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Milgram's Agency Theory

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Milgram's Agency Theory

What makes good people turn cruel? As the world found out about the devastating cruelty committed by the Nazis during World War II, this was the question many psychologists were asking themselves. Milgram wasn't convinced by the explanation that German people that engaged in these cruel acts were inherently evil, or that the antisemitism distorted their judgement to a point where they saw genocide as a reasonable choice.

According to Milgram, the cruel acts so many people engaged in during the Holocaust can be explained by obedience. Today we will take a closer look at Milgram's Agency Theory, which attempts to explain this phenomenon.

Milgrams Agency Theory, suited man telling another what to do, StudySmarterMilgram attempted to explain obedience to authority, flaticon.com

  • First, we will discuss Stanley Milgram's agency theory, discussing Milgram's agency theory of obedience.
  • To cover our bases, we will also provide a Stanley Milgram experiment summary.
  • Finally, we will cover Milgram's agency theory evaluation, diving into the strengths of Milgram's agency theory and its weaknesses.

Stanley Milgram's Agency Theory

When we make decisions about how to behave, we typically consider what the consequences of our actions will be. This is because we feel responsible for our own behaviour. Milgram called this the autonomous state.

We are in an autonomous state when we feel personally responsible for our own decisions and actions. In an autonomous state, we are thinking for ourselves.

However, what happens if someone else has made a decision and orders you to follow them? Milgram argued that in situations when we are asked to do something by a legitimate authority figure, we don't always think about what the consequences of that behaviour will be.

A reputable figure has made the decision, and we are just following orders. This is what Milgram called the agentic state, caused by an agentic shift.

We shift into the agentic state when we follow orders from authority and attribute the consequences of the action to the authority but not to ourselves. We become an agent for them, acting on their behalf without taking personal responsibility.

Legitimate authority is a person in power who has the right to give out orders.

The capacity for an agentic shift from an autonomous to an agentic state was proposed to be an evolutionary adaptation that allowed humans to create organised and hierarchical social structures.

Stanley Milgram didn't necessarily believe we are born to obey, but rather obedience develops when our capacity to obey is reinforced by our experiences in hierarchical societies that reward obedience.

Milgram's Agentic Theory accounts for both the influence of nature (the evolutionary capacity to obey) and nurture (societal reinforcement of obedience).

Milgram's Agency Theory: Binding Factors

Milgram noted certain factors were required to maintain the agentic state, known as binding factors. After entering an agentic state, participants were kept in the state due to:

  • Pressures of the authority figure and surroundings
  • Reluctance to disobey and disrupt
  • Legitimacy of the authority figure (detailed more below)

Milgram's Agency Theory of Obedience: The Moral Strain

Not all authority figures will be moral and just. Yet, our need to obey often doesn't discriminate between orders that we agree with and orders we don't agree with.

So, what happens when we are asked to do something we don't regard as moral? Milgram proposes that such scenarios result in an internal conflict, resulting in a moral strain when people are in an agentic state.

Moral strain is the psychological distress which can be experienced when one follows an order from an authority that is against one's own beliefs.

To cope with the discomfort of a moral strain, people can enter into denial and refuse to accept the reality of their behaviour, and others may display avoidance behaviour, try to somehow minimise their involvement or engage in less severe actions than ordered.

According to Milgram, entering the agentic state can relieve people of some of the guilt associated with their behaviour and decrease the effects of the moral strain.

Stanley Milgram Experiment Summary

To test out his theory, Milgram conducted a famous electric shock study in 1963. The study was conducted in a laboratory, and forty male participants took part in the experiment.

  • Milgram used deception to avoid social desirability bias. Participants were told they were taking part in a learning study that was supposed to investigate whether punishment with electric shocks can enhance learning.
  • As the 'teachers', participants were asked to administer electric shocks of increasing voltage (from 15V to 450V) to the 'learners' anytime they made a mistake.
  • The learners were, in fact, confederates - actors that pretended to be real participants.
  • Milgram found that 65% of participants obeyed and administered the potentially lethal (450V) electric shocks to the confederate, knowing the danger associated with the action.

