Describe two research studies investigating obedience.
a) Before attempting to describe different psychological research studies regarding obedience, it is important to determine what obedience actually is, and to differentiate it from conformity. Though conformity and obedience may sound like two similar concepts, conformity is when a person determines his actions and thoughts with regard to how his peers act and think, while obedience is when a person determines his actions and thoughts with regard primarily in regards to how his authorities act and think, or would like him to act and think: in other words, obedience occurs in a hierarchy, while conformity does not.
Having said that obedience occurs chiefly on a level between authority figures and those whom they supposedly authorize, surely Milgram's famous study of 1974 is one of the most important ones in the area of the study of obedience. Using a confederate and one participants of his study, he doled out the roles of “teacher” and “learner” - though the learner, in fact, always was Milgram's confederate. There was also the experimenter himself, who would eventually try to coerce the teacher into going on performing his task. Milgram then described the task to these two people: separated into two different rooms, the teacher would read out lists of word pairs to the learner, then give him a number of different possible responses to go with a specific word, one of them being right. If the learner would choose the wrong answer, the teacher would administer an electrical shock.
What the teacher – the actual participant in the experiment – would not know was that the learner was, of course, a confederate of Milgram and would therefore deliberately pick the wrong word at times. Since the teacher and the learned were separated into different rooms, they could not see each other, though hear each other, and in the learner's room, there would be a record player playing specific sound samples at specific volt intervals – samples such as, “I can't stand the pain!”. Milgram's goal was to find out how far a participant would go in administering these shocks when coerces by authority – in this case, the experimenter; a man in a white laboratory coat. The learner would also make sure to make note to the teacher that he had a heart condition, prior to them entering different rooms.
There were 60 participants, all of them men of different social classes and between 20 and 50 years old. They had been requited through a newspaper ad, offering four and a half dollars for taking part in the experiment. Out of these 60 participants, an entire 65% would proceed to give the learner electrical shocks of maximum voltage – 450 volts – through being coerced by the experimenter. No participant at all stopped before reaching 300 volts, though some expressed concern for the learner.
Milgram theorized that the participants acted the way they did care of two different causes: one would be the fact that they were ordered by an authority figure to take part in the experiment, thereby not being responsible for the learner's pain themselves while the second would be that, in general, people have been thought that authority figures are legitimate and trustworthy.
Another important study is that of Hofling et al (1966), where the researchers applied Milgram's findings on obedience to a more realistic situation. Hofling et al selected 22 nurses at a specific hospital in America. They created a fictional doctor whom they named “Dr. Smith”. This Dr. Smith would then call the nurses at the hospital and ask them to look if a fictional drug named Astroten was available in the medical stores. The nurses would report back that it indeed was, supposedly checking the maximum dosage of the medication as they did so. Following this, Dr. Smith would ask them to administer the drug to a patient at twice the maximum dosage – 20 mg as opposed to the 10 mg regulated.
Of course, this would have endangered the patient in question, had the medication not been a placebo. Giving the patient this dosage of medication would therefore be an extremely unethical action for the nurse to take. Still, out of the 22 nurses asked by Dr. Smith to administer the medication, only one disobeyed his orders.
Though it was only a psychological experiment and nobody came to harm, none of the nurses should have obeyed Dr. Smith's orders: for one, because both Dr. Smith's name and his voice were unknown to them, and two, because the dosage could have been lethal to the patient – the nurses obviously did not have prior knowledge of the drug in question, since it was fictional and a placebo, so for all they knew, it might have been as dangerous as giving twice the maximum dosage of morphine.
Hofling et al theorized that the high rate of obedience may stem from the fact that doctors have always naturally been authority figures to nurses – they have been through further years of medical school, they have earned their M.D., and therefore they “know better”. They also thought that the nurses' training at nursing or medical school may simply have taught them that obeying doctors and physicians was the right thing to do, in any given situation – again, because they would know what was right.
Discuss ethical and methodological considerations that may occur in the research described in part (a).
b) In both Milgram's and Hofling et al's studies, the obvious ethical considerations is that the participants were lied to: they did not give their informed consent, which is today required in psychological studies. Of course, since the two experiments differ some, the ethical considerations also do so.
