When we commit the fundamental attribution error in explaining people's behaviour we overestimate the power of personality traits and underestimate the power of social influence. Discuss this statement with reference to Milgram's studies on obedience.
When we commit the fundamental attribution error in explaining people’s behaviour we overestimate the power of personality traits and underestimate the power of social influence. Discuss this statement with reference to Milgram’s studies on obedience.
Milgram (1963) demonstrated that the majority of the subjects in his studies on obedience (65 per cent) – “average, decent American citizens” (Milgram, 1963. p.5 ) who had volunteered for a Yale University experiment on learning – would administer painful electric shocks up to 450 volts to another volunteer, despite the latter’s protests. The findings of Milgram’s studies are frequently cited as an example of the power of situational strengths in shaping behaviour and of the tendency to underestimate social influence and instead attribute people’s behaviour to their dispositions or character, i.e. to commit the fundamental attribution error (e.g., Bierbrauer, 1979; Safer, 1980). With reference to the behaviour of the subjects in Milgram’s studies on obedience this essay critically explores the claim that we commit the fundamental attribution error when we overestimate the power of personality traits and underestimate the power of social influence. The essay begins by outlining Milgram’s basic procedure. It then discusses the extent to which Milgram’s findings can be explained in terms of the power of the situation. Finally, it evaluates the role of personality traits in the behaviour of Milgram’s subjects.
Milgram’s experiments were arranged such that two subjects arrived at Yale University at around the same time and were greeted by the experimenter, who explained that the purpose of the study is to examine the effects of punishment on learning. The two subjects then drew slips of paper to determine who would become the ‘teacher’ and who would become the ‘learner’. In fact, one subject was a confederate of the experimenter, and the draw was rigged such that the naive subject always became the teacher and the confederate became the learner. In Milgram’s (1963) baseline condition the teacher was required to test the learner’s ability to recognise a series of word pairs and to administer a shock to the learner by pressing a switch on a shock generator each time he made an error. Furthermore, with each subsequent mistake, the teacher was to increase the shock intensity by 15 volts, beginning with 15 volts up to 450 volts (marked XXX) on the generator. Milgram’s original study included 40 male participants, but subsequent variations on the original study using females yielded almost identical results (Milgram, 1974). In addition, cross-cultural replications of Milgram’s studies have shown comparable levels of obedience (e.g. Kilham and Mann, 1974; Meeus and Raajmakers, 1986; Shanab and Yahya, 1978). To investigate the factors underpinning the high levels of obedience obtained in the original study, Milgram carried out a number of variations on the study, and found that varying the situational variables in his experiments altered subjects’ obedience levels.
One of the first situational variables Milgram (1965) manipulated was the victim’s proximity to the subject, which showed that obedience decreased as the victim became closer. In the ‘remote-feedback’ condition, the ‘teacher’ and the ‘learner’ were in adjacent rooms, and 65 per cent of participants administered the highest shock level (with an average shock level of 405 volts). In the ‘voice-feedback’ condition, the ‘teacher’ and the ‘learner’ were still in adjacent rooms but the ‘learner’ made it clear that he had a heart condition and voiced his distress by screaming. This condition saw obedience levels drop only slightly, to 62.5 per cent, and the average shock level fell to 368 volts. However, in the ‘proximity’ condition, when the teacher and learner were in the same room, and the learner was thus visible as well as audible, obedience levels dropped to 40% and the average shock intensity delivered was 312 volts. The lowest levels of obedience in the ‘proximity’ conditions were found in the ‘touch-proximity’ condition, when the ‘teacher’ was required to hold the learner’s hand on the shock plate. In this condition, only 30% of subjects administered the full 450 volts and the average shock level dropped to 269 volts. Therefore, as the distance between the subject and the victim decreased, the subject became increasingly aware of ‘empathic cues’ (Milgram, 1965) (i.e., screaming, banging on the wall) from the learner and thus of the consequences of his actions.
