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Classic and Contemporary Research into Obedience

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Classic and Contemporary Research into Obedience

Have you ever wondered how psychological research has changed over time? We can understand this by making a distinction between classic and contemporary research. Classic research refers to the foundational research in the past, while contemporary research is recent or ongoing, utilising modern technology.

We might notice a few key differences between classic and contemporary research into obedience. A lot of time has passed since classic research took place, i.e., contemporary research exists in the context of more recent research and research practices that have come to light. Contemporary research can often correct or avoid mistakes earlier studies made.

This includes ethical considerations.

Contemporary research abides by stricter ethical guidelines and avoids the morally grey areas many notable classic studies often operate in. Let’s take a look at classic and contemporary research into obedience and compare where they differ and what we can learn from them.

Classic and Contemporary Research into Obedience Contemporary research icons StudySmarterResearch icon of cogwheel, light bulb and magnifying glass, Flaticon

Milgram’s (1961) obedience experiment

Milgram conducted his electric shock experiment originally in 1961, and many subsequent variations followed.

The Milgram experiment summary

  • Milgram aimed to determine why seemingly ordinary people (for example, those under the Nazi regime) could commit heinous acts. While some people took the reductive dispositional viewpoint that something innate to the German people resulted in this historical tragedy, Milgram was not satisfied with this answer and attempted to seek out an environmental cause.

Milgram set up a simple experiment. He assigned participants the role of teacher, with two confederates (an actor working with the experiment, aware of the conditions) assigned the researcher and learner roles.

The teacher gave the learner a set of words to pair with another word depending on the condition’s parameters.

If the learner gave an incorrect response, the researcher confederate would order the teacher to deliver a shock to the learner confederate. The shocks grew in intensity with each wrong answer and were labelled from ‘slight shock’ to ‘XXX’. Milgram measured the highest intensity.

While the shocks were not real, the learner would react as if they were painful. If this disturbed the teachers and they expressed doubts about delivering shocks, the researcher would give them ‘prods’, which were verbal encouragement such as ‘the experiment requires you to continue’, which often worked.

Classic and Contemporary Research into Obedience Milgram obedience experiment electric shock StudySmarterElectic shock, Flaticon

Stanley Milgram experiment results

The experiment found that participants obeyed until 300-volts. At the 300v, the learner would go silent, implying severe pain or harm. At that point, some participants continued to refuse to deliver shocks, even after being given the prods. 65% of participants continued until the final 450-volt shock. Milgram concluded that given the right set of circumstances, anyone would commit horrible acts, and the Nazis were unfortunately not unique in their cruelty.

Milgram decided the circumstances included the legitimacy of the location (a prestigious university), the legitimacy of the authority figure (a smartly dressed older man in a lab coat), and the legitimacy of the cause (advancing scientific understanding of memory and learning). These were key factors in deciding whether or not somebody could be compelled to commit cruel acts. Allies were also factors (both in encouraging those to continue and refusing to continue).

Ethical considerations

One of the biggest differences between classic and contemporary research is that contemporary research operates under stricter ethical guidelines and often does a better job at holding to them, resulting in more ethical research. One of the most common criticisms of Milgram’s work is that his study was unethical. Let’s look at how.

  • Milgram deceived his participants, hiding the true nature of the experiment from them and placing them in a situation for which they were not prepared. His participants could not give informed consent.

  • Since Milgram’s participants truly believed they were delivering extremely powerful and painful shocks to another human being, many experienced and showed signs of psychological distress.

  • Milgram’s participants were not given the right of withdrawal, as even when showing clear signs of distress, they were urged to continue with four prods, each increasing in seriousness.

Effects on research at the time: Bocchario et al. (2012)

With this study, Milgram offered an insight into the potential acts of those under an authority figure and allowed people to understand everyone is susceptible to these issues.

Bocchario et al. (2012) came to similar conclusions, using Milgram’s experiment as a base in their study on disobedience and whistleblowing.

It was a laboratory study with volunteer sampling with no independent variable. Bocchario used students.

The first group were simply asked what they would do in a scenario and predict the results of other students (obey the experimenter, disobey, or whistleblow) where a group of students had to write statements recommending participation in an unethical study to other students. They were told not to mention the negative effects the potential participating students would suffer from if they did participate. Students could anonymously whistleblow the study.

The study involved sensory deprivation from which previous participants reported significant distress (hallucinations, a frightening experience).

The first group personally predicted that 3.6% of them would obey, 31.9% would disobey, and 64.5% would be whistleblowers.

They could be anonymous whistleblowers or open whistleblowers.

