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Why People Might Do Harm to Others

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After the events of the Second World War, the world was left in disbelief as to why or how so many seemingly ordinary people, were capable of committing such terrible crimes, excusing their actions and behavior as ‘following orders’. Psychologists sought to understand why people would act in the way that they did, but also how it happened on such a large scale.

Shortly after the end of World War II, Nevitt Sanford and a small team of psychologists, including Daniel Levinson, Else Frenkel-Brunswick and Theodor Adorno, set to figure out the root cause of what made these war criminals different to ordinary people. Due to the nature of the war and the slaughter of millions of Jews, they started their research into personality, fascism and anti-Semitism. They began with the assumption that people’s actions and attitudes are a result of their personality. On this basis, they created four attitude scales to help identify certain personality traits, including the infamous F-scale. Once Adorno et al. had completed their scales, these were distributed in the form of questionnaires to 2,000 participants across America in order to complete their final version of the F-scale. These scales were used to try to measure a potential for ani-Semitism and fascism, which Adorno et al. believed to be directly linked to an authoritarian personality type. The authoritarian personality is described as “a kind of personality typified by obedience to authority, strict adherence to rules, and hostility towards anyone different from oneself” (McAvoy, 2012, p.23).

In 1961, motivated by the same events and the work of Adorno et al. (1950), Stanley Milgram took a different approach to conducting research into obedience to authority. Before his study began, Milgram presented a question to the public, students and other psychologists to see if they thought it likely that a person would intentionally cause harm to another when told to by an authority figure. It was widely assumed by all who took part that no one participating in the study would cause lethal harm to another person. This, however, was not the case. 40 male volunteers were used to test how far an ordinary person would go to cause harm to others. The participants were told that they were taking part in a simple memory experiment where they were playing the role of ‘teacher’ and another volunteer playing the role of ‘learner’. What the participants didn’t know was that the ‘learner’ was a confederate of the experimenter. The participants were then told by the experimenter to administer shocks to the learner upon receiving an incorrect answer to a memory question. These shocks increased in 15V increments each time, starting at 15V and ending at 450V – a potentially lethal shock. Contrary to Milgram’s initial survey, all of the participants went to at least 300 volts and 65% continued to the full 450 volts, following prompts and instructions from the experimenter.

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Adorno et al. (1950) used a more qualitative approach during the second part of the study. They sought to investigate further into the idea of the authoritarian personality and try to understand where this trait manifests - whether it is an innate instinct or a result of parental and early childhood influences. In order to do this, Adorno and his team invited 150 of the original participants in for in-depth interviews to learn more about their lives and experiences and see if there was a common underlying cause for developing an authoritarian personality. By comparing the interview data they had collected, they were able to gain a deeper understanding of why the participants answered the way they did. It was observed that those who scored highly on the F-scale were more likely to have grown up in a strict authoritarian household, where they had experienced a tougher upbringing and even developed bad relationships with their parents.

Similarly, Elms and Milgram (1966) conducted post-experiment interviews on a selection of both defiant and obedient participants from the original study. This was to see if there was a link between an authoritarian personality and obedience. However, unlike Adorno et al. (1950), Elms and Milgram were more focused on collecting quantitative data during these interviews. Rather than completing two-hour long interviews full of open-ended questions that would enable the researchers to collect a much broader range of data, Elms and Milgram preferred their participants to be remain constricted. During these interviews, participants completed several personality tests. There was a correlation between participants who were fully obedient in the original experiment and those who scored higher on the F-scale. However, this perceived personality trait was never a defining feature of whether a participant would obey or defy authority. Instead, further variations and replications of this study have taken place over the years (Bond & Smith, 1993), that show behavior has a number of situational factors, such as orders from someone perceived to have less authority, proximity to ‘learner’, and whether the experiment was conducted in a laboratory environment, rather than just dispositional factors such as personality. Milgram concluded that a substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from legitimate authority (Milgram S., 1974).

In summary, both Adorno et al. and Milgram conducted two incredibly influential studies that have not only helped so many understand why people might do harm to others, but also helped inspired so many further studies that have added to their own research. Although both studies have been a great foundation for further research into why people might do harm to others, the results of their research conflict one another. It has not been proved whether a person is more likely to do harm to another due to situational or dispositional factors.

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Why People Might Do Harm to Others. (2023, September 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 11, 2023, from
“Why People Might Do Harm to Others.” Edubirdie, 08 Sept. 2023,
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