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Similarly, manipulating the physical proximity of the experimenter to the subject produced varying rates of obedience. In one condition the experimenter sat just a few feet away from the subject and in a second condition he was called away on the pretext of answering a phone call (Milgram, 1965). In this case he gave instructions to the subject by telephone. In the first condition 65 per cent of subjects were fully obedient. In the second condition, however, obedience levels dropped dramatically, with only 20.5 per cent of subjects administering the highest shock level. Interestingly, some subjects continued with the experiment, but delivered lower shock levels than were required. Others used the lowest shock level, while simultaneously assuring the experimenter that they were complying with his requests. This condition is particularly indicative of the conflict the subjects felt and of the magnitude of the situational pressures operating on them. Their predicament was such that they were clearly uneasy delivering the shocks and were desperately trying to reconcile their wish to not harm the victim with their desire to please the experimenter.
The manipulation of ‘group effects’ (Milgram, 1974) provided further empirical support for the theory that the power of the situation overrode personality traits in Milgram’s subjects. In this condition (Experiment 17: Two peers rebel), the subject was joined by two fellow subjects who were to act as co-teachers (actually confederates of the experimenter). In this condition, one co-teacher refused to continue the experiment beyond 150 volts and the other co-teacher followed suit at 210 volts. As a consequence, obedience levels dropped dramatically, with only 10 per cent of subjects being fully obedient and the mean shock level dropping to 305 volts. Milgram (1974) explained these findings in terms of the diffusion of responsibility. According to this phenomenon, the responsibility of each subject is reduced as the number of people present increases. Initially, when all three subjects participate, no-one is 100 per cent responsible for their collective behaviour, as the responsibility is shared or diffused among all three. However, as each co-teacher drops out, the subject’s share of responsibility increases, until finally the onus of responsibility is on him alone. The lower levels of obedience in this condition have also been interpreted as participants’ conformity with their fellow subjects. Some subjects indicated that they were influenced by the decisions of their fellow subjects to quit, which suggests that obedience to authority may be minimised by the presence of role models who defy authority.
A further situational variable that affected obedience levels was the presence of another subject who delivered the shocks while the subject performed subsidiary functions (Experiment 18: Peer administers shocks). In this condition obedience levels soared, with only 3 of the 40 subjects refusing to continue the experiment to the end. This suggests that not physically depressing the lever to deliver shocks creates distance between the subject and the victim and absolves the subject of blame, since he did not actually perform act itself. He can transfer blame to others. In particular, Milgram (1974) drew on the work of Hannah Arendt (1965) to support his theory that situational factors can make ‘ordinary’ people commit deeds they believe to be wrong, especially when they are merely pushing paper (Silver and Geller, 1978). Arendt (1965) had written of the ‘ordinariness’ of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, and Milgram drew parallels between the role of his subjects and that of Eichmann.
Another variation of the experiment (Experiment 13: An ordinary man gives shocks. Milgram, 1974) underlines the role of an authority figure in producing obedience. In this condition, the experimenter was called away to ostensibly answer a phone call and a fellow subject (a confederate of the experimenter) assumed the role of experimenter, without the experimenter having explained the rules of the experiment. The fellow subject proceeded to instruct the ‘teacher’ to increase the shock level each time the ‘learner’ made an error. In this condition, obedience levels dropped dramatically, with only 20% of subjects administering the highest shock level. Milgram (1974) inferred that an authority must be perceived as legitimate if people are to comply with its demands. In Milgram’s experiments the grey lab coat worn by the experimenter consolidates his position, and other studies (e.g. Bickman, 1974; Geffner and Gross, 1984) have shown that obedience levels soar when ordinary people are commanded to do something by someone in uniform, though neither experiment entailed harming another human being. In contrast, when two people in authority were present and gave conflicting orders (Experiment 15; Milgram, 1974), i.e. one indicating that the subject should continue and the other that he should stop, not a single subject administered the full shock level. Therefore, when subjects were in doubt about what to do, they followed the order or the experimenter who commanded them not to continue.
