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Milgram Agency Theory

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Milgram Agency Theory

To understand the motivations behind the atrocities committed by Nazi soldiers during the holocaust, psychologist Stanley Milgram developed his agency theory in 1973. This theory explains how and why humans are socially influenced to obey. The Milgram Agency Theory explains not only large-scale events like genocide but also everyday obedience, such as obeying teachers in school.

It is a key theory consisting of many important concepts that explain why we obey, who we obey and why we sometimes do not obey. But before we explore key theoretical concepts, it is important to clarify what we mean by obedience. Let us recall first what obedience is, and then examine Milgram's experiment conclusion and describe and evaluate Milgram's agency theory.

Obedience is a type of social influence describing when people follow an explicit command given by a legitimate authority. The concept of legitimate authority is discussed below.

Milgram Agency Theory [+] Obedience example traffic wardens [+] StudySmarterTraffic wardens are an example of obedience in everyday life, Unsplash

What are the key concepts of the Milgram agency theory?

Understanding the key concepts in Milgram’s Agency Theory will help you understand the main assertions of the theory as well as the research investigating the theory.

Legitimate authority

If the authority figure is legitimate, people are more likely to obey them. The legitimacy of the authority figure can arise either legally, such as a police officer, or morally, such as a parent or guardian.

Agentic state

The theory states that obedience occurs if people are in an agentic state. This means that they believe that the authority ordering them will be responsible for the consequences of carrying out the order. The individual does not feel responsible for their actions as they are simply acting as an ‘agent’ of the authority figure.

For example, the participants in Milgram’s shock experiment (1964) were said to be in an agentic state as they inflicted shocks on people upon being instructed to do so by an authority figure.

Milgram stated that humans can experience an agentic shift if they are given an order from a legitimate authority figure. The agentic shift puts us in the agentic state and causes us to obey the authority figure. Milgram claimed the agentic shift has two explanations:


  • Evolutionary explanation for the agentic shift obedience was a necessary trait for survival as it helped humans work together to survive. Disobedience endangered lives and so this trait was not passed down through genetics.

  • Conditioning explanation for the agentic shift obedience is taught to us from an early age, namely in school and family life. We are conditioned to obey authority figures, meaning we associate obedience with rewards and disobedience with punishment.

Milgram claimed that the combination of evolution and conditioning help us accept authority figures and cause us to obey without too much resistance.

Moral strain

Moral strain refers to the hesitation or reluctance a person may feel when an authority figure is giving them an order that goes against their conscience. Someone experiencing moral strain feels conflicted and may express emotion or show physical signs of distress.

In Milgram’s shock experiment (1964), some participants showed signs of moral strain when asked to inflict high voltage shocks on another person. Milgram prompted the participants to continue when they visibly felt uncomfortable, stating that it was a requirement of the experiment. 65% of the participants inflicted high-voltage shocks onto another person even when they knew it would result in a level of harm.

This suggests the participants experienced an agentic shift that removed their moral strain, resulting in actions undertaken in the agentic state.

Autonomous state

In the autonomous mental state, people make choices entirely out of free will. Due to this, they feel responsible for their own actions, and therefore, responsible for the consequences.

For example, if someone chooses to cross the road during a red light, their action may result in a consequence, such as a road accident. Since they decided to carry out this action in the autonomous state, they are likely to feel that the accident was their fault.

Milgram Agency theory [+] soldier [+] StudySmarterAgency theory explores how far humans are able to go if an authority figure orders them so, Flaticon

Real-life applications of the Milgram agency theory

Below are some real-life applications of obedience that raise questions about human behaviour and obedience, especially on a large scale.

Obedience on a large scale: the trial of Adolf Eichmann

Adolf Eichmann was a key figure responsible for the planning and execution of the genocide of six million Jewish people in Nazi concentration camps. He helped with logistics, such as the collection and delivery of the Jewish people to concentration camps where they were killed.

Upon thorough psychological assessment of Eichmann, he was found to have normal mental functioning. There was nothing about him, in particular, that could have made him more likely to participate in such activities. He also had an average family life.

In his trial, he claimed that his actions were the result of him simply taking orders under Adolf Hitler’s regime. He was doing as he was told, which he assumed was a sign of good character. This approach shows Eichmann was acting in an agentic state.

The application of such a historical event is cautionary; it suggests that, if placed in the right context, even a seemingly regular person could commit atrocities that they never would have imagined themselves doing otherwise. How far would you go to follow orders?

Obedience on a large scale: the Rwandan genocide

In 1994, a mass genocide took place in Rwanda, where over 75% of the ethnic minority Tutsi population was killed. The killings were carried out by a mixture of police, the army and ordinary civilians. It is estimated that between 170,000 and 210,000 civilians took it upon themselves to kill or seriously injure members of the Tutsi population.

During interviews with some of the ordinary civilian perpetrators, they were asked about their motivations. These ranged from personal motivations (such as hatred for the Tutsis, national pride and patriotism) to social influence. However, some alleged that they had no choice but to carry out the killings upon orders from state authorities. This shows support for the Agency Theory, as the civilian perpetrators were in an agentic state.

As highlighted in the above real-life examples of the holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, Agency Theory can help to explain why ordinary people may be driven to commit crimes on a mass scale.

Research applications of the Milgram agency theory

Milgram’s shock experiment (1964)

Milgram’s famous shock experiment (1964) revealed that if an authority figure takes responsibility, a person will inflict harm on someone else if commanded to do so.

