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Bickman Obedience Study

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Bickman Obedience Study

During the Nuremberg trials, when Nazis responsible for the death of millions of people during the Holocaust were trialled, many explained they didn't feel guilty for their actions because they were only obeying orders. To investigate how people would obey, Milgram conducted his famous electric shock experiment in 1963.

Milgram proposed we all tend to obey authority even if the orders are immoral. However, some situational factors like the location, proximity to authority or the victim, as well as the social power of the authority can affect the likelihood of people obeying.

Bickman obedience study, StudySmarterWhen we obey we give up the responsibility for our actions, flaticon.com

Situational factors of obedience

Obedience occurs when we decide to follow the orders or demands of an authority figure.

Milgram proposed an agentic theory to explain obedience.

  • Agency refers to being in charge of your behaviour and decisions.
  • When in an autonomous state, people take responsibility for their behaviour and make independent decisions.
  • However, an agentic shift can occur in certain situations when people switch from an autonomous to an agentic state.
  • In an agentic state, people become agents of an authority figure whose orders they follow. The responsibility for the consequences of their actions shifts onto the person that gives out orders.

Milgram study (1963) summary

Participants in the Milgram (1963) study thought they were taking part in a learning experiment.

As 'teachers', they were asked to administer an electric shock to another participant (the learner) that was, in reality, a confederate.

Milgram aimed to induce an agentic state by telling participants that all the responsibility for their actions is on the experimenter while they need to obey. Milgram found that all participants obeyed the authority (the experimenter) when ordered to give the other participant an electric shock, and 65% obeyed when ordered to increase the strength of the electric shock up to a lethal voltage.

Confederate is an actor that pretends to be a participant in an experiment.

Situational factors affecting obedience

People don't always obey. Milgram proposed certain situational factors can increase or decrease the likelihood people will obey the authority. These factors include:

  • Uniform – uniform legitimises authority. Uniform also indicates the level of social power the authority holds.

In one variation of Milgram's experiment, a participant dressed in normal clothes was giving orders to another participant. Only 20% of participants obeyed, compared to 65% in the original experiment when an experimenter wearing a lab coat was giving orders.

  • Culture – social hierarchies differ depending on the cultures. Culture shapes our perception of what people have greater social power through the process of socialisation.
  • Proximity – as proximity to the victim increases, our individual responsibility also increases.

In one variation of the Milgram study, when the participant stayed in the same room as the confederate receiving electric shocks, only 40% of participants obeyed.

  • Location – location can also legitimise the authority.

A variation of Milgram's experiment conducted in a run-down building found that obedience dropped by 17% compared to the original study, which took place at Yale University.

Bickman Obedience Study, Situational factors of obedience (Bickman 1974), a police officer in uniform, StudySmarterA uniform that demonstrates social power can legitimise authority, flaticon.com

What was the Bickman 1974 obedience study?

Bickmsn's (1974) study aimed to investigate whether situational factors affect obedience. Specifically, he explored the influence of a uniformed authority figure.

  • The independent variable (IV) in his study was the uniform worn by an authority. The IV had three levels, and the authority wore either a guard uniform, a milkman uniform or no uniform.

  • The dependent variable measured was the level of obedience to the authority.

Bickman obedience study: method

Bickman conducted a field experiment in Brooklyn, New York. His experiment was conducted outside of a laboratory in a natural setting. Participants weren't officially recruited; experimenters approached 153 adult pedestrians who didn't know they were taking part in an experiment to test their predictions.

Bickman obedience study: hypothesis

Authority figures dressed in a guard uniform will have a greater influence on participants than authority figures wearing a lower-authority uniform or no uniform, because we tend to assign greater social power to guards than milkmen or civilians.

Bickman obedience study: procedure

Bickman (1974) tested obedience using three experimental scenarios. In each scenario, a young, white male experimenter was the authority figure. Each scenario was repeated with the experimenter dressed as a guard, milkman or a civilian wearing smart clothing.

  1. In the first scenario, the experimenter asked an approaching pedestrian to pick up a paper bag and, if necessary explained why he couldn't do it (because of a bad back). If the participant followed the order, it meant they obeyed the authority.

  2. In the second scenario, the experimenter asked a pedestrian to give a dime to a stranger (confederate) standing at a parking meter. The experimenter explained that the person at the parking meter had no change, and he didn't have any change as well. If the participant attempted to look for change or offered some change to the stranger, they obeyed the authority.

  3. The experimenter approached a person standing alone at the bus stop in the third scenario. the experimenter gave them instructions to wait for the bus on the other side of the pole. The experimenter pointed at the sign intended for bus drivers that said "No standing" and explained it's a new law that the bus won't stop to pick them up if they don't move.

