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Compliance / obedience

Milgram's famous experiments (1963, 1965) are well known as investigations into obedience, with the idea that we act in accordance with the demands of authority figures. In the studies, participants were required to administer electric shocks in a learning and punishment task. Participants were assigned to the role of 'teacher', and a stooge (actor) was the 'learner'. Shocks were believed to range from 75 volts to 450 volts (though were in fact harmless). The experimenter (in a lab coat) gave one of four prompts when there was any sign of resistance to carrying on with the experiment:

"Please continue"

"The experiment requires that you continue"

"It is absolutely essential that you continue"

"You have no other choice - you must go on"

Interestingly, 65% of participants continued to give shocks all the way to the highest voltage, which would have killed the other person. This work led to the idea of 'the agentic state', where a person no longer acts out their own wishes but sees themselves as an agent for executing the wishes of another person. However, Milgram's work has been replicated many times, and the obedience rates vary (Blass, 1999).

Criticism of Milgram's work and his findings has increased in recent years due to the archive of materials (audio tapes, transcripts, etc) being made available for researchers to review. There are serious ethical concerns around the fact that around 600 participants were not debriefed and told the shocks were fake until a year after they had participated. The findings have been cast into doubt due to revelations that unreported, improvised encouragement of participants by the experimenters was common, and unpublished analysis indicates that the majority of participants disobeyed when they believed the 'learner' was actually being shocked. Milgram selectively reported findings from the experiments he conducted and used selective editing to downplay resistance to the experimental protocol. Griggs (2017) provides a comprehensive overview of the issues raised.

More-recent critique has discussed how the Milgram experiment demonstrates social identification, not obedience, with the idea that an engaged followership (identifying with and wanting to support science) will be obedient, but others will not (Haslam et al., 2014; Reicher & Haslam, 2011). However, Hollander and Turowetz (2018) analysed 91 audio recordings of the interviews that took place immediately after Milgram's experiments and found that the majority of participants stated that they did not believe the 'learner' was actually being shocked.

Nevertheless, the issue of compliant behaviour is something an E/HF practitioner must be aware of.