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Two Explanations for Obedience

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One explanations for obedience is the agentic state. Milgram devised an ‘Agency theory’ that suggest people are, from childhood, socialised to obey rules. This involves giving up free will and independence. When a person perceives themselves as having complete control they are then in an autonomous state and feel they are responsible for their own actions. The contrary is true for those who obey an authoritarian figure. They are then in an agentic state where they do not perceive themselves as responsible for their own behaviours and actions and instead are following orders. They see the authority figure as responsible for the consequences.

Another explanation for obedience is the authoritarian personality. It was proposed by Fromm and used as an explanation for people who held rigid beliefs who were characterised by absolute obedience to authority and dominating those of lower social standing. The ‘F-scale’ questionnaire that was created by Adorno comprises of 30 questions and is used to test for an authoritarian personality.

Elms (1966) et al found that the participants who took part in Milgram’s obedience study and were the most obedient were rated by the F-scale as more authoritarian than participants who resisted which supports the link between the authoritarian personality type and obedience. Those who were more obedient also reported to be more distant to their fathers during their childhood which supports the possibility of the authoritarian personality having been learnt through social modelling. However, we cannot say this for certain as we cannot infer cause and effect with correlational data when other variables may be affecting personality type such as innate temperament. Altemeyer (1988) found that participants who were more willing to give themselves electric shocks were also identified as having an authoritarian personality type lending support for this explanation.



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