Bickman obedience study: results

In each scenario, we can see a similar trend. Participants were more likely to obey authority figures dressed as a guard than authority figures dressed in a milkman uniform or no uniform. While there was a tendency to obey the milkman more in some scenarios, overall, there was no significant difference in obedience levels when the authority wore civilian or milkman clothes.

Condition% of participants that obeyed
"Pick up a bag" scenarioDime and parking meter scenarioBus stop scenario
No uniform36%33%20%
Milkman uniform64%57%21%
Guard uniform82%89%56%

Experiment 2: the effect of surveillance

Bickman conducted a variation of the dime and parking meter scenario to investigate the effect of authority surveillance on obedience.

  • The authority figure (experimenter) either remained close to the participant after requesting them to give a dime to the stranger or walked away.
  • Whether the authority figure left or stayed with the participant did not influence the participants' decision to obey.

Experiment 3: self-reported predictions of behaviour

In the third experiment, Bickman (1974) administered questionnaires to female college students to investigate the perceived legitimacy of authorities of different social power.

  • Participants had to predict their behaviour when asked to pick up a bag, give a dime to a stranger or move to the other side of the bus stop by a guard, milkman or a civilian.
  • The results showed that participants didn't perceive a guard as a more legitimate authority figure.
  • Participants indicated they wouldn't be affected by the authority's uniform.
  • Participants reported a different likelihood to obey depending on the scenario. Participants reported they would be more likely to obey when asked to pick up the bag than the other two scenarios.

Bickman obedience study summary

Bickman investigated the effect of situational factors (type of uniform worn by the authority) on the likelihood of obedience. He conducted a field experiment in Brooklyn, New York, using adult pedestrians as participants. Bickman found that situational factors do affect obedience.

Wearing a uniform gives authority a greater power to influence people's behaviour than not wearing a uniform. However, to affect levels of obedience, the uniform should reflect a high degree of social power. Surveillance didn't appear to influence obedience. Moreover, based on Bickman's questionnaire findings, self-reported behaviour predictions do not reflect how people act in reality.

Bickman obedience study, StudySmarterBickman (1974) findings, Alicja Blaszkiewicz – StudySmarter

Bickman obedience study evaluation

Let's examine Bickman's study. Some important areas of evaluation include the design of the study, the generalisability of the results, and the ethical issues present.

Design

Bickman conducted a field experiment; a realistic setting and deception ensured high ecological validity. Participants didn't know they were participating in the experiment, so they were likely to act naturally.

However, field experiments don't allow us to control potential extraneous variables, which means the participants' environmental factors might have differed. Examples of extraneous variables include noise, the business of the street or how busy the participant was. All these factors could potentially affect the behaviour of some participants.

There might also have been a bias in what kind of people were approached to participate in the experiment.

Generalisability

How we perceive and respond to authorities is shaped by socialisation and can be different across cultures. Since the study was conducted in the US, a highly individualistic culture, the findings might not generalise to other cultures.

All conditions included a male authority figure, while the influence of a female authority figure was not tested. Therefore, these findings might not generalise to how people would react to a female authority figure.

Ethical issues

Several important ethical issues are related to this study:

  • Because participants were pedestrians who happened to be around where the experiment was taking place and didn't know they were taking part in an experiment, participants couldn't give informed consent to participate in the study.

    • On the other hand, it might be argued that deception was necessary to ensure ecologically valid findings.

  • Moreover, it is unclear whether participants were debriefed after the experiment, which means they might not have had an opportunity to find out what experiment they took part in, which could mitigate the potential psychological distress or embarrassment caused by the orders from an authority.


Bickman Obedience Study - Key takeaways

  • Obedience occurs when we decide to follow the orders or demands of an authority figure. Milgram proposed an agentic theory to explain obedience, stating certain situational factors can increase or decrease the likelihood that people will obey the authority. These factors include uniform, culture, proximity and location.
  • Bickmsn's (1974) study aimed to investigate whether situational factors affect obedience. Specifically, he investigated the influence of a uniformed authority figure.
  • Bickman conducted a field experiment in Brooklyn, New York. The sample consisted of 153 adult pedestrians. Bickman hypothesised that authority figures dressed in a guard uniform would have a greater influence on participants than authority figures wearing a lower-authority uniform or no uniform.
  • Bickman found that wearing a uniform that reflects social power gives authority a greater power to influence people's behaviour than not wearing a uniform. Surveillance didn't appear to influence obedience. Moreover, self-reported behaviour predictions do not reflect how people act in reality.
  • One strength of Bickman's study is high ecological validity. Limitations of the study include a lack of control for extraneous variables, poor generalisability to different cultures and female authority figures, and ethical issues surrounding the use of deception, informed consent, and debriefing failures.