Meeus and Raaijmakers (1995)

This experiment tested obedience in a similar way to Milgram’s shock experiment; However, instead of electric shocks, participants were prompted to insult another person. 92% of participants obeyed orders to do so; on the other hand, in the control group, no prompts were given, therefore, no insults were made. The high levels of obedience in this experiment largely support the Agency Theory as the obeying participants were in an agentic state.

Hofling (1966)

In a field experiment, it was found that 21 out of 22 nurses would administer an unknown drug to a patient when ordered to do so by an unknown doctor. The nurses were aware that this was in breach of hospital rules. This study also supports Agency theory as the nurses were acting in an agentic state under the authority figures (the doctors).

Evaluation of the Milgram agency theory

As an inspiration for many theories and research into the study of social influence and obedience, Milgram’s Agency Theory has attracted much feedback, both positive and negative. Let us now evaluate Milgram's agency theory and list its strengths and weaknesses.

Positives

  • The theory explains obedience in important historical events such as the holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. It can be applied to many other mass-scale atrocities carried out globally.

  • The theory is supported by research applications such as Milgram’s shock experiment (1964), Meeus and Raaijmakers (1995) and Hofling (1966).

  • The theory recognizes the importance of the authority figure in obedience, which can help us prevent authority figures from expressing potentially prejudicial or harmful ideas (or at least hold them accountable). This may be significant for more impressionable groups in society, such as children.

  • Variations of Milgram’s shock experiment showed that obedience levels can increase if certain situational influences are present, such as the uniform of the authority figure. This supports the Agency Theory and the legitimacy of the authority figure.

Negatives

Here are some of the weaknesses of Milgram's agency theory:

  • While the majority of participants in Milgram’s shock experiment obeyed, 35% did not. This suggests there must be other reasons for obedience and disobedience.
  • The theory may not be generally applicable to global atrocities and historical events as it largely ignores personal motivations to carry out certain actions. This was found in the civilian perpetrators in the Rwandan genocide as a significant part of their motivation arose from personal prejudices and feelings towards the Tutsi population.
  • Theodor Adorno’s dispositional influence (1950) theory states that personalities have a big part to play in obedience as certain personalities are more likely to obey than others; the Agency Theory ignores this.
  • The theory has been criticized by psychologist Steve Reicher for showing people as too passive; social context and pressure is not the only thing that can make humans act in certain ways. Personal motivations can also play an important role.

Milgram Agency Theory - Key takeaways

  • Milgram’s agency theory aims to explain how and why humans are socially influenced to obey.
  • Obedience occurs if people are in an agentic state. This means that they believe that the authority ordering them will be responsible for the consequences of carrying out the order. In contrast, in an autonomous mental state, people make choices entirely out of free will.
  • Humans can experience an agentic shift if they are ordered by a legitimate authority figure. The agentic shift puts us in the agentic state and causes us to obey without feeling responsible.
  • Moral strain is the hesitation or reluctance a person may feel when an authority figure is giving them an order that goes against their conscience.
  • Real-life applications of the Agency Theory include the trial of Adolf Eichmann and the Rwandan genocide.
  • Research applications of the Agency Theory include Milgram’s shock experiment and the Meeus and Raaijmakers and Hofling studies.
  • The theory has many practical applications; However, it does not explain why not everyone obeys and it ignores other explanations for obedience.

Frequently Asked Questions about Milgram Agency Theory

Milgram's Agency Theory was developed in 1973.

Yes, Milgram created the Agency Theory.

In the Milgram shock experiment, 65% of the participants inflicted high-voltage shocks onto another person when ordered to do so by an authority figure.

Milgram's study can show that, when ordered and prompted by an authority figure, people are capable of following orders even if they harm someone else.

The advantages of the Agency Theory include the fact that it is widely applicable to historical events such as the holocaust and Rwandan genocide. The theory also has many research applications, such as through the results of the Milgram shock experiment, Meeus and Raaijmakers study and Hofling study.

Final Milgram Agency Theory Quiz

Question

What is Milgram's Agency Theory?

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Answer

Milgram's Agency Theory aims to explain why humans are socially influenced to obey.

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Question

What is the definition of obedience?

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Answer

Obedience is a type of social influence when people follow an explicit command given by a legitimate authority.

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Question

What is the definition of an agentic state?


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Answer

In an agentic state, the individual believes that the authority ordering them will be responsible for the consequences of carrying out the order. The individual does not feel responsible for their actions as they are simply acting as an 'agent' of the authority figure.

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Question

What is the definition of the autonomous state?


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Answer

The autonomous mental state is when people make choices entirely out of free will. Due to this, they feel responsible for their own actions and therefore their consequences.

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Question

What is the definition of moral strain?


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Answer

Moral strain refers to the hesitation or reluctance a person may feel when an authority figure is giving them an order that goes against their conscience. Someone experiencing moral strain feels conflicted and may express emotion or show physical signs of distress.

Show question

Question

What is the definition of the agentic shift?


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Answer

Humans experience an agentic shift if they are given an order from a legitimate authority figure. The agentic shift puts us in the agentic state and causes us to obey the authority figure.

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Question

Why was Adolf Eichmann classed as acting in an agentic state?


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Answer

Adolf Eichmann was acting in an agentic state as he claimed his actions were simply the result of him following orders from an authority figure.

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Question

What are three important studies supporting the Agency Theory?


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Answer

Milgram's shock experiment (1964), Meeus and Raaijmakers (1995) and Hofling (1966).

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Question

What is a key criticism of the Agency Theory explanation for obedience?


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Answer

A key criticism is that the Agency Theory fails to consider other factors in explaining why people obey, such as personality and personal motivations.

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