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Stanley Milgram's Study of Obedience to Authority

Discuss about the Obedience and Conscience for Psychological Conflict.

Obedience is recognized as a form of human behavior that makes a person to explicit orders and instructions from an authoritative figure. It is separated from conformity and compliance in the sense that they are either the behavior expressed to match the majority and influenced by the peers. A hierarchy of status and power is involved in obedience that makes an individual obey the authority (Smith, Mackie & Claypool, 2014). The individual receiving the order is on a lower status than the individual giving out orders and commands actions that make the obedient individual go against his own conscience. Argumentatively, it can be stated that obedience is a virtue that makes an individual act against his conscience and obeys to the issued orders irrespective of the outcome of the carried out responsibility. This essay will discuss under what circumstances does an individual obeys the authority and go against his conscience with respect to the studies of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo.

The thesis statement for the essay is ‘Obedience wins over conscience under authoritative directives.'

Stanley Milgram carried out an experiment in 1963 for studying obedience in psychology by focusing on the conflict between authority to obedience and personal conscience. The experiment consisted of administration of electric shocks by the teacher to the learner for every wrong answer. An experimenter was also present to give out orders to the teachers and compel them to administer electric shocks to the learner against their conscience. It is believed that the individuals are independent enough not to go against their moral code to the extreme, regardless of the pressure exerted on them (Burger, 2014). In the experiment conducted by Milgram, none of the participants were under any violent or physical restraints and in spite of that, they continued to follow the directions of the experimenter and administered the learner severe shock of 450 volts. This was purely out of obedience and demonstrated the fact that ordinary people have the tendency to follow orders as directed by an authoritative figure even at the cost of the life of a human being who is innocent. It is an ingrained and inherited characteristic that makes them obey orders if they consider their superiors legally correct. This made the participants go along and administer high-voltage shocks without any restraint. Since 65% or 2/3rd of the teachers or participants continued to the maximum level of voltage of 450 volts, it can be stated that obedience was prevalent among the majority of the participants (Milgram, 1963). Milgram’s argument of considering obedience as a universal constraint across culture and time was also apparent since all of the participants exerted the electric shock up to the voltage limit of 300 which was damaging enough for the learner.

Philip Zimbardo's Prison Experiment

Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment in 1971 for studying the psychological effects of the power perceived by the participants. It was based on the struggle of power between the prison guards and the prisoners. In the experiment, the good guards readily conformed to the roles of guards in the simulated prison life where they submitted to their social roles out of obedience. It is obvious that the individuals conform to the social roles that they are expected to carry out even if they are stereotyped strongly (Haney, Banks & Zimbardo, 1972). It was the environment of the prison that created the brutal behavior of the guards and made them look the other way. This is strongly evident from the fact that none of the participants of the experiment who acted as prison guards had sadistic tendencies prior to the study. This made clear that behavior had a situational explanation and not a dispositional explanation in this study that made the guards behave abnormally out of the prison environment that made them feel committed and involved in their roles (Zimbardo, 2004). Along with the guards, the prisoners started to commit degrading acts against each other on command by the guards as they intended to settle into their new roles. With the torture of the prisoners by the guards, a similar behavior was also infused in their thoughts and they started to adopt the prisoner like behavior (Zimbardo, Maslach & Haney, 2000). They sided with the guards against their fellow prisoners who disobeyed the rules and took the prison rules very seriously. Argumentatively, this was all an effect of the environment that caused them to obey their superiors, their guards and carry out their social roles even against their conscience of going against their fellow prisoners.

Incorporation of the real world examples into the concept of obedience can never hurt. This is in the sense that the genocidal activities in Rwanda or the Holocaust by the Nazis and the human atrocity in the Abu Ghraib prison would not have been possible unless a large number of obedient followers of orders consented to obey their superiors. These obedient people have been termed as the human agents who, although had conscience, were controlled by the external forces and invariant psychological and trans-historical propensities (Mestrovic, 2016). Several psychologists argued to these examples by stating that obedience of the orders by the superiors can be decisive and supportive in unfolding the operations of torture and murder amidst the factors of dehumanization of the victims and anti-Semitic propaganda (Smyth, 2015). A remarkable reflection of these human atrocities is visible in the experiments by Milgram and Zimbardo where the conscience did not play a role in stopping the subjects from getting involved in crimes and murderous activities that resulted in willing executioners out of the obedient individuals. Therefore, these two experiments raised the argument and made it stable that obedience can also lead to murderous conversions that make the individual act against his will and gets the mission accomplished under coercion and in an automatic fashion. This argument can be well supported with the real life examples of human atrocities and mass killing movements throughout the world where obedience turned normal human beings into ruthless killers.

