Describe how situational variables have been found to affect obedience. Discuss what these situational variables tell us about why we obey. (16 marks)

Milgram's groundbreaking experiments revealed that the proximity between the teacher (participant) and the learner (confederate) played a pivotal role in determining levels of obedience. When placed in the same room, participants exhibited a notable decrease in obedience. The close distance seemed to introduce a sense of closeness and personal connection, making it more challenging for individuals to willingly administer shocks as instructed by the experimenter. Notably, in scenarios where the experimenter left the room and issued orders over the phone, obedience levels decreased. This suggests that the absence of an immediate authority figure and the introduction of physical distance can undermine individuals' inclination to comply with commands.

The variable of location also emerged as a significant factor influencing obedience in Milgram's studies. By conducting experiments in diverse settings, such as a run-down office block versus the esteemed environment of Yale University, Milgram uncovered the role of the surrounding context. Obedience levels were found to be higher in the Yale setting, characterised by its prestigious and authoritative aura, compared to the less impressive office block. This underscores the impact of the perceived legitimacy and credibility of the environment on individuals' willingness to obey.

Bickman's research delved into the influence of uniform on obedience. His findings indicated that individuals were more likely to obey a person dressed in the attire of authority, such as a guard uniform. The symbolic power associated with uniforms seemed to enhance the perceived legitimacy of the person in authority, consequently affecting compliance levels.

In a similar vein, Milgram's renowned obedience experiments incorporated the variable of the experimenter's attire. The experimenter, who issued commands to the participants, was consistently dressed in a grey lab coat. This choice of uniform, though not as overtly authoritarian as a guard uniform, still held symbolic significance. The lab coat may have conveyed an air of scientific authority, contributing to the overall perception of legitimacy and expertise. This, in turn, likely played a role in shaping participants' obedience.

In discussing the impact of situational variables on obedience, it is essential to consider alternative theories, such as the authoritarian personality theory proposed by Adorno and his colleagues. According to this perspective, dispositional factors play a more dominant role in shaping individuals' obedience than situational variables. Adorno's theory suggests that individuals with a predisposition towards authoritarianism, characterised by a rigid adherence to authority, conformity, and a tendency to be intolerant of ambiguity, are more likely to display high levels of obedience in various situations. This theory emphasises the enduring traits and characteristics inherent in individuals, suggesting that dispositional factors might override the influence of situational variables.

While Milgram's experiments and the exploration of situational elements have provided valuable insights, the alternative perspective presented by the authoritarian personality theory underscores the need for a comprehensive understanding of the interplay between dispositional and situational factors in shaping obedience. It prompts further exploration into the relative significance of enduring personality traits compared to the immediate context in influencing human behaviour.

Methodological considerations add another layer of complexity to the discussion of factors influencing obedience, bringing into focus the relevance of different study designs. Field studies, exemplified by Bickman's research, may offer a more ecologically valid perspective on the dynamics of obedience compared to traditional lab experiments like Milgram's. While lab studies provide controlled environments conducive to systematic manipulation of variables, the artificial nature of these settings might limit the generalisability of findings to real-world scenarios. Bickman's work, conducted in naturalistic urban settings, captures a broader range of contextual cues that individuals encounter in everyday life. This methodological shift prompts a consideration of the external validity of findings and the extent to which they can be applied beyond the confines of a controlled laboratory.

Recognizing the strengths and limitations of various methodologies enriches the discourse on why we obey, urging researchers to scrutinise the ecological relevance of their studies and encouraging a more comprehensive understanding of the complex interplay between situational and dispositional factors in shaping obedience.



Anna achieved an A* in Psychology in June 2023

We caught up with Anna to ask her some tips for psychology A-Level students all over the country. Here is what she said:

"I would highly recommend being exposed to as many model answers as possible. What I found was the more I kept seeing them, the easier it was for me to write. I also made use of revision books as they condensed so much information into really small chunks. Model essays and revision books are seriously the go-tos."


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Complete Companions: AQA Psychology A Level - Year 1 and AS Revision Guide (Fifth Edition for AQA)

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Yum Yum Mama Team

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