Month: September 2015

Some factors that affect obedience

The role of authority figures

One characteristic of obedience as a form of social pressure is that it features an authority figure giving a direct command. The presence of this authority figure i.e. whether the authority figure is physically present affects whether we obey or do not obey an instruction. For example, in a swimming pool, children often run at the edge of the pool instead of walking, but if there is a lifeguard yelling at them to walk, they generally will do so. Milgram (1974) found a similar effect when he replicated his classic experiment with a key variation – the experimenter gave initial instructions and then left the room, afterwards communicating only by phone. The obedience level fell from 65% to 20.5%.


Another factor is personality. When people are given instructions such as from a driving instructor, some people will unquestioningly do what they are told – checking mirrors etc – while others might argue and say that they don’t think it’s necessary. Some people are more confident to argue, while others are generally more rebellious and dislike rules. This may link to upbringing; people who have been brought up with authoritarian parents may obey unquestioningly, while others who have been brought up with a democratic parenting style have, throughout their childhood socialization, been encouraged to debate and discuss rules. However, Zimbardo et al. (1973) have argued that it is the situation that plays the main role in behavior, not our personalities.


Finally, power plays a major role in obedience. In any obedience situation, one person has more power, and tries to change the behavior of people who have less power. One form of power is legal power – the right to punish someone by law if they don’t obey, e.g. a police officer telling someone to stop their car. Another, very different form of power is charismatic power – power which comes from the force of persuasion and someone’s personality. Real world examples of this include the leaders of cults, such as Charles Manson who persuaded vulnerable young teenagers to join his ‘family’ of criminals, and commit murders when he ordered them to.


Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority. London: Pinter & Martin.
Zimbardo, P. G., Haney, C., Banks, W. C. & Jaffe, D. (1973). The mind is a formidable jailer: A Pirandellian prison. The New York Times Magazine, 8, 38-60.


Example post: explanations of an everyday behaviour

Why do people go to sleep at different times? Some people are known as ‘larks’ i.e. early risers, while others – nicknamed ‘owls’ – prefer to go to bed late and get up late. This is an example of an everyday behavior that can be explained using the different approaches to psychology.

Are you a lark or an owl?

A biological explanation

The biological approach to psychology explains behavior on the basis of processes within our bodies, such as hormones and brain areas. This approach explains that we fall asleep when our bodies release a hormone called melatonin. The release of melatonin occurs when it gets dark, as low light to the eyes sends a signal to a brain area called the hypothalamus, which in turn triggers melatonin to be released.

However, why do some people fall asleep earlier than others? According to biological psychologists, there are genetic differences between individuals. Therefore it’s likely that some people have genes for being an early riser – one gene called ‘Period 3′ seems to be involved (source: here).


Another explanation is that people learn to associate sleep with different stimuli in the environment due to classical conditioning. Researchers such as Watson said that anything could be learned or unlearned through the environment. Although most people fall asleep when it is dark, some may have had parents who stayed up late into the night, and have come to associate late evenings with lots of fun things going on. If they then stayed up late themselves, this would have been rewarded (operant conditioning). There could also be an element of social learning, as seeing others stay up late and enjoy themselves would cause us to learn this behavior vicariously, according to researchers such as Bandura.