What do studies of conformity and obedience tell us about the influence of social factors on individual behaviour?

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Kamran Khan        May 2000.

What do studies of conformity and obedience tell us about the influence of social factors on individual behaviour?


Conformity and obedience illustrate the conflict that may exist between personal freedom, and the requirements of the social order. How this power is mediated, and individual responses to it, were studied by Milgram. These obedience studies emphasize the importance of situation, rather than dispositional influences on individual behaviour.  

Proximity, an important factor in predicting obedience, can be described as the closeness of the participant (or target of authority) to the victim, and the consequences of their action. Thus, in Milgram’s famous study (1963),when the victim was in a separate room, and all contact was absent, obedience was highest: 100% of participants shocked to a maximum level of 450 volts. When the victim could be heard banging on the wall, (an increase in proximity between participant and victim), obedience levels fell: 65% of individuals shocked to the highest level. In the baseline condition, where the victim complained, groaned and screamed from the next room, levels of obedience were surprisingly high, 63% shocked to the maximum level. This can be explained by the closeness of the experimenter as source of authority, and highlights the participants desire to avoid the experimenter’s disapproval. Thus the other aspect of proximity that affected levels of obedience was closeness to the source of authority, in this case, the experimenter. Both aspects of proximity create conflict in opposite directions.

 When Milgram increased immediacy further by placing the victim in the same room as the participant, numbers of individuals willing to shock to the maximum level fell to 40%, and the mean level of shock fell from 370 to310 volts.  The variation, showing highest proximity between victim and participant, involved participants placing the victims hand on the shock plate. Not surprisingly, maximum shocking fell to 30%.

 As proximity was increased, the participants were able to empathise with the victim’s suffering, and the negative consequences of obedience became clear, thus obedience levels fell. Distance allows the victim to be depersonalised and their suffering to be ignored.

The proximity of the source of authority to the target was reduced in a variation that involved the experimenter leaving the room and giving instructions by telephone. In this situation the number of participants willing to deliver maximum levels of shock fell to 20.5 %. Finally, when the experimenter or source of authority no longer directs the target, and they are allowed to determine the level of shock themselves, mean shock level fell to 45 volts, and only 2.5% shocked to the maximum level. This variation indicates more than any other that participants had acted out of obedience in previous variations. Here, when they were allowed to respond in a manner reasonable to themselves, few showed a willingness to hurt others. This disproves the notion that high shocking rates were due to a latent innate aggression, usually suppressed by normative influence and social rules, but socially sanctioned in the experimental situation. This illustrated how obedience was increased by the participant’s fear of the experimenter’s disapproval. As he withdrew, their fear fell and so did obedience. And when the authority no longer stipulated how they should behave, and thus obedience is no longer required, the participants were reluctant to cause suffering.

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These studies are relevant to examples of destructive obedience in modern history. It is proximity to suffering, rather than the magnitude of destruction that determines how much horror we feel, and this affects levels of obedience. These studies predict that it is easier to drop an atomic bomb from a great height, than to attack someone close up when ordered.

The Status of the source of authority also affects the levels of obedience. Thus when the experimenter left the lab, and was replaced by an ‘ordinary man’ rather than the professor, maximal levels of obedience fell to 20%. ...

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