Milgrams Agency Theory, lightning symbol, StudySmarterElectric shocks were used in Milgram's famous obedience experiment, flaticon.com

It was concluded that the agentic theory could predict people's behaviour as most people obeyed, even when asked to do something cruel and unethical.

Stanley Milgram's Study Variations

Later Milgram conducted 19 more study variations investigating the influence of different situational factors on participants' obedience. Some of the situational factors that influenced obedience included proximity to the victim, location of the experiment and the uniform worn by the authority.

  • When the participants had to be near the learner, the proportion of participants who obeyed dropped by over a half.

  • The participants' obedience also dropped if the location of the experiment was less legitimate.

  • When the orders were given by an ordinary-looking person rather than a professional-looking experimenter in a lab coat, the level of obedience dropped to only 20%.

The importance of wearing a uniform was later supported by the study of Bickman (1974). In his study, a male researcher dressed either in a guard uniform, a milkman uniform or no uniform asked strangers on the streets of Brooklyn to perform an action.

He found that if the man giving out orders was dressed in a guard uniform, 76% of people obeyed, if he was dressed in a milkman uniform, 47% of people obeyed, and if he was wearing no uniform, only 30% of people obeyed.

Milgrams Agency Theory, symbol of a police hat, StudySmarterUniforms make authorities appear more legitimate, flaticon.com

Milgram's Agency Theory Evaluation

Milgram's agency theory has received a lot of support. However, some argue that it doesn't fully account for the research findings and people's behaviour in the real world. Let's examine the strengths and limitations of Milgram's theory.

Strengths of Milgram's Agency Theory

One strength of Milgram's theory is that it produces testable experimental predictions. The theory predicts that if ordered by an authority, the average person will be capable of committing even immoral acts as the responsibility is shifted to the authority figure.

Moreover, the theory has been largely supported by existing studies, including the studies conducted by Milgram and the naturalistic Hofling (1966) study. The theory is also supported by cross-cultural research (Blass, 2012).

Hofling (1966) conducted a field study to test Milgram's predictions in a naturalistic setting. Twenty-two nurses were asked by the researcher, posing as an unverified doctor on the phone to administer twice the maximum amount of an unauthorised drug to a patient. Twenty-one of them obeyed the order, even though it was against the hospital rules.

Blass (2012) reviewed ten studies that applied Milgram's paradigm to study obedience in different countries worldwide.

They found Milgram's predictions to generalise cross-culturally. The mean obedience rate in the US was around 61%; in comparison, the mean obedience rate in non-US studies was 66%.

Another strength of the theory is its ability to explain to some extent why people engaged in historical atrocities like the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide.

It was reported that during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority were slaughtered over a span of 100 days. Around 200,000 civilians were involved in the killings.

Many of them later reported the pressure from the authorities as a strong motive for their actions. Some of the perpetrators, however, reported being motivated by personal motives like hatred and prejudice.

Limitations of Milgram's Agency Theory

The Agency Theory has been criticised for portraying people as passive and supporting the idea of social determinism. The theory doesn't account for people's personal motives to commit immoral acts. People can be motivated not only by the pressure from the authority but also by their personal feelings of prejudice and hatred, as the reports of the Rwanda genocide showed.

Moreover, the theory doesn't explain individual differences in obedience. After all, not everyone in the Milgram study obeyed the authority.

The Agency Theory focuses mostly on situational factors influencing obedience and can be contrasted with theories focusing on individual factors like the Authoritarian Personality Theory, which predicts that some people are more likely to obey due to their personal characteristics.


Milgram’s Agency theory - Key takeaways

  • Milgram's Agency Theory proposes the existence of an autonomous and an agentic state. We are in an autonomous state when we feel personally responsible for our own decisions and actions.
  • We shift into the agentic state when we follow orders from authority and attribute the consequences of the action to the authority but not to ourselves.
  • Moral strain is the psychological distress which can be experienced when one follows an order from an authority that is against one's own beliefs.
  • The strengths of Milgram's theory include its ability to produce testable predictions and explain people's behaviour during historical events. It is also supported by many studies on obedience conducted across cultures.
  • Milgram's Agency Theory does not account for individual differences in obedience and can be criticised for supporting the idea of social determinism.