Real-World Examples of Obedience to Authority

Different personalities of the individuals make them respond differently to the similar social situations and these accounts for the fact that obedient individuals have a unique personality trait. There are obedient and disobedient individuals who act differently in specific situations and this is evident from the Milgram’s paradigm that those who were more obedient applied more electrical shock on the learner compared to the ones who were less obedient (Bègue et al., 2015). Arguably, it can be stated that individuals do have personalities that are capable of expressing stable and unique reactions to the sets of related situations. When it comes to obedience, unique personality traits come to play that makes the individual obey the commands from his superiors.

Symbols have a unique role to play in human behavior as it acts as a stimulus that conditions a response. This can be well related to the fact that scientists in the white coat get more attention compared to other human beings. Arguably, if the same white coat belongs to the painting profession, it will receive lesser attention. The cognitive process gets modified with the effect of clothing (Carter, 2013). The coat carries a symbolic meaning that changes the human accordingly when it is worn by a scientist or a painter. Similar examples of such symbols that alter the human behavior are guard with sunglasses and chain on prisoner’s leg. Zimbardo in his experiment provided the guards with sunglasses to provide them with the attitude and image and provide them with a degree of anonymity. Chain on prisoner’s leg signifies the dark character of the individual and the associated awful consequences and this cause to develop a negative behavior towards them.

Destructive obedience causes harm to an individual because of commands issued by the superiors (Wiltermuth, 2012). However, not all obedience is destructive. While many of the atrocities of the past have demonstrated examples of destructive obedience but there are also acts of obedience that are creative. Arguably, it can be stated that apart from destruction, obedience leads to the creation of discipline. An obedient child follows the directions of his parents and an obedient student follows the teachings of his teacher.

Bystander effect is a phenomenon that is socially psychological where the present individuals refuse to offer any help in the presence of other people to a victim. This can be attributed to the psychological fact of disobeying the conscience in the presence of other individuals. Arguably, people who are alone tend to notice a victim who needs assistance much more than when he is in a group (Plötner et al., 2015). Because the individuals tend to behave in a way that is socially acceptable, there occurs a diffusion of responsibility. This causes them to disobey their conscience to help the victims and leads to the bystander effect.

From the experiments of Milgram and Zimbardo, it can be stated that obedience defies the personal conscience while following the commands of a superior authority or under social circumstances. Arguments have been raised to show that apart from the destructive obedience, creative acts also take place which is beneficial for the individual. However, bystander effect can defy the conscience of an individual to obey and help an individual in need but fails in the presence of others. In a nutshell, obedience wins over conscience under authoritative directives.

References

Bègue, L., Beauvois, J. L., Courbet, D., Oberlé, D., Lepage, J., & Duke, A. A. (2015). Personality predicts obedience in a Milgram paradigm. Journal of Personality, 83(3), 299-306.

Burger, J. M. (2014). Situational features in Milgram's experiment that kept his participants shocking. Journal of Social Issues, 70(3), 489-500.

Carter, I. (2013). Human behavior in the social environment. AldineTransaction.

Haney, C., Banks, C., & Zimbardo, P. (1972). Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison (No. ONR-TR-Z-09). STANFORD UNIV CA DEPT OF PSYCHOLOGY.

Mestrovic, S. G. (2016). Trials of Abu Ghraib: An Expert Witness Account of Shame and Honor. Routledge.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of abnormal and social psychology, 67(4), 371.

Plötner, M., Over, H., Carpenter, M., & Tomasello, M. (2015). Young children show the bystander effect in helping situations. Psychological science, 0956797615569579.

Smith, E. R., Mackie, D. M., & Claypool, H. M. (2014). Social psychology. Psychology Press.

Smyth, M. N. (2015). Abu Ghraib and the activation of complicity: deconstructing the frame (Doctoral dissertation).

Wiltermuth, S. (2012). Synchrony and destructive obedience. Social Influence, 7(2), 78-89.

Zimbardo, P. G. (2004). A situationist perspective on the psychology of evil: Understanding how good people are transformed into perpetrators. The social psychology of good and evil, 21-50.

Zimbardo, P. G., Maslach, C., & Haney, C. (2000). Reflections on the Stanford prison experiment: Genesis, transformations, consequences. Obedience to authority: Current perspectives on the Milgram paradigm, 193-237.

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