Experimental results

When the study was conducted, 149 students were involved in the actual experimental condition, and 76.5% of them obeyed the experimenter, a stark difference to the original 3.6% that the first group insinuated would be the case for themselves. Only 14.1% disobeyed, and a mere 9.4% were whistleblowers, again, a considerable difference from the original answers the first group gave.

It appears that behaving morally and challenging authority is a demanding characteristic for most people. It is hard to do so when obeying is the easiest and least confrontational option.

The contemporary aspect of Bocchario et al. (2012)

As it was a recent study, it offered a new insight into different aspects of the population and how they would respond to authority figures and their willingness to obey. Both Milgram and Bocchario question this authority. However, Bocchario suffers from limited generalisability as the sample was based on students.

Burger’s replication of Milgram (2009)

Burger’s experiment is a contemporary take on Milgram’s electric shock experiment. The procedure remains mostly the same, but a few key differences make his work an important addition to our understanding of obedience.

Most notably, Burger conducted a more ethical take on Milgram’s experiment and changed the independent variable to make results more valid and holistic.

Burger specifically focused on a variation where Milgram included the idea of the learner confederate supposedly having a heart condition and another variation where a second teacher confederate would go against the researcher’s wishes and repeatedly try to get the participant to stop.

How did Burger make his replication more ethical?

Burger did several things to make his replication of Milgram’s study more ethical in terms of procedure, sampling and treatment of participants.

Procedure

  • When looking at Milgram’s heart condition variation, Burger realised that all participants who refused to obey and give in to authority would do so at the 150-volt level, refusing to go any further. He then realised that the participants who did obey would continue to deliver shocks to the highest level of 450 volts. Burger marked this as an essential point to consider, believing that this represented a moral ‘point’ which those who were not authoritarian-minded would refuse to cross.
  • Burger called this idea the ‘point of no return’.
  • With the point of no return in mind, Burger decided that it would simply be more ethical to run the experiment, but only up to 150 volts. He believed he could now make a reasonable assumption that participants willingly progressing past the point of no return were likely to continue to the end. Making this judgement call would spare everyone involved from the unpleasant effects of the original Milgram study, which included stress and anxiety.
  • Participants were also treated much more ethically in Burger’s procedure. They were informed well in advance they had a right to withdraw from the experiment whenever they felt the need to. Participants were also immediately informed the shocks were not real and that the learner confederate was unharmed and okay when the experiment ended at any point.
  • While the researcher in the original Milgram study was simply an actor, Burger made sure that in his replication, the researcher was a trained psychologist who would respond swiftly and appropriately in the event of any participants experiencing distress.

Sampling

Like Milgram, Burger used a volunteer sample method to advertise the study through digital and print media. They were offered payment simply just for signing up before the study started. Unlike Milgram, Burger carefully screened his participants, first for knowledge of psychology and the original Milgram experiment, and then for factors that may make them especially prone to distress when taking part.

These factors included mental health and drug-related issues.

How was Burger’s research more valid?

Potential participants were also informed well in advance that despite what the prods would say, they had a right to withdraw from the experiment whenever they felt the need to.

While Milgram’s study of situational factors was important and accurate, Burger believed that he would need to test for dispositional factors to gain a more precise understanding of obedience.

Burger’s main dispositional focuses were empathy and ‘locus of control’.

Locus of control is a way of explaining a person’s beliefs and perceptions about how much control they have over the events in their lives. Those with an internal locus of control typically believe that their individual actions have the greatest effect on their lives and events that occur in them. People with an external locus of control believe that other factors such as luck, environment and even the decisions of those much more powerful than them have the greatest effect on their lives.

Burger had his participants take a test that would estimate their levels of empathy and which locus of control they had. He then checked them against the findings of his experiment, which provided more of a qualitative insight into obedience and which types of people are likely to act in specific ways under authority.

However, Burger’s study also had issues, for instance, assuming a point of no return has no factual basis of truth beyond the assumption.

Summary

In summary, Burger aimed to see if he could achieve the same results as Milgram with a new set of modern-day participants and to see if he could discover whether the ‘disobedient model’ affected the results.

Burger used an independent groups design to compare how participants acted in a replication of the original electric shock experiment with how they acted in the variation where there was a second teacher who encouraged the participant to stop.

As a result, Burger’s replication was more holistic than Milgram’s original study.

Burger’s results were largely similar to Milgram’s original study, which cements its importance and relevance even today, despite its ethical concerns.