Furthermore, allied to the issue of legitimate authority is the concept of institutional justification. When Milgram moved the experiment to a run-down office block in Bridgeport (Experiment 10: Institutional context) and the experiment was ostensibly conducted by an unknown research institute, obedience levels dropped to 48%. Thus the prestige of Yale University and the motive of co-operating with the experimenter in the interests of science appear to have been important in producing obedience.
An extremely important part of the situation in which Milgram’s subjects found themselves was the gradual way in which they became ‘sucked in’ to giving increasing levels of shocks (Gilbert, 1981). Since each voltage increment was relatively small, there was no natural stopping point, as the experimenter was not actually asking the subject to do anything new, merely to continue doing what he had been doing all along. Therefore, once one has initially complied with seemingly trivial requests, it becomes difficult to refuse escalating demands. Had subjects in Milgram’s experiments been ordered to commence delivering 450-volt shocks, it would have been interesting to see if anyone would have complied with the experimenter’s demands.
The situational factors outlined above illustrate the strong situational pressures that were operating on the subjects in Milgram’s experiments. However, it is important to note that the subjects in Milgram’s studies were never threatened by the experimenter and their physical well-being was never in danger, and therefore, the situational constraints acting on subjects were mild compared to those brought to bear on ‘ordinary’ people in Nazi Germany and on soldiers during wartime, where defiance of authority may have serious repercussions (Mantell, 1970). In this respect, it is interesting that so many obeyed. Having discussed the situational constraints the essay will now evaluate the role of internal or dispositional attributes in the behaviour of Milgram’s subjects.
Milgram (1974) personally rejected the notion that the behaviour of the subjects in his experiments could be accounted for by personal dispositions, arguing that “it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act” (Milgram, 1974. p.205). He rejected the contention that the behaviour of his subjects could be explained as the release of ‘aggressive tendencies’ or ‘destructive urges’, pointing out that when subjects were free to choose the shock level only 2.5 per cent of subjects delivered the maximum shock intensity, and almost all subjects administered the lowest shock levels on the generator. Furthermore, subsequent cross-cultural research using “self-decision” (Mantell, 1971) conditions (where the subject was free to choose the shock level) yielded comparable results. Mantell (1971), for example, reported obedience levels of 7% in the “self-decision” condition (see also Kilham and Mann, 1974; Meeus and Raajmakers, 1986; Shanab and Yahya, 1978). Milgram (1974) also pointed out that experiments designed to study aggression and to frustrate subjects to see if they would deliver higher shock levels when angry (Buss, 1961; Berkowitz, 1962) resulted in only slightly higher shock levels being delivered. Elms and Milgram (1965) found that 20 of the obedient subjects scored significantly higher on the F-Scale of authoritarianism than did 20 of the defiant subjects. However, there were no significant differences on the MMPI Scale for these two groups, though those who defied the experimenter showed significantly higher scores on the social responsibility scale derived from the MMPI. Therefore, it would seem that there is no unequivocal evidence to support the notion that personality traits may account for the actions of Milgram’s subjects.
In conclusion, it would seem that making dispositional attributions to account for the obedience levels of Milgram’s subjects would be grossly underestimating the power of social influence and overestimating personality traits. Variations on Milgram’s original (1963) study highlighted a number of situational factors that increase and decrease obedience levels. In particular, the presence and proximity of a legitimate authority figure increased the likelihood of obedience. Furthermore, obedience levels soared when subjects played only a subsidiary part in the experiment and did not have to deliver the shocks themselves. On the other hand, the closer the victim was to the subject, the greater the likelihood became that the subject would defy the experimenter. Defiance of authority was also more likely when a subject was part of a group in which the other members disobeyed the authority’s commands. In addition, when subjects received conflicting messages from two different authorities, not one person was fully obedient, and most broke off the experiment as soon as the disagreement commenced. Also, changing the institutional context to one that is less prestigious decreased obedience levels slightly. Although there is some evidence that obedient subjects score higher on the F-scale of authoritarianism than do defiant subjects, on the whole there is little evidence to suggest that the behaviour of the subjects in Milgram’s studies can be explained by personality traits.
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