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Outline and evaluate one or more explanations of why people obey. (Total 12 marks)

One explanation as to why people conform is because of legitimacy of authority. Milgram proposed that people are more likely to obey authority figures as they have been socialised from childhood to follow a social hierarchy and the law. According to Milgram, authority figures have power within their respected domains or sometimes other domains e.g. doctors and nurses have power in a hospital setting but also outside as they are all universal titles; similar to that of lawyers and police officers. Though, the extent of their power in other domains can be questioned. Milgram believed one of the reasons why 65% of his participants went up to 450 volts was because of the perceived authority status of the experimenter (which can be a combinations of things such as the uniform and location).

Milgram found that if he changed the uniform of the experimenter to ordinary, everyday clothes obedience levels dropped from the original 65% to 20%. In Bickman’s (1974) experiment, he also demonstrated the power of the uniform and the person wearing the guard uniform was obeyed on 76% of occasions, while the person wearing the milkman uniform was only obeyed on 47% of occasions. This shows that uniform is a symbol of a person’s legitimacy of authority and that the more respected you are in society in terms of your social role, the more likely a person is to obey.

When Milgram changed the location of his original experiment, he also found this could affect obedience. Instead of conducting his research at Yale university, in this variation it took place in a run-down office building. The percentage of participants who went up to the full 450 volts decreased to 47.5% from the original 65%. This shows how location is also a determining factor for someone to perceive whether an authority figure is legitimate.

A limitation of the legitimacy of authority is explanation is that it places more emphasis on situational factors and less on dispositional factors, such as having an authoritarian personality (AP) or a high internal locus of control. People with an AP are more likely to obey authority figures due to strict parenting from childhood and those with an internal locus of control are less likely to obey because they are more confident in their beliefs and take responsibility for their actions as they recognise the extent to which they have power over their environment.

Furthermore most research into obedience rely on Milgram’s research. Although Milgram’s experiment has been replicated in other cultures with similar findings, some psychologists believe that culture bias cannot be fully eliminated as most culture studies of Milgram’s experiment has been conducted in industrialised Western cultures (Smith & Bond). Therefore, the legitimacy of authority explanation as developed by Milgram may not be appropriate as it does not take into consideration that collectivist cultures may be more obedient than individualistic cultures.
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