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“Some system of authority is a requirement of all communal living, and it is the only man dwelling in isolation who is not forced to respond to defiance or submission to the commands of others (Milgram, 1969).” We often obey our parents, teachers, and other forms of authority. How far do we go to comply with authority? Are we more likely to comply with an authority figure than a stranger needing a favor?
Many previous studies have focused on obedience. (When an individual acts consistently with authorized command, instruction, or rule, he/she is commonly described as being obedient to authority (Lutsky, 1995). The Holocaust may be one of the most extreme cases of obedience to authority. The inhumane policies of the Holocaust were developed by one man, but carried out by a huge number of people who obeyed this authority figure (Milgram, 1963); this lead Milgram to study destructive obedience. He ordered a naïve participant to administer a shock to a victim (actually part of the experiment, not a participant). In the experimental room, he had clearly marked shock generators with voltage levels. In Milgram’s study in which the participants were ordered to administer severe shocks to a victim; 65% of the participants obeyed the experimenter even though it meant harm to another person (Brief, Collins, & Miller, 1995). Milgram said the participants became so involved in pleasing the authority figure and doing their job right even though someone else had to suffer (Tucker-Ladd, 1996). Actually, no one was shocked, but the participants were led to believe that they were hurting the victim.
The authority-subordinate relationship is a necessity for growth and maintenance in society (Blass & Krackow, 1995). Another study that used Milgram’s obedience work as a background studied nurses’ compliance when a physician made an order that could be harmful to a patient (Blass & Krackow, 1995). Registered nurses either complied or not. Five hundred questionnaires were sent out to nurses including questions about when was the last time they had refused to carry out tasks by a physician that were inappropriate. It was found that physicians were seen as authority, and the findings were consistent with Milgram’s.
Although different studies may have different conclusions about compliance with authority, some common ground exists. Most of the past research follows most of the same trends. Since as far back as we know, authority has a huge impact on our social lives. Whether it be a negative obedience to authority, like the Holocaust, or a positive obedience like obeying a teacher, there is definitely a correlation between authority and obedience. Milgram’s studies seem to be an overriding theme in much of the research that is done on obedience and authority; his studies summarize obedience as educating, acts of charity and kindness, and also destruction (Milgram, 1963).
In much of the literature, only an authority made a request to comply with. To fully understand compliance or obedience, one must study the effect an authority would have as well as the effect of a stranger. What if Milgram would have studied an outsider/stranger to make requests to shock the people? We would be able to see the difference in compliance among the participants. The only thing that Milgram did change was that he moved the shocker closer to the “shockee” (Elms, 1995).
Also, compliance may rely on things related to the authority figure such as demands, clothes, etc. A study was conducted by dressing experimenters in different types of dress: uniform, professional attire, or sloppy clothing. The experimenter was positioned near a meter, searching his pocket for change when another experimenter stopped a stranger, and suggested he/she give the experimenter by the meter a nickel. The compliance of the stranger depended on apparel. The most effective apparel was a uniform because it is seen as a certificate of legitimacy (Bushman, 1984).
Past research does a good job addressing compliance with the authority, but it does not address the fact of compliance when an authority is not present. In this study the independent variable was authority at two levels: present or absent. The dependent variable was compliance. To fully understand compliance and non-compliance with authority, we deceived the participants and asked them to do a favor (hard or easy) for the authority to evaluate the compliance of the participant. We also had a stranger ask half of the participants to do them a favor. This was crucial because if they were willing to comply with the stranger, then authority was no longer to be considered a big factor. The participants may feel obligated to do a kind act rather than be obedient to an authority.
Twenty-nine female Loyola University students of all ethnicities were recruited by convenience sampling. Some of the psychology students who participated were given extra credit by their professors. They were recruited though their psychology department in which we posted a subject pool sign-up sheet where students left their name, numbers, and e-mail address.
To enhance the pressure of authority, the subjects were placed one at a time in a classroom and given two copies of an informed consent form (one for the subject and one for the researcher), and a demographic questionnaire along with a personality questionnaire based on The Big 5 Factor Taxonomy: Dimensions of Personality in the natural language and Questionnaires (John, 1995). The demographic questionnaire included questions such as the participants’ age, sex, college major and year, etc. The personality questionnaire asked the participant to rate themselves, and then their best friend, from one to five on fifteen qualities such as tense and calm, insecure and secure, imaginative and conventional, etc. These questionnaires were only used as a filler questionnaire to aid in establishing the authority figure. A sealed envelope marked as either “Psych Office” or “Rec Plex” was either in the classroom with the authority figure or right outside the classroom door with a stranger. This was used to test compliance, while the pencil and paper questionnaire was used to establish who the authority was. A chart was used to record the responses of the subjects to the authority’s or stranger’s request.