Classic and Contemporary Research into Obedience - Key takeaways

  • Classic research took place in the past, while contemporary research is either recent or ongoing, utilising modern technology.
  • Two critical differences between classic and contemporary research are that contemporary research is often more ethical and has the benefit of having a long history of research to draw from, making it more holistic.
  • Milgram’s experiment was useful because its results are still valid today. Still, it was unethical (lack of consent to the true aim of the study, continual deception, extreme levels of stress etc.).
  • Bocchario et al. (2012) indicated how students believed they would disobey in hypothetical situations of unethical practices and insisted they would whistleblow. However, they tended to obey an authority figure, few disobeyed, and many did not whistleblow when they had the option.
  • While Burger’s study would not be possible without the groundwork Milgram laid, he could conduct a more ethical and holistic version of Milgram’s experiment. Although, Burger’s study also had issues, for instance, assuming a point of no return has no factual basis of truth beyond the assumption.

Frequently Asked Questions about Classic and Contemporary Research into Obedience

An example of classic research in obedience is Milgram's study of obedience.

Milgram published classic studies on obedience.

Milgram’s study suggested obedience was a product of environmental factors, such as location and authority figures.

Comparing classic and contemporary research allows us to understand better how to conduct good psychological research.

Milgram’s classic research refers to his studies into obedience.

Final Classic and Contemporary Research into Obedience Quiz

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What is classic research?

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Classic research is the foundational research that took place in the past.

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What is contemporary research?

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Contemporary research is research that took place recently or is ongoing.

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What are the differences between classic and contemporary research?

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Answer

Contemporary research tends to be more ethical than classic research, and due to having a larger history to draw information from, it can be more holistic.

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Could Milgram’s participants give informed consent?

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Milgram’s study deceived its participants, so they could not give informed consent.

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Did Milgram’s participants have a clear right of withdrawal?

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Answer

Milgram’s participants did not know they had the right to withdraw.

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Did Milgram focus on situational or dispositional factors?

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Answer

Situational factors.

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Why could Milgram’s study be labelled reductionist?

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Milgram’s study is reductionist because it ignores dispositional factors that led to obedience.

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Is Burger’s study classic or contemporary?

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Contemporary.

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How was Burger more ethical with his sampling?

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Burger screened out those who may be distressed by the experiment, such as those with mental health and drug issues.

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How did Burger investigate dispositional factors?

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Burger used a questionnaire to find out more about his participants.

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Was Burger’s study reductionist or holistic?

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Burger’s study was more holistic than Milgram’s original study because he took dispositional factors into account.

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What is the point of no return?

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According to Burger, the point of no return is the moral boundary that those who are not obedient will refuse to cross.

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Why was the point of no return essential for ensuring an ethical study?

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The point of no return allowed Burger to assume how his participants would act past the 150 V point without making them endure the experiment up to 450 volts.

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How were participants in Burger’s study made aware of their right to withdrawal?

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Participants were informed in writing that they could withdraw at any point and keep the money they were given for participating.

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How did Burger’s study prove that Milgram’s classic study was still helpful?

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Answer

Burger’s study found similar results to Milgram’s, proving that Milgram’s findings were still valuable.

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Question

What was the aim of the Robbers Cave experiment?

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The Robbers Cave experiment aimed to investigate how conflicts between groups develop and how they can be reduced.  

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Describe Aronson’s Jigsaw Classroom intervention.

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In groups, each student receives a portion of the material that the group has to learn. Individual students learn and present their portion of the material to other group members. Therefore, the group is interdependent, and cooperation is required for the group to succeed in learning the entire material. 

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What was the design of the Robbers Cave experiment?

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  • The Robbers Cave experiment was a field experiment, which employed a repeated measures design. 
  • The sample consisted of 22 White boys around the age of 12 coming from similar backgrounds. 
  • There were 3 phases to the experiment: in-group formation, intergroup conflict and conflict reduction phase.


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What happened during the conflict reduction phase of the Robbers Cave study?

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After participating in shared activities like watching a movie together, the conflict between groups persisted.

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Why was the Robbers Cave experiment unethical? 

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Boys and their parents couldn't give informed consent because they didn't know about the specifics of the study. The boys were also not protected from physical harm.

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What does the Robbers Cave experiment tell us about reducing conflict between groups?

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The Robbers Cave experiment demonstrated that collaboration to achieve shared goals could reduce conflict between two groups. 

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Which one is not a limitation of the Robbers Cave study?

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Potential rater bias.

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Choose the strengths of the Robbers Cave experiment.

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Attempts to standardise the procedure.

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Why is the lack of a control group a problem in the Robbers Cave experiment?

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A control group would show how boys typically behave at a summer camp in the absence of competition. This would clarify which behaviours were caused by competition and demonstrated hostility, typical for 12-year-old boys.

