Stanley Milgram (1963) demonstrated that the majority of the subjects in his studies on obedience (65 per cent) average, decent American citizens' (Milgram, 1963. p.5 ) who had volunteered for a Yale University experiment on learning would administer painful electric shocks up to 450 volts to another volunteer, despite the latter's protests. The findings of Milgram's studies are frequently cited as an example of the power of situational strengths in shaping behavior and of the tendency to underestimate social influence and instead attribute people's behavior to their dispositions or character, i.e. to commit the fundamental attribution error (e.g., Bierbrauer, 1979; Safer, 1980). With reference to the behavior of the subjects in Milgram's studies on obedience this essay critically explores the claim that we commit the fundamental attribution error when we overestimate the power of personality traits and underestimate the power of social influence. In this essay we begin by outlining Milgram's basic procedure.
[...] The manipulation of ‘group effects' (Milgram, 1974) provided further empirical support for the theory that the power of the situation overrode personality traits in Milgram's subjects. In this condition (Experiment 17: Two peers rebel), the subject was joined by two fellow subjects who were to act as co-teachers (actually confederates of the experimenter). In this condition, one co-teacher refused to continue the experiment beyond 150 volts and the other co-teacher followed suit at 210 volts. As a consequence, obedience levels dropped dramatically, with only 10 per cent of subjects being fully obedient and the mean shock level dropping to 305 volts. [...]
[...] In this condition, the experimenter was called away to ostensibly answer a phone call and a fellow subject confederate of the experimenter) assumed the role of experimenter, without the experimenter having explained the rules of the experiment. The fellow subject proceeded to instruct the ‘teacher' to increase the shock level each time the ‘learner' made an error. In this condition, obedience levels dropped dramatically, with only 20% of subjects administering the highest shock level. Milgram (1974) inferred that an authority must be perceived as legitimate if people are to comply with its demands. [...]
[...] New York: McGraw Hill Bickman, L (1974) The social power of a uniform. Journal of applied social psychology 47-61 Bierbrauer, G. (1979) Why did he do it? Attribution of obedience and the phenomenon of dispositional bias. European journal of social psychology 85-96 Blass, T (1991) Understanding behavior in the Milgram obedience experiment: the role of personality, situations and their interactions. Journal of personality and social psychology 398-413 Blass, T (2002) The man who shocked the world. Psychology today, March/April. 68-74 Buss, A. [...]
[...] (1981) Another look at the Milgram obedience studies: the role of the graduated series of shocks. Personality and social psychology bulletin 690-695 Kilham, W & Mann, L. (1974) Levels of destructive obedience as a functions of transmitter and executant roles in the Milgram obedience paradigm. Journal of personality and social psychology 696-702 Mantell, D.M. (1970) Die Bedeutung von Familienstruktur und Erziehung fr das politische Verhalten. Politische Studien 277-285 Mantell, D.M. (1971) The potential for violence in Germany. Journal of social issues 101-112 Meeus, W.H. J. & [...]
[...] To investigate the factors underpinning the high levels of obedience obtained in the original study, Milgram carried out a number of variations on the study, and found that varying the situational variables in his experiments altered subject's obedience levels. One of the first situational variables Milgram (1965) manipulated was the victim's proximity to the subject, which showed that obedience decreased as the victim became closer. In the ‘remote-feedback condition, the ‘teacher' and the ‘learner' were in adjacent rooms, and 65 per cent of participants administered the highest shock level (with an average shock level of 405 volts). [...]
Online readingwith our online reader
Content validatedby our reading committee