TMA05: People and Behaviour

TMA05: People and Behaviour


In social psychology, understanding how the social world influences people’s behaviour is among the key tenets. Studying obedience encompasses an analysis of power bestowed on social structures upon an individual’s behaviour against the agency that exists towards resisting these structures. According to Dixon (2012), Milgram conducted a study that was very powerful based on the findings. From the experiment, participants were required to administer shock on their learners up to a certain level. Those participants that reached this level were termed as being obedient while those that did not were considered to be disobedient. The study has created some knowledge in understanding that people tend to obey orders from authorities.  The essay considers Milgram’s experiments from a different stand-point since it examines the analysis conducted by Gibson. The analysis conducted by Gibson acts as a contribution in understanding various elements of the experiment. There is also some analysis of how context is import while studying social influences.

Among the contributions brought about by Gibson with respect to Milgram’s research is showing the importance of rhetoric, which was vivid when the participants interacted with the experimenter (Dixon, 2012). Each party tried to convince each other that their point of view was the correct one. The art of persuasive speaking was used by both parties based on the language and words used. The participants’ objective was to deter the experimenter from continuing with the process since they thought that it was not going well with the learners involved. They thought the experiment to be inappropriate at some point since it seemed to cause harm to them. The interviewer on the other hand tried to convince the participants to proceed. There was an assurance that the shocks being administered could not result to any tissue damages (Dixon, 2012). What this shows is that for the participants that agreed to continue with the experiment even when they were in doubt, did not do it for the sake of obeying the authority. Rhetoric played a big part in making them continue with the process. The language used by the experimenter urging them to continue contributed significantly to their obedience.

Gibson’s analysis on how participants tended to resist the instructions provided by the experimenter showcases some questions on the Milgram’s findings that were of the view of passive obedience on the side of the participants. Gibson showcases a different picture of the participants that brings about implications on social psychological processes regarding obedience. It is apparent that the participants were not passive based on how they engaged the interviewer with rhetorical strategies whose aims were to defy the instructions being provided. This shows that they were not passive, and tried to influence the experimenter in an active way. This observation made by Gibson challenges the assertions made from the experiment, which stated that participants obeyed the experimenter passively due to the pressure of that moment. This meant that they had utterly relinquished their agency (Dixon, 2012).

The interpretation also tries to showcase some interrogative themes in social psychology that are present in Milgram’s experiments. Among them is the agency or structure, which on most occasions is viewed as a similar problem to the individual-social dualism (Hollway, 2007).  From the above paragraph it is vivid that the findings from this research showed that participants relinquished their agency based on the notion that they were passively obedient. However, Gibson’s interpretation shows a different view. He asserts that the participants did not give up this agency automatically in light of the situational power highlights. The participants acted as agents in the experiments and not victims of the social structure that it created (Gibson, 2011). The observation acts as a challenge to the dualism of social psychology between structure and agency. From Gibson’s interpretation, there exists a mutual relationship between social structures that people are placed in and the agency that they have to resist or engage with it.

Another interrogative theme that manifests itself is the one of power relations. Power relations tend to be critical in ways that knowledge is produced, understood and taken up.  It tends to be a two-way dynamic in that it is not something imposed on the powerless by the powerful individuals (Hollway, 2007). In Gibson’s interpretation of Milgram’s experiments, power relations have been constructed by use of language. This is evident through a number of rhetoric that was used to convince the participants to continue administering shock to their stooges even when they were not willing to do so.  When the participants thought that they were harming the learners, they were convinced that the shocks being administered could not result to any tissue damage. The language used to convince them to continue was stern and insistent, and some obliged. This was even after the learners were screaming and begging them to stop.

Milgram’s experiments used prods that were scripted in order to convince participants to continue with the experiments. Gibson considers the fourth prod, which told participants that they had no choice but to continue or the experiment would be over to be ineffective (Burger et al., 2011). This is because the prod did not elicit obedience in any way. Some of the participants opted to abandon the experiment after receiving the fourth prod. Milgram had chosen the prod as being among the scripted lines that would act to convince participants to carry on with the experiments. He had thought that it would work effectively in eliciting obedience, but Gibson thinks that was not the case.

Gibson has gone ahead in trying to question the meaning of obedience with regards to Milgram experiment’s context.  This has been instigated by the role played by the experimenter, which was rhetoric in nature (Dixon, 2012). According to Gibson, the studies conducted did not have a lot to do with obedience based on how the term is conventionally understood.  The conventional understanding of obedience entails “compliance with a request, law, order or general submission to authority” (Plotnik & Kouyoumdjian, 2012). The responses that experimenters gave the participants who were not willing to continue did not show any signs of orders that would elicit obedience being given. The only thing that appeared to transpire is arguments that had been designed to persuade or convince the participants. Most of the interventions used in this case were resisted.

Gibson’s contribution on the interpretation of Milgram experiment can help in analyzing the importance of context when studying social influence. Examining the interrogative themes involved in his interpretation would help in this understanding. In addition, the analysis of both discursive and rhetoric views involved would be significant.

