Factors affecting obedience: individual differences and personality

We are going to consider a number of personality factors which might affect the extent to which some-one is likely to obey orders.

Before we go any further…

  • How would you define personality:
  • Find a psychological definition of personality:
  • See what you can find out about Five Factor Theory of Personality (McCrae and Costa, 1999); provide detailed definitions of Conscientious and Agreeableness

Milgram’s study is often cited as evidence of “the power of the social situation” and has fostered the idea that situational factors can over-ride dispositional factors, meaning that we may enact behaviours we never would have predicted we were capable of.

However the reality is one of reciprocal determinism. In the real world, people with certain personality types are potentially more likely to end up in situations where they become subordinate or indeed, situations where they are able to exercise their desire for control.

The situation may indeed shape their behaviour, but so the situation is shaped by the personalities of those people who make up the situation. Although Milgram’s overall findings may seem shocking,  excuse the pun, the majority did go up to 450 V, there was still a good deal of variance. Just looking at the qualitative data, what people said and how they behaved, demonstrates clearly that people dealt with the situation is very different ways.

Psychologists who believe that our personality causes individual differences assume that we will behave in ways which are consistent across different social situations. They believe that there are a range of personality traits which we can be measured, and that doing so will help to predict how we will behave in a given situation.

Psychologists who emphasise dispositional factors in explaining behavior believe that our behaviour will exhibit cross-situational consistency, and will remain stable over time. For example, if you are an extrovert today, you will be extrovert tomorrow and still be an extrovert this time next year!

Psychologists have explored many personality traits which they believe can be measured reliably and it is believed that some of these may be associated with being more likely to be obedient or defiant. Dispositional factors should not be ignored as significant determinants of behaviour and should always be considered when explaining behaviour, especially when that behaviour seems to vary significantly to that of other individuals in similar situations.

35% of participants did not obey in Milgram’s original study and many were defiant in his future variations. Some were astonishingly obedient even in variations where the majority became defiant. It is possible that personality theories may be helpful in explaining these individual differences.

It may be easier to explain the behaviour of real life heroes such as Oscar Schindler, the Nazi who saved a 1000 Jewish people in his factory and Paul Rusesabagina, who saved a similar number of Tutsis and moderate Hutus, from the ravages of the Rwandan Genocide in terms of personality rather than situation.

Personality traits associated with Obedience

Think back to our key study, Burger et al (2009). Burger looked at a number of personality traits that he thought might be associated with high levels of obedience. Complete the table below to review his findings:

Personality trait: Empathic Concern
Description of trait: The tendency to experience feelings of sympathy and compassion for unfortunate others
How was trait measured:  The Interpersonal Reactivity Index is a 28-item self-report inventory, (Davis, 1983)
Likely link with Obedience: The more empathetic, the less obedient (more defiant)
Actual link to obedience:  Overall, no significant differences were found for empathic concern between the obedient and defiant Pps. Higher empathy scores were related to lower first-prod scores but this did not actually translate into being more likely to be defiant, arguably they just felt worse about what they were doing!
Personality trait: Desire for personal control

Find out more here and download the scale and how to score it: http://www.midss.org/content/desirability-control-scale

Description of trait: the extent to which a person is motivated to see themselves as being in control of the events in their lives.
How was trait measured: The Desirability of Control Scale is a 20-item self-report inventory, (Burger & Cooper, 1979)
Likely link with Obedience: The higher the desire for personal control, the lower the obedience (more defiant)
Actual link to obedience: In the base condition, defiant participants had significantly higher scores on desire for control than did those who continued, however, in the modelled refusal condition, obedient and defiant participants did not differ on desire for control. Pps with a higher desire for control tended to show reluctance earlier than did participants with a lower desire for control, but only in the base condition.

Thomas Blass, (1991) also reviews work on personality factors associated with obedience, drawing on the early work of Milgram and his research assistant Alan Elms (1966).

Personality trait: Authoritarianism (Adorno et al (1950) – follow this link for more info!)

Take the test: http://www.anesi.com/fscale.htm

Description of trait: People high on this trait are submissive to authority but harsh to those seen as subordinate to themselves; there are additional resources on this concept so make sure you follow the links to find out more! 🙂
How was trait measured: The F-scale (Adorno et al (1950). It was noted that high scores on this scale were associated with receptivity to fascist ideology (extreme intolerance based on right-wing political perspective).
Likely link with Obedience: The more authoritarian the personality, the greater the shocks administered.
Actual link to obedience: Elms asked 20 obedient and 20 defiant Pps to complete the F-scale; the average F-scale scores were significantly higher in the obedient than the defiant Pps.  This is supported by a further study by Dambrun and Vatine (2010) using a virtual simulation of Milgram’s study, where lower levels of authoritarianism were associated with dissent and withdrawal from the study.

Blass (1991) has also reviewed some of the evidence that looks at a personality trait known as “locus of control”.

Personality trait: Locus of control

Listen to a pod cast: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01gf5sr

Take the test here: http://www.psych.uncc.edu/pagoolka/LocusofControl-intro.html

Description of trait: Some people have an “internal locus of control”, meaning that they take greater responsibility for their actions, as they believe they are in control of what they do and what happens to them, other people have a more external locus of control, meaning that they take less responsibility for their actions and feel that what they do and what happens to them is governed more by the situation and other people around them, circumstances which they believe are out of their control.
How was trait measured: Rotter’s (1966) I-E questionnaire
Likely link with Obedience: Those with internal locus of control will be more likely to be defiant, those with external locus of control will be more likely to be obedient.
Actual link to obedience: The data on this is very contradictory but Blass has re-analysed data collected by Holland (1966) for example and found evidence to suggest that the “internals” are more likely to drop out earlier than “externals”.

Stretch and Challenge: Researchers have identified a variety of other traits that they believe are associated with obedience and dissent. You can read about these in various articles to be found on google classroom, e.g. Blass (1991) Gramann et (1995)

  • Interpersonal trust (Miller, 1975)
  • Moral reasoning (Kohlberg)
  • Social intelligence (Burley and McGuiness)
  • Hostility (Haas 1966)
  • Social responsibility (Gramann et al, 1995).
  • Right-wing authoritarianism (Altemeyer, 1981)
  • Involuntary subordination (Sturman, 2011)

2 studies to extend your knowledge and test your understanding of research methods

Begue et al (2014):

Looking at personality factors such as conscientiousness and agreeableness and political ideology and political activism as predictors of obedience/defiance; replicated Milgram study as part of a French game-show.




Gramann et al (1995)

Looking at obedience to rules in the “great outdoors” and to determine whether “social responsibility” mediates people’s intentions to obey/defy. This trait links to dependability, sense of obligation to the group, and willingness to accept the consequences of his or her own behaviour, enhanced sense of commitment to the collective good, a strong tendency to delay personal gratification, and a proclivity to help others, even when there is nothing material to be gained by doing so.

Word mint cross word: Personality and Obedience – WordMint

Assessment Questions

  1. Describe the influence of personality on obedience (3)
  2. Harry and Joe are discussing the Milgram’s study. Harry says that he just can’t believe so many people acted this way; he wants to know more about personality traits that might make people more defiant or able to resist orders. Explain two factors relating to personality which help to explain defiance or the ability to resist orders to obey (4)
  3. Ollie and Mollie are in the park when the park keeper comes over and tells them to help him pick up the litter. Mollie gets up as though she is about to help but Ollie says no and walks off. Using psychological knowledge, explain why Ollie and Mollie differ in the way they respond to the order to pick up litter (6)
  4. Assess the extent to which obedience is affected by personality (8)