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Why could rater bias be a problem in the Robbers Cave experiment?

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When recording hostile incidents, observers could disagree about what hostility looks like.

Moreover, the staff only spent 12 hours so they couldn't record everything happening. 

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What are the ethical concerns of having camp staff of researchers in the Robbers Cave experiment?

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Typically camp staff should prioritise children’s safety and immediately stop any harmful behaviours.

Since the camp staff in the Robbers Cave study consisted of researchers, they didn’t interfere or prevent aggressive incidents from happening because that was precisely the thing that they wanted to record.

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What were the main findings of the Robbers Cave experiment?

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  • When two groups compete over rewards, a conflict between groups develops.
  • When two groups achieve shared goals through collaboration, the conflict reduces.

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Who carried out research on rethinking the psychology of tyranny?

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Reicher and Haslam (2006) in collaboration with BBC carried out research on rethinking the psychology of tyranny. 

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Which study’s findings were Reicher and Haslam (2006) using a template of? 

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Reicher and Haslam attempted to build on the Zimbardo (1971) Stanford prison experiment. 

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Was ecological validity a problem in the study? 

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No.

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What research design did Reicher and Haslam (2006) use?

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The study used an experimental case study. 

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What approach did the researchers use to introduce the interventions in the research? 

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The study took a time series approach to introduce new interventions at different points in the study.

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What type of variables were measured using psychometric tests in the Reicher and Haslam (2006) study? (Select multiple answers.)

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Social.

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During phase 1 of the study, did inmates’ cognitive alternatives scores increase? 

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Yes.

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Was there an increase in guards’ compliance with rules throughout the study? 

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Yes.

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Was there a shift in social identification trends between guards and prisoners? 

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Yes.

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Which phase of the results were characterised by accepting inequality?

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Phase 2

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In the Phase 2 results, what type of people wanted to form a new, stricter regime? 

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Guards with higher authoritarian scores wanted to form a new, stricter regime. 

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How did the researchers explain why most participants were willing to accept the stricter regime? 

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The researchers suggested that this was because they found participants’ RWA scores to increase throughout the study.  

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What could be concluded from the Reicher and Haslam (2006) study?

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The study concluded that:

  • The results suggest that people become willing to accept alternative options when a social group cannot provide order or a working, effective system. 
    • This can happen even if they initially thought of the social structure negatively. 
  • When social structures break down, people supporting democracy are less likely to defend it against tyranny. 

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Do the results of the Reicher and Haslam (2006) study suggest that tyranny is a group or collective process?

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Group process.

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What are the weaknesses of the study?

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The weaknesses of the study are: 

  • Observer bias may have influenced the results.
  • Individual differences cannot be identified from group analysis.
  • The study was androcentric. 

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What did Bocchario et al. (2012) find in their study?

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They found that students believed they would personally disobey experimenters, with 3.6% predicting they would obey, 31.9% predicting they would disobey, while the vast majority would whistleblow an unethical study, at 64.5%. In actual fact, 76.5% obeyed, 14.1% disobeyed, and 9.4% whistleblew.

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How was the Authoritarian personality measures? 

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The Authoritarian Personality was measured with the F-scale (Fascist-scale). 

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What did the dual process model of prejudice predict? 

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The dual process model predicted that ideological attitudes (Right Wing Authoritarianism and Social Dominance Theory) mediate the relationship between personality traits and prejudice. 

  • Personality traits --> ideological attitudes --> prejudice.

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What is Right Wing Authoritarianism? 


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Right Wing Authoritarianism is characterised by rigid thinking, intolerance toward other worldviews and perceptions of other groups as a threat and develops when individuals internalise the idea that the world is a dangerous place.   

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What was the aim of the study of Cohrs et al. 2012? 


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  • The focus of Cohrs et al. (2012) was to assess the relationship between personality traits, ideological attitudes and prejudice. 
  • They also wanted to see if self-reported participant responses will be similar to responses describing participants from their peers.  

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Outline limitations of Cohrs et al. 2012. 


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  • The findings might not be generalisable to the population outside of Germany.
  • Acquaintances can also be biased in their assessment of prejudice and personality.
  • Findings are correlational.

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What is Conscientiousness according to the Big Five personality model? 


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Conscientiousness relates to self-discipline, dutifulness, efficiency, productivity and a sense of competence and responsibility. 

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What is Social Dominance Orientation? 


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Social Dominance Orientation is characterised by a pursuit of dominance and a preference for hierarchy. 

Individuals high in the Social Dominance Orientation tend to seek superiority over others and hold strong beliefs that the world is a competitive place where only the strongest can survive. 

Show question

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