To begin with, let us examine the scope of discursive and rhetoric analysis. According to Gibson, Milgram adopted a context of rhetoric in execution of the experiments. This is because both parties; participants and interviewers used language in order to influence the other party to side with their views. As a result, Gibson questions whether Milgram figured out the conventional meaning of the word ‘obedience’ given the context of the experiment. He argued that some the participants questioned the orders that were given to them and only acted as a result of being convinced through arguments (Gibson, 2011). However, this can be interpreted differently if the discursive context is put in place. According to Dixon (2012), it may be problematic to suggest that individuals are only said to be ‘obeying’ when the utterance that elicits their obedience is vivid only through grammatical order. There are discursive actions like invitations, refusals, and requests among others that are made without utterances. A good example is when people in a room start complaining that it is rather hot. This can be taken as a request by these individuals for the windows to be opened (Dixon, 2012). This shows that the context under which a situation is expressed can help ascertain whether social influence exists or not.  Therefore, outlining whether the orders given during Milgram’s experiments were obeyed or not will depend on the context that the analyst opts to take. Either way the conclusion will be different hence highlighting the importance of context in the interpretation.

The interrogative theme of power relations can also be used to show the importance of context when studying social influences.   Milgram and his colleagues were the authority figures while conducting these experiments. This is because they had recruited the participants who would be involved. For this reason the participants might have felt as if they had an obligation to do what the authority wanted because many of them would hesitate, but later give in. There might have been a notion from the participants that the authority (Milgram’s team) had more knowledge regarding the situation. Such aspects would trigger them to obey the prods being used more so like when they were being convinced that the shocks would do no damage to the learners’ tissues. Maybe if the context was different and the participants did not view them as being an authority figure, the results would have been different.

When it comes to the agency-structure interrogative theme, it is vivid that most participants obeyed based on the context of the experiments. The context under this respect was that the participants were deprived their rights that are usually involved with experiments. Milgram did not give the participants the right to withdraw from the experiments. Instead he used four prods that were aimed at discouraging them from withdrawal. Any participant to an experiment always has the autonomy to withdraw any time they feel like doing so. The participants tried to act like agents towards the experiment but not victims of the social structure that had been created (Dixon, 2012). This can be observed based on their refusal to continue with the experiments until their demands were met. However, the context of not adhering to their rights as participants to an experiment made them relinquish their agency. If their right to withdraw was upheld, most of the participants would not have continued with the experiment.

Another manifestation that context plays an important role in determining social influences can be viewed through the participants’ recruitment. They responded to a news paper advertisement to act as volunteers for the experiments. There was a reward in form of money that they would receive as a result of their participation. Under this context, the participants would have felt obliged to proceed with the experiment to the end. They had volunteered without any coercion so had the option of not being involved in the first place (Plotnik & Kouyoumdjian, 2012). Others might have been in need of the money that was been offered and maybe feared that not proceeding with the experiment would result to them not being paid despite the assurances that were being given. The circumstances under which the selection of the participants was done would have also contributed to the findings obtained regarding obedience. Among them is that there were no female participants in these experiments. It is not certain whether their level of ‘obedience’ would have been similar to that of the male participants.

In conclusion, Gibson’s contribution to the interpretation of Milgram’s experiment is vivid in various ways. To begin with, Gibson has helped in the understanding of the usage of rhetoric strategies by both parties in an attempt to convince each other. He tries to show that the findings from the experiment that viewed the participants as obeying passively to be misinformed because they argued with the experimenters before relinquishing their agency. Gibson postulates that as a form of power relation, Milgram used language to influence the participants to continue with the experiments. This was in form of prods that had been scripted with the objective of eliciting the participants’ obedience. He goes ahead to question whether Milgram did put into consideration the conventional meaning of ‘obedience’   due to the rhetoric nature of the experiment. From this interpretation it becomes clear that context plays a critical role in studying social influence. To ascertain whether Milgram took into consideration the conventional meaning of ‘obedience’ depends on whether an individual is analyzing it from a discursive or rhetoric context. The circumstances through which Milgram had recruited the participants would have also contributed to the findings derived. Depriving the participants the right to withdraw from the experiment when they deemed necessary also shows the relevance of context in social influence.



Burger, J. M., Girgis, Z. M., & Manning, C. M. (2011). ‘In their own words: explaining obedience to authority through an examination of participants’ comments’, Social Psychological and Personality Science,vol. 2,pp. 460–66.

Dixon, J. (2012). Obedience. In D. Langdrisge, S. Taylor, & K. Mahendran (Eds), Critical Readings in Social Psychology (2nd ed., pp. 153-181). Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Gibson, S. (2011), ‘Milgram’s obedience experiments: a rhetorical analysis’, British Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 51.

Hollway, W. (2007). Social Psychology: past and present’, in Hollway, W, Lucey, H. and Phoenix, A. (2007) (eds) Social Psychology Matters. Milton Keynes: The Open University Press.

Plotnik, R., & Kouyoumdjian, H. (2012). Discovery Series: Introduction to Psychology. London: Cengage Learning.



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