submits to the authoritative figure and follows what is said (the person giving the order will more than likely be of higher status than the person receiving it).

Stanley Milgram (1933-1984) was fascinated by the work of Solomon Asch (1907-1996), who studied, and conducted, conformity experiments (the Asch Paradigm). Asch (1951) wanted to examine how far social pressure, by a group, could push an individual to conform to their norms, and Milgram wanted to expand on this study - Asch's findings showed that individuals could be influenced and manipulated easily to conform to the pressure of groups. However, Milgram wanted to explore further and find out how far people were prepared to go. He was strongly intrigued by the Adolf Eichmann case, in which Eichmann had been put forward for trialing, due to having planned and carried out mass deportation of Jews during the Second World War (WWII). This trial ignited Milgram's interest in 'obedience' as throughout the duration of the trial, Eichmann claimed that he had only been following orders, and therefore did not feel culpable of his actions, as he had simply been obeying his superiors' orders and was not the one who made the ultimate decision to eradicate those being kept hostage.

Milgram then put into effect the question 'are Germans different?' He wanted to know why Germans were enthusiastic to kill Jews at the time of the Holocaust and if it was just that Germans were generally evil. The aim of Milgram's experiment was to find out whether people would go as far as to harm others around them, to follow authoritative orders, and how powerful the pressure to obey is.

In order to test his hypothesis ('Germans are different'), Milgram set up an experiment in which there were two participants, and each was assigned a different role: the teacher (this role was always given to the participant) or the learner (this role was always assigned to Milgram's assistant). Both the teacher and learner were put into different rooms. The experimenter would begin by asking the teacher to give the learner an electric shock every time he answered a question incorrectly. Unknowingly, the teacher was presenting the learner with innocuous electric shocks, but the voltage did increase for every wrong answer given, from 15-450 volts. The experimenter's role was to provide the participant with orders if they refused to give the learner their supposedly 'deserved' electric shock in the case of a wrong answer. The experimenter did this by utilising a series of prods (orders). Four prods were used, and if the first was not acknowledged, the experimenter would move onto the next. The first prod was 'please continue', with the second being 'the experiment requires that you continue'. The third and fourth prods were 'it is absolutely essential that you continue,' and 'you have no other choice, you must go on' respectively. What distinguished the final prompt was the fact that it was the only prompt that could be recognised as one of an unqualified order. Results from this study demonstrated that all participants were willing to reach 300 volts and 65% were more than happy to go the full length of 450 volts.

Milgram produced several variations of his study by carrying out 18 different versions, with one being a change in location. These variations saw the situation (independent variable) being altered to see how and whether obedience (dependent variable) would be affected. The variation of Milgram's study that used a change in location, had the aim of seeing whether the level of obedience would diminish if carried out in a less estimable environment. The findings of this research demonstrated that obedience dropped by 47.5%, concluding that obedience was affected by the environment presented. The reason for this may have been because the participate felt that as they were in a less serious setting, they were unconstrained. 

16 December 2021
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