Design & Procedure
The experiment that took place utilized a 2x2 between subjects design. One independent variable was authority at two levels: present or absent. Half of the participants were asked to do a task by the authority. Operationally, the authorities referred to the experimenter who gave the instructions, and administered the survey. Authority was emphasized by administering the filler questionnaire and also by dress code in which the experimenter wore a white lab coat. The authority absent (stranger) condition operationalized having the other experimenter, who was not seen by the participant (and therefore viewed as a stranger and had no affiliation with the experiment), also requested a favor. Compliance is defined in this study as agreeing to complete the task; once the participant answered yes or no, the study concluded. The second independent variable was the task at two levels: easy and difficult. The easy task was the experimenter asking the participant to drop off an envelope to the “Psych Office” which was located close and convenient to the experiment classroom. The difficult task was the experimenter asking the participant to drop off an envelope to the “Rec Plex” which was inconveniently located across the campus from the experiment classroom. The role of authority was counter-balanced by the experimenters. Each experimenter played each role in the study to avoid confounds and to ensure validity. The participants were asked to have a half of an hour time for the study, therefore, they would have adequate amount of time to comply with either task, easy or difficult.
Participants were randomly placed in the 4 different experimental groups. The participant was brought into the classroom and seated by the experimenter. The experiment (authority figure) gave instructions to the participant, placed a questionnaire in front of the participant, told him/her to complete it, and inform him/her (experimenter) when he/she was finished.
When the participants were finished the questionnaire, they were allowed to leave the room. Upon leaving the room, half of them were asked to complete a task requested by the authority figure. The other half were stopped and asked by the stranger or non-authority figure that was sitting outside the classroom. (The authority and stranger were never seen together, therefore there was no risk of having authority established through association with the experimenter. Whether or not the participants were asked by the authority or stranger, half of them were asked to complete the easy task (bringing the marked envelope to the “Psych Office”) or the complete the difficult task (bringing the marked envelope to the “Rec Plex”). The participant either complied by agreeing to complete the task, or they did not comply by not agreeing to complete the task. Once the participant complied or not, they were stopped and debriefed on all aspects of the experiment.
All participants read informed consent forms; one was their copy, and the other copy was for the researcher. The participants were deceived. They were told that it was a study on personality, hence the personality inventory. Once the complete study was over (after the compliance test), each participant was debriefed. The debriefing included an extensive explanation of the study, and reassured that it was normal not to comply to all requests and that since this was an artificial manipulated situation, this behavior was not generalized to the real world. Details on where the results could be found after the study were also included.
According to Milgram’s study (1963), 65% of the participants obeyed the authority. In another related study afore mentioned, physicians were perceived as authority with power (Blass & Krackow, 1995). The data does not support this idea of authority and compliance. There was no relationship between the two in this particular study. Another factor while trying to establish authority was dress code. According to Bushman’s study (1988), uniforms are the most effective apparel because it implies legitimacy. A particular dress code (white lab coat) was followed in the study, but it had no effect on enhancing the authority figure because no relationship was present.
The lack of relationship between compliance may have been due a couple of factors. One of the reasons could have been that the requesters were females. Although the requesters were counter-balanced, authority may not have been portrayed strongly enough. The lack of relationship between the task and compliance might be explained the same way. Other limitations should also be considered while interpreting this data. Not only were the requesters young, but they were also female. This limitation was noticed early on when male participants could have been flirting rather than complying. Also, there were very few men available to participate in the study. Therefore, data from males were thrown out, and only female data were considered. Another limitation was the sample. It consisted of all females from a Jesuit University, which could have also had an effect on the data. The persona of the students on this particular campus may be different (more likely to comply by being “nice”) than students’ of a state school.
In everyday life, we all encounter authority figures such as professors, police, bosses, and other forms of authority. These authorities may make requests at different levels. Most people feel obligated to comply with an authority figure. It is not always necessary to comply just because an authority makes a request, however if the task being requested is an easy task it might be beneficial to complete it for both your position and the impression you leave on the authority. The same goes with a stranger requesting a task. As a nice person, you would complete an easy task, but not necessarily a difficult task.
In the most important study done on this topic by Milgram (1963), he only studied a difficult task. By ignoring an easier task, he was not able to find the high relationship between
the level of the task and compliance, only the relationship between compliance and authority was studied. Another study by Bushman (1988), only dress code was studied. In this particular study, the requesters had a particular dress code, but also studied tasks and compliance.
In the future, to effectively study compliance with authority, the authority should be counter balanced with male and female figures. Also, a less biased sample rather than female college students may be more reliable. Further research is needed to determine compliance with authority (or stranger) and compliance with tasks. Replication of this study in a different environment, different sample, etc. would be important because this is an issue that many people face each day.
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Help (chap. 8). Retrieved on September 11, 2001, from
Compliance with Requester (Authority or Stranger), N = 14 under Hard Task Condition
No 33.3% 60.0%
Yes 66.7% 40.0%
Compliance with Task collapsed over Requester, N = 29
No 0.0% 42.9%
Yes 100.0% 57.1%
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