Milgram's participants were led to believe that they were causing undue pain to a fellow human being, and additionally being coerced into doing so by the experimenter. One of the lines the experimenter would use in trying to get the participant to remain and go on with the experiment included that they were not allowed to go – that they did not have a choice. Though as many as 65% of the participants went all the way up to 450 volts, many were showing signs of stress, internal conflict, and asking to leave – though there was no physical pain inflicted on the learner, much psychological stress was inflicted on the teacher, or the participant. The participant was also given a real, 45 volts electrical shock prior to the start of the experiment, in order to allow them to experience what the learner would ostensibly go through. Again, though no such pain was inflicted on the learner, and 45 volts is not too high an amount of voltage, inflicting such mental and physical pain on the participant is not considered ethically correct.
Again, Hofling et al's participants were lied to – there was no Dr. Smith and the drug the participants were asked to administer was fictional. Though write-ups of the studies do not indicate either way, it is likely to believe that being ordered to administrate a drug unknown to them and at twice the maximum dosage would cause both stress and internal conflict to the nurses in question – much like the administering of electrical shocks did to Milgram's participants, though perhaps not as much so, as the patient did not appear to be a confederate and so likely did not pretend to suffer as Milgram's confederate did. Additionally, there was no physical pain inflicted on the nurses. Still, the knowledge that the medicine they were giving to a patient at such a high dosage would most likely have caused the nurses a lot of tension, obedient though they were. Much like Milgram's experiment, this experiment would not today be considered ethically correct, since there was no actual informed consent given, and there was undue mental stress caused to the participants.
From a methodological standpoint, Milgram's and Hofling et al's experiments differ a little bit more: Milgram's experiment was carried out in a laboratory, while Hofling et al's experiment was a field study – it was carried out in a realistic situation.
Since Milgram's experiment was, as mentioned, carried out in a laboratory, ecological validity is rendered null. It is very unusual that a person, expect for in an experiment situation, would be asked to administer shocks to another person for giving the wrong answer to simplistic question in a laboratory setting: it is simply not like real-life. One could theorize that, had it been carried out in a more realistic situation, participants would have reacted in entirely different manners, and Milgram would have gotten entirely different results. Additionally, the participants knew that they were taking part of an experiment. They were still deceived, of course, given that the learner would always be a confederate and the participant would always be a teacher, though the participants were led to believe otherwise, but the very fact that they knew that they were taking part in an experiment at all may have affected results.
Another limitation of Milgram's experiment is the fact that the experiment was carried out on individuals and not groups – though he proves that authority figures can produce high obedience rates in individual persons, there is no evidence that the same is true for persons in groups. Again, one could theorize that in groups, conformity may have played a part: individuals – peers – may have influenced one another to act a certain way instead of allowing authority figures to pressure them into doing things.
When there is no ecological validity, there is usually a cause-and-effect relationship to be studied – one of the major strengths of the experimental study. In Milgram's case, he could study what effect coercion from an authority figure would have on the participant, as well as what effect the confederate's plight would have on said participant. From this, he could draw conclusions which would not be possible to draw from a mere observational study – useful though those are in terms of ecological validity.
Hofling et al's study suffers less from lack of ecological validity, as it takes place in a hospital, with (though unwitting) nurses as the participants, and a (though fictional) doctor as the authority figure. The drug was fictional, as was the doctor, but it could still be said to be a study with some amount of ecological validity, which is one of its strengths. This also shows in how the results differ from Milgram's results: where Milgram's rate of obedience seemed astoundingly high at 65%, none will disagree that 21/22 participants obeying their authority figure in question is much higher than that. This might very well be because the participants were not aware that they were taking place in an experiment, which Milgram's participants were. Of course, this makes Hofling et al's study all the more dubious ethically speaking.
Much like Milgram's experiment, Hofling et al's nurse study suffers in that it focuses on the individual and not the group. Though the nurses could have questioned another nurse or another doctor about the wiseness in administering an unknown drug at such a high dosage, there is no indication that they did so, seeing as how they seemingly needed no coercion from Dr. Smith in order to fulfill what they were asked to do, and how an entire 21 out of 22 participants did what they were told. Had Hofling et al conducted an experiment in which they asked a group of nurses together, instead of one nurse alone, to administer the drug in question to a number of different patients, results might have differed from the ones they got.
In conclusion, one can say that both Milgram and Hofling et al suffer some from methodological errors, though not nearly as much as they suffer from lack of ethical considerations. The experiments they performed would never have been allowed to be performed today. However, the results begat by the both experiments are valuable, and speak their clear language: an individual is very likely to obey an authority figure, known or unknown, no matter what the consequences may be to a fellow human being.
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