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Obediance and Deindividuation Essay

Most, if not all humans, have some ethics and morals, which help the individual make distinctions between right and wrong. Therefore, in most situations human beings behave in accordance with their morality. Studies on notions such as obedience to authority and deindividuation have shown that in some cases, an individual can be made to act in direct opposition to their morals and ethics. Studies conducted by Milgram (1963) on obedience have shown that if an individual is ordered to do something by someone who is perceived to be in power, it is possible that they will do it, even if it is something the person does not believe is right. Also, studies conducted by Zimbardo (1973) on deindividuation have shown that a normally healthy, intelligent person can lose their identity in a crowd, and commit acts of violence and aggression which they would not normally commit. According to the deindividuation theory, this is because the individual feels that they can no longer be singled out and held personally responsible for behaviour. The studies conducted by Zimbardo (1973) and Milgram (1963) have been examined and compared in this essay.

The notions of obedience and deindividuation have been the subject of some very informative and sometimes disturbing research by social psychologists. Obedience is defined by Moghaddam (1998) as: “changes in behaviour that arise when people follow the instructions of persons in authority.” Our tendency to comply with authority figures can be surprisingly strong (Bourne & Russo, 1998). Experiments on the subject, particularly those conducted by Milgram (1963) have shown that though obedience is, in many forms positive, it can also be extremely negative, instigating individuals to commit acts of violence or aggression, of which they would not normally partake.

Deindividuation is defined by Moghaddam (1998) as: “The loss of one’s sense of self identity as an individual person, associated with lower self awareness and decreased personal responsibility in group settings”. This can often lead to acts of aggression or violence, by a normally placid person. This notion, as well as the notion of obedience to authority, has been examined in this essay, by looking at, and comparing the studies conducted by Milgram (1963) and Zimbardo (1973),

Milgram looked to explore the notion of obedience by using the cover story that he was conducting research on the effects of punishment on learning. He advertised for volunteers aged twenty to fifty who would be paid four dollars an hour plus fifty cents petrol money. It is important to note though, that the participants were told that the money was theirs simply for coming to the laboratory no matter what happened after their arrival. A wide range of occupations, ages and backgrounds were represented in the chosen sample. The selected participant was introduced to a person (a forty-seven year old accountant, whom most observers found mild mannered and likeable [Milgram, 1963]) who pretended to be another participant, but was actually a confederate of the experimenter.

It was explained that as this was a learning experiment, it was required that there be learner and teacher. The participants took a piece of paper from a hat to determine whether he was the teacher or learning. This was rigged so that the participant would always be the teacher (both pieces of paper said ‘teacher’). The teacher was then allowed to watch the learner being strapped into an ‘electric chair’ which was to be used to administer electric shocks. The learner was told that though the shocks could be extremely painful, they cause no permanent tissue damage.

The teacher was then taken to an adjacent room and seated in front of a ‘shock generator’ consisting of thirty switches set in a horizontal line. The switches were marked, increasing from 0 to 450 colts, 15 volts at a time. Each group of four switches was also marked, from lowest voltage to highest, “slight shock”, “moderate shock”, “strong shock”, “very strong shock”, “intense shock”, “extreme intense shock”, “danger, severe shock” with the last two switches simply marked “XXX” (Moghaddam, 1998). The participant was given an example shock of 45 volts.

The learning exercise was a word association task. Each time the learner got an answer wrong, the teacher was instructed to administer a higher level of shock. The teacher was also required to call out the voltage level before administering a shock, to make sure they were fully aware of the shock level. The learner was instructed to give specific response to different shock levels. Between 75 and 105 volts, the learner grunted. At 120 volts, the learner shouted that the shocks were becoming painful, after that the learner complained of a bad heart and shouted that he no longer wanted to be part of the experiment. The cries became more and more distressed until shock level three hundred, when the learner indicated that he could no longer give answers to the memory test. After this, all that was heard from the learner was agonized cries.

The participant was instructed to treat the lack of response as a wrong answer and continue increasing the shock level every five to ten seconds. At different stages of the experiment, the subjects looked to the experimenter for guidance or expressed their wishes not to continue, to which the experimenter’s responses were standardized. A series of ‘prods’ were established, which were to be used each time a participant indicated his unwillingness to go on. These prods were always given in order and were started again each time the participant showed reluctance These were: “Please continue”, then “The experiment requires that you continue”, then “It is absolutely essential that you continue” and finally “You have no other choice, you must go on”. If the participant refused to go on after the last prod, the experiment was terminated.

The participants showed obvious signs of distress throughout the experiment, especially while administering the more powerful shocks. Subjects were observed to sweat, tremble, stutter, bite their lips, groan and dig their fingernails into their flesh (Milgram, 1963). Many subjects said they could not go on, but nevertheless they did. Approximately sixty five percent of participants were fully obedient (Moghaddam, 1998), continuing until they reached the most potent shock on the generator, at which point, the experimenter called a halt to the session. Not one participant stopped before shock level 20, which was 300 volts, and the point at which the learner stopped answering questions.

Milgram asked groups of laypeople and experts to predict the outcome of the experiment before it as conducted. As it was predicted that participants would refuse to administer shocks of more than a minimal voltage to learners (Moghaddam, 1998) these results amazed many people. This experiment demonstrated that normal, healthy, intelligent people are capable of carrying out violent and destructive acts, if placed in the right (or wrong) situation. This was also demonstrated by a study carried out by Zimbardo (1973).