Frequently Asked Questions about Milgram's Agency Theory

Milgram's experiment used a standardised procedure which allows replications that could corroborate its reliability. Since the replications of the original experiment found similar findings, it can be concluded that Milgram's experiment was reliable. 

Milgram's experiment suggests that if an agentic shift occurs, people will obey authority figures even if personally they consider the orders to be immoral. Milgram's studies support his Agency Theory which has some potential to explain cruel behaviour associated with historical events, like the Holocaust or the Rwanda genocide.

Milgram's experiment can be criticised for the use of a biased sample, artificial environment, the use of deception and for not protecting the participants from psychological harm. Later it was also uncovered that participants were coerced by the experimenter to administer the shocks even after they refused to; some were also lied to and assured the learner wants to continue. 

The strengths of Milgram's theory include its ability to produce testable predictions and explain people's behaviour during historical events. It is also supported by many studies on obedience conducted across cultures.

Milgram's experiment found that most participants obeyed the authority even when asked to administer painful and potentially lethal electric shocks. This is not a decision that most people would make on their own however when ordered by an authority figure, participants followed the orders, suggesting they entered into an agentic state.

Final Milgram's Agency Theory Quiz

Question

How can the autonomous state be described?

Show answer

Answer

The autonomous state can be characterised by a feeling of personal responsibility for our own decisions and actions.

Show question

Question

When does the agentic shift occur?

Show answer

Answer

The agentic shift occurs as we enter the agentic state in response to orders from a legitimate authority.

Show question

Question

What is the agentic state?

Show answer

Answer

We shift into the agentic state when we follow orders from authority and attribute the consequences of the action to the authority but not to ourselves.

Show question

Question

Define legitimate authority.

Show answer

Answer

Legitimate authority is a person in power who has the right to give out orders.

Show question

Question

Why did the capacity to enter the agentic state evolve in humans according to Milgram?

Show answer

Answer

According to Milgram, the capacity to enter the agentic state evolved to allow humans to create organised and hierarchical social structures.  

Show question

Question

Are we born to obey according to Milgram?

Show answer

Answer

Milgram didn't necessarily believe we are born to obey, but rather obedience develops when our capacity to obey is reinforced by our experiences in hierarchical societies that reward obedience. 

Show question

Question

What is the moral strain

Show answer

Answer

Moral strain is the psychological distress which can be experienced when one follows an order from an authority that is against one's own beliefs.

Show question

Question

What were the findings of the original Milgram study?

Show answer

Answer

Milgram found that 65% of participants obeyed to administer potentially lethal (450V) electric shocks to the confederate, knowing the danger associated with the action. 

Show question

Question

How does Milgram's study support agency theory?


Show answer

Answer

Milgram's experiment found that most participants obeyed the authority even when asked to administer painful and potentially lethal electric shocks. This is not a decision that most people would decide to make on their own however when ordered by an authority figure participants followed the orders, suggesting they entered into an agentic state.

Show question

Question

What situational factors were found to influence obedience in Milgram's variation studies?

Show answer

Answer

Proximity to the victim, location of the experiment and the uniform worn by the authority. 

Show question

Question

What were the findings of Bickman's (1974) study?

Show answer

Answer

Bickman found that people are more likely to obey a man wearing a guard uniform than a man wearing a milkman uniform or wearing no uniform at all.

Show question

Question

Outline the findings of the Hofling's (1966) study.

Show answer

Answer

In Hofling's study, twenty-two nurses were asked by the researcher on the phone to administer twice the maximum amount of an unauthorised drug to a patient. Twenty-one of them obeyed the order, even though it was against the hospital rules. 

Show question

Question

Do the predictions of the Agency Theory generalise to other cultures?

Show answer

Answer

Blass's (2012) review of 10 studies that applied Milgram's paradigm to study obedience in different countries around the world found Milgram's predictions to generalise cross-culturally.  

Show question

Question

What are the strengths of the Agentic Theory?

Show answer

Answer

The strengths of the Agentic Theory include its ability to produce testable predictions and explain people's behaviour during historical events. It is also supported by many studies on obedience conducted across cultures. 

Show question

Question

What are the limitations of Milgram's Agentic Theory?

Show answer

Answer

Milgram's Theory does not account for individual differences in obedience and can be criticised for supporting the idea of social determinism.

Show question

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