The phenomenon observed by Milgram (1963) was that of obedience under the influence of authority, against one’s own beliefs. Milgram (1974) described obedience as ‘…the psychological mechanism that links individual action to political purpose’. Its basis is the belief that authoritative figures have a legitimate right to request actions. His experiment in 1963 looked at the reactions of participants believing they were part of a punishment and learning experiment. Participants were told that they would be administering electric shocks as a ‘teacher’ to a ‘learner’, really a confederate, when he answered incorrectly to a memory task. The ‘learner’ was seen being strapped to a chair with electrodes attached to him and the participant was given a sample shock.
This sample was quite severe but the participant was told that it was mild. The participant was sat in a separate room in front of a machine to administer the shocks. The levers on the machine increased gradually from 15 to 450 volts, with labels of words and numbers describing the level of shock that each would give, for example, ‘135 volts, strong shock’. The participant gave the ‘learner’ pairs of words to memorize. If the participant gave an incorrect answer when asked to recall the pair of the word the participant gave in the test, the experimenter ordered the participant to administer a shock. The shocks were not actually being administered but with each incorrect answer the shock was, apparently, increased. The ‘learner’ would begin to object to the shocks and complain of heart pain, but the participant was given instructions to carry on, such as ‘you have no other choice sir, you must go on’.
The results showed that 100% of participants would administer up to 240 volts, a ‘very strong shock’, 68% would administer up to an ‘extremely intense shock’ of 360 volts and 65% would give a ‘XXX’ shock of 450 volts. This level of obedience was far higher than anyone, including Milgram, expected. Milgram used this to suggest that ‘normal’ people are capable of performing intolerable requests under the influence of a legitimate authority. The presence of authority creates a situational pressure to perform and often responsibility is thought to be that of the authority and so an individual feels less responsible for his or her actions.
At the time of Milgram’s experiment, the United States was beginning to recover from McCarthyism. McCarthyism is a term used for the period of time throughout the 1950’s where anti-communism was enforced (retrieved January 5th, 2007, from wikipedia.com website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McCarthyism). People were persecuted if it was believed they were communist or sympathized with communists. They were made unemployed, imprisoned and sometimes even executed for espionage. The presence of this type of oppression at the time of Milgram’s experiments may have had an effect on the level of obedience found. Although by the time of the experiment society was no longer experiencing McCarthyism, it was accustomed to obeying the order that it must adhere to an anti-communist way of thinking or else face consequences. For this reason levels of obedience may have been higher than in later generation in the United States. Although participants were not expecting a negative consequence for not proceeding with the experiment, it is likely that an effect of McCarthyism was to obey authority without excessive questioning and without conscious thought.
Milgram-type studies have been conducted across different cultures to try to discover any cross-cultural differences in obedience. Kilham and Mann (1974, cited in Blass, 2000) found the lowest obedience rating noted in literature, of 28% of participants administering shocks up to 450 volts. This study took part in Australia. Edwards et al. (1969, cited in Blass, 2000) found a high obedience rating of 87.5% in South Africa. A possible explanation of the difference in these results may be explained by the way in which these cultures are brought up to view obedience. Australia is an example of an individualist culture, whereas South Africa is an example of a collectivist culture. Individualist cultures emphasize the importance of personal freedom and independence (Taylor, Peplau & Sears, 2005). Children are brought up to respect authority to also to be self reliant and independent. They are encouraged to be assertive and develop uniqueness as an individual. Collectivist cultures exert more emphasis on the importance of social groups. Children are brought up to be obedient, act in a certain manner and respect the traditions of group culture. Obedience and conformity is viewed positively as a way of connecting with others and becoming responsible for one’s own actions. Individualism can often cause rebellion against authority. The Australian results can be interpreted in this way. A low obedience rating would indicate that participants were rebelling against the authoritative orders to shock the ‘learner’ beyond what is thought necessary. Participants from South Africa would carry on shocking to fatal levels as they have been brought up to respect authority, disregarding their own beliefs.
A study by Shanab and Yahya (1978) on Jordanian college students used a Milgram-type experiment to test obedience. A control group were free to give or not give the shocks. An experimental group were ordered to give the shocks, as in the Milgram experiment. It was found that 62.5% of the experimental group gave shocks to up to the end of the scale, compared to only 12.5% of the control group. This clearly shows that authoritative influence affects people’s actions, even in disturbing situations. However, Jordanians are a collectivist culture and so it would be expected that the obedience rate would be much higher than that of individualist cultures.
Blass (2000) collected data from obedience studies in order find out if obedience rates have changed over time across cultures. He used Milgram-type obedience studies where the ‘learner’ and ‘teacher’ were separated from one another. The studies spanned 22 years, from Milgram (1963) to Schurz (1985, cited in Blass, 2000), the latest study he found at the time of his investigation. Levels of obedience ranged from 28% to 91%, although Blass found no relationship between obedience rate and the year of study.
Although cultures have different views on obedience and how to react to requests and orders made by legitimate authorities, evidence is inconclusive that cross-cultural differences exist. Shanab and Yahya’s study shows that not all collectivist cultures are more obedient to authority than individualist cultures. Similarly, the high obedience rates found by Milgram indicate that not all individualist cultures resist obedience due to their upbringing of uniqueness and independence. Obedience levels have not seemed to increase or decrease as a result of time and generation. It has been shown that variance does occur but not in relation to the year of studies conducted.