Exposure to electricity at even 50 volts can potentially be fatal, yet will people go as far as administering 450 volts? Will people comply with acting out heinous deeds instead of disobeying authority? These questions are addressed by controversial obedience studies including the Stanford Prison Experiment (1971), and the Milgram Experiment (1974) highlighting the critical relationship between obedience and authority.
Milgram’s shocking experiment was conducted after the Holocaust and Nuremberg Trials (1945-1946) to explore people’s tendency to disregard one’s ethics when pressured by a greater authority. The experiment featured participants, playing as a teacher, administering increasingly stronger shocks (in 15V increments increasing up to 450V) to learners upon giving incorrect responses to a memorization task. However, the learners’ reactions and electric shocks were in fact fake and were trying to appeal to the participants’ consciences. Furthermore, the participants were given the choice to discontinue anytime, but were easily persuaded to continue when given commands such as “you are required to continue”. Despite these people understanding the potential brutality of their acts, an outrageous 65% of participants willingly administered 450V shocks when simply prompted by experimenters in Milgram’s original experiment. Milgram concludes that the obedience was a result of individuals going into an “agentic state”, in which people relinquish their conscience acting as an authority’s tool and believing they take no responsibility for their actions. The Nuremberg defense, whereby a subordinate uses obedience as a moral principle to exonerate one’s accountability to their superior, makes use of the phenomenon of agentic state during the Nuremberg Trials.
While obedience isn’t inherently detrimental and is often conditioned during childhood of people, the Milgram Experiment illuminates the prominence of obedience leading to potential crimes occurring. An alternate obedience study focusing on the role of sex in obedience (Doliński, et al., 2017) highlights that despite the 50 years that have passed, these issues still continue: over 60% of participants still administered the highest voltage shock. Whilst the experiment found that female learners were three times more likely to withdraw, the sample size was too small to make definitive conclusions.
More potential factors in obedience include age and ethnicity as obedience seems to be learned throughout one’s upbringing. From childhood, having authoritative figures like parents, teachers, the police, etc. people become habituated to obeying these seemingly qualified beings. The Jordanian study conducted by Shanab and Yahya (1977) assesses the correlation between age and obedience. The study was another alternate version of the Milgram Experiment, featuring children ranging in age from 6–16 this time. The resulting obedience levels seem to transcend time and age as they were corresponding to the original Milgram Experiment results: 73% of the participants obeyed authority. Thus, the relationship between age and obedience could not be determined.
Another study conducted by Doliński & Grzyb in 2017 types of research the obedience levels between various nations whereby the upbringing of each person may vary. 564 people of various nations, disregarding sex, were randomly selected to participate in another substitute of Milgram’s Experiment. However, due to the lack of filtering of participants (who had knowledge of the Milgram Experiment) and questions asked prior to the experiment, it ended up with a better-than-average effect whereby some people felt inclined to discontinue earlier on than usual.
Obedience appears to be learned rather than an inherent part of humans and is therefore greatly affected by one’s peers and upbringing. Due to varying qualities of life in differing countries, one’s upbringing and experiences may be very different from someone of the same age in another country. Furthermore, in the last few decades, children have been disobeying authority figures more than older generations as well as many past punishments being prohibited, leading to an “authority crisis” ((Kawashima & Martins)We will investigate the obedience differences between generations and nations to see when people learn obedience.
Past research has shown regardless of age and sex, there are similar levels of obedience throughout meaning over 60% of the population would kill on command. This is especially when people have become conditioned to cede to authoritative figures without taking much consideration into one’s own actions. However, is there a point in infancy, where before obedience is learned, we will get obedience patterns different from that in the Milgram Experiment? Is there a point in age the more experienced will disobey orders from those of higher status for their own morals or conscience?
To test obedience, we will get 50 males and 50 females in each age group from 2-5, 6-16, 17-30, 31-50, and 50+; 10 males and 10 females from each nation totaling 500 participants. We’ll vary ethnicity: randomly choosing people from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and America. To ensure there are no inconsistencies in results the participants must have no mental disorders, no knowledge of Milgram’s Experiment, no speech impediment, and the ability to speak or understand English to assure efficient communication. The procedure will be the same as Milgram’s experiment whereby they are assigned as teachers, administer electric shocks, and hear screams from the learner. Younger children with less vocabulary will be assisted by the experimenter telling them when the learner is wrong or not and instructing them when to administer the shock. If participants refuse to continue after 4 prompts, then the experiment will be stopped.
We will compare the number of shocks for each age group and then by continent to detect whether obedience levels will change. If such changes of over 10% occur at a certain age group or continent, we may be able to investigate more thoroughly a certain age group or the certain upbringing of the corresponding continent to test what impacts obedience levels.