Frequently Asked Questions about Bickman Obedience Study

Bickman investigated the effect of situational factors (type of uniform worn by the authority) on the likelihood of obedience. He conducted a field experiment in Brooklyn, New York, using adult pedestrians as participants. Bickman found that wearing a uniform gives authority a greater power to influence people's behaviour than not wearing a uniform. However, to affect levels of obedience, the uniform has to reflect a high degree of social power. 

Authority figures dressed in a guard uniform will significantly influence participants than authority figures wearing a lower-authority uniform or no uniform.  

Leonard Bickman is a researcher and a professor of psychology. He is the author of the Bickman (1974) study into the social power of uniforms. 

Participants were more likely to obey authority figures dressed as a guard than authority figures dressed in a milkman uniform or no uniform. While there was a tendency to obey the milkman more in some scenarios, overall, there was no significant difference in obedience levels when the authority wore civilian or milkman clothes. 

 Brooklyn, New York, United States.

Final Bickman Obedience Study Quiz

Question

What is obedience?

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Answer

Obedience occurs when we decide to follow the orders or demands of an authority figure. 

Show question

Question

What is agency according to Milgram's agentic theory?

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Answer

Agency refers to being in charge of your behaviour and decisions. 

Show question

Question

What is the autonomous state according to Milgram's agentic theory?

Show answer

Answer

When in an autonomous state, people take responsibility for their own behaviour and make independent decisions.  

Show question

Question

What is the agentic state according to Milgram's agentic theory?


Show answer

Answer

In an agentic state, people become an agent of an authority figure, whose orders they follow. The responsibility for the consequences of their actions shifts onto the person that gives out orders. 

Show question

Question

Define the word "confederate".

Show answer

Answer

Confederate is an actor that pretends to be a participant in an experiment. 

Show question

Question

Explain how uniform and cultural factors affect obedience according to Milgram?

Show answer

Answer

Uniform can increase obedience as it legitimises authority.

Culture affects obedience because it shapes our perception of social hierarchies and social power.

Show question

Question

Explain how proximity and location affect obedience according to Milgram?


Show answer

Answer

Proximity - as proximity to the victim increases our individual responsibility also increases. 

Location - location can also legitimise the authority figure. 

Show question

Question

What was the aim of the Bickman (1974) study?

Show answer

Answer

The aim of Bickmsn's (1974) study was to investigate whether situational factors affect obedience. Specifically, he investigated the influence of a uniformed authority figure.  

Show question

Question

How many levels of the independent variables did the Bickman (1974) study have?

Show answer

Answer

The IV had 3 levels - the authority figure wore either a guard uniform, a milkman uniform or no uniform at all. 

Show question

Question

What was the method used by Bickman (1974)?

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Answer

field study

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Question

What was the sample of the Bickman (1974) study?

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Answer

153 adult pedestrians approached in Brooklyn, New York.

Show question

Question

What was the hypothesis of the Bickman (1974) study?

Show answer

Answer

Authority figures dressed in a guard uniform will have a greater influence on participants than authority figures wearing a lower-authority uniform or no uniform. 

Show question

Question

What scenarios did Bickman (1974) use to test obedience?

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Answer

1. Participants are asked by the experimenter to pick up a paper bag

2. Participants are asked by the experimenter to give a dime to a stranger at a parking meter

3. Participants are asked by the experimenter to move to the other side of the bus stop

Show question

Question

What were the results of the Bickman obedience study?


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Answer

Participants were most likely to obey authority figures dressed as a guard compared to authority figures dressed in a milkman uniform or no uniform. 


While there was a tendency to obey the milkman more in some scenarios, overall there was no significant difference in obedience levels when the authority wore civilian or milkman clothes. 

Show question

Question

What were the ethical issues of the Bickman obedience study?

Show answer

Answer

The ethical issues related to the study include the use of deception and the inability of participants to give informed consent 

Show question

Question

What is the strength of the Bickman obedience study?

Show answer

Answer

Bickman conducted a field experiment, realistic setting and deception ensured high ecological validity. Participants didn't know they were taking part in the experiment so they were likely to act naturally.

Show question

Question

How does surveillance affect obedience according to Bickman's obedience study?

Show answer

Answer

Surveillance didn't appear to influence obedience in Bickman's study.  

Show question

Question

Are self-reported predictions of behaviour a reliable measure of obedience according to Bickman's findings?

Show answer

Answer

Based on Bickman's questionnaire findings, self-reported predictions of behaviour do not reflect how people act in reality. 

Show question

Question

How is the generalisability of Bickman's findings limited?

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Answer

How we perceive and respond to authorities is shaped by socialisation and can be different across different cultures. Since the study was conducted in the US, which is a highly individualistic culture, the findings might not generalise to other cultures.


All conditions included a male authority figure while the influence of a female authority figure was not tested. Therefore, these findings might not generalise to how people would react to a female authority figure.

Show question

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