Milgram's shock experiments, a surprising number of people obeyed a scientist's instruction to deliver dangerous electric shocks to another person. This is usually interpreted in terms of the power of "strong situations". The scenario, complete with lab apparatus and scientist in grey coat, was so compelling that many people's usual behavioural tendencies were overcome.
But a new study challenges this account. Recognising that many participants in fact showed disobedience to the scientist in Milgram's studies, Laurent Bègue and his colleagues have investigated what it is about an individual's character that influences the likelihood he or she will obey or not. Specifically, the researchers measured the Big Five personality factors of participants taking part in a quiz-show adaptation of the traditional Milgram situation.
Seventy-six adults (40 men) played the role of questioner in a pilot episode of a French TV show. A quiz host urged the participants to apply increasingly intense electric shocks to a quiz contestant each time the contestant answered a question incorrectly. In the standard version of the set-up, in which the host remained present, 81 per cent of participants obeyed instructions to administer the highest level 460 volt shock marked "xxx".
Eight months later, the participants who played the role of questioner (and electrocutioner) were contacted again, ostensibly as part of a separate investigation, and asked if they would answer some survey questions about their personality and political beliefs. Thirty-five men and thirty women who'd taken part in the TV quiz agreed to answer these questions. The results showed that people who scored more highly on the personality traits of agreeableness and conscientiousness were more likely to be obedient in the Milgram-style situation. Meanwhile, describing oneself as left wing went hand in hand with greater disobedience, and, for women only, a history of having taken part in strikes or other acts of rebellion was also associated with more disobedience.
The researchers acknowledged there is a slim possibility that the TV quiz experience shaped participants' later personality scores. This issue aside, they said their findings showed how "destructive obedience" might actually be facilitated by "dispositions [agreeableness and conscientiousness] that are consensually desirable elsewhere with family and friends." Conversely, behaviours that may be considered disruptive in other contexts (such as political activism) "may express and even strengthen individual dispositions that are both useful and essential to the whole society, at least in some critical moments," they said.
Bègue, L., Beauvois, J., Courbet, D., Oberlé, D., Lepage, J., & Duke, A. (2014). Personality Predicts Obedience in a Milgram Paradigm Journal of Personality DOI: 10.1111/jopy.12104
More on Milgram in the Digest archive.
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.