The Stanford Prison experiment, as it was known, simulated a prison environment in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford University. The prison was made to be as realistic as possible, with bars, prison uniforms, identification numbers and uniformed guards (who wore mirrored sunglasses). Volunteers for the experiment were screened with clinical interviews and psychological tests to ensure that they were emotionally stable and mature. Participants were to be paid fifteen dollars a day for the two week experiment. The study required two roles, guards and prisoners, which were assigned by a coin toss.

The prisoners were unexpectedly arrested at their homes and brought to the ‘prison’ in a police car. They were handcuffed, searched, fingerprinted, booked, stripped, deloused, given a number and issued a prison uniform. Each prisoner was then placed in a six by nine foot cell with two other inmates (Bartol, 1998). The guards were simply instructed to keep order. They all wore standard uniforms and carried a night stick, keys to the cells, whistles and handcuffs. Guards drew up their own rules for maintaining law and order in the prison.

Before the prisoners were allowed to do anything, they had to obtain permission, and they were required to address the guards as ‘Mr corrections officer, sir’. The participants quickly absorbed their roles. Guards degraded the prisoners in different ways, making them clean toilet with their hands, disrupting their sleep and using physical punishments and solitary confinement for minor infractions (Bourne and Russo, 1998). The prisoners broke down and accepted the brutal treatment. Three had to be released during the first four days because of hysterical crying and severe depression and many others begged to be paroled, willing to forfeit the money they had earned for participating in the experiment (Bartol, 1998).

The experiment was terminated after only six days, well short of the planned two weeks, because of the guards’ brutality (Bourne and Russo, 1998). It is interesting to note some of the remarks made by the prisoners: “I practically considered the prisoners as cattle” and “I was tired of seeing the prisoners in their rags and smelling the strong odours of their bodies that filled the cells” (Moghaddam, 1998).

The experiment prompted Zimbardo to conclude “Many people, perhaps the majority, can be made to do almost anything when put into psychologically compelling situations-regardless of their morals, ethics, values, attitudes, beliefs, or personal convictions” (Zimbardo, 1973, cited in Bartol, 1998). Much the same conclusion had been reached by Milgram (1963) with respect to authority figures (Bartol, 1998).

The results of these studies make statements about human nature and social psychology by demonstrating the importance of situational variables in determining behaviour. Zimbardo’s (1973) experiment illustrated the influence of deindividuation – the process of losing one’s identity and becoming part of a group, as a situational variable (Bartol, 1998), and Milgram’s (1963) study examined the variables involved in obedience to authority.

Deindividuation follows a complex chain of events. Firstly, the presence of many other people gives rise to a sense of anonymity, the individual then loses identity and becomes part of a group. Under these conditions, the person feels that they can be no longer singled out and held responsible for their behaviour. According to the deindividuation theory, this generates a “loss of self awareness, reduced concern over evaluations for others, and a narrowed focus of attention” (Baron & Byrne, 1977, cited in Bartol, 1998). The combination of these things is believed to lower restraints against antisocial or aggressive behaviour. This theory is supported by Zimbardo’s (1973) prison experiment.

As was demonstrated by Milgram’s (1963) experiment, individuals are likely to be obedient to people who have power (whether real or perceived) over them. Also, culture teaches people in certain roles to expect to be obeyed. As such, people learn to play authority roles, as well as roles submissive to authority (Moghaddam, 1998). This dominant-submissive relationship was demonstrated in the prison study. Stereotypically, prison guards are perceived as having dominant, possibly even sadistic personalities, whereas prisoners, will tend to be aggressive and socially deviant (Moghaddam, 1998). The results of this study indicate that situational factors have a large bearing on behaviour, regardless of morals, ethics, values, attitudes or beliefs, or in short, the nature of the individual. This is also demonstrated by Milgram’s (1963) study.

Milgram’s (1963) experiment also demonstrates how normal, healthy, intelligent people are quite capable of carrying out destructive acts, in this case, however, the individuals carried out these acts, because they were persuaded to do so by a person whom they perceived to be in authority. This can be seen on a much larger scale in the success of dictators, such as Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler. A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the context of the act and without limitations of the conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority (Milgram, 1977, cited in Bartol, 1998).

A lot can be learned from this about human nature. It can be inferred from this study, as well as Zimbardo’s (1973) study that normal, healthy, intelligent human beings are capable of carrying out acts which normally go against their nature, if the individual is placed in the right (or wrong) situation. These studies showed the effects of authority figures and environmental factors involved in behaviour and suggest that in many cases, people engage in behaviour that goes against their very nature, simply because they are told to do so.

The results also show, that under deindividualized conditions, people may do things that they would not normally do, or engage in acts that they did not think they were even capable of. A better understanding of deindividuation could lead to a decrease in violent or aggressive acts committed by individuals in a crowd, for example rioting, and a better understanding of obedience to authority could decrease the possibility of events like those caused by Hussein or Hitler happening again.


Bartol, C.R. (1998). Criminal Behaviour. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Bourne, L.E. and Russo, N.F. (1998). Psychology Behaviour in Context. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioural Study of Obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67 (4), 371-378.

Moghaddam, F.M. (1998). Social Psychology. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

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