In 1961, curious about a person’s willingness to obey an authority figure, social psychologist Stanley Milgram began trials on his now-famous experiment. In it, he tested how far a subject would go electrically shocking a stranger (actually an actor faking the pain) simply because they were following orders. Some subjects, Milgram found, would follow directives until the person was dead.
The news: A new Milgram-like experiment published June 2015 in the Journal of Personality has taken this idea to the next step by trying to understand which kinds of people are more or less willing to obey these kinds of orders. What researchers discovered was surprising: Those who are described as “agreeable, conscientious personalities” are more likely to follow orders and deliver electric shocks that they believe can harm innocent people, while “more contrarian, less agreeable personalities” are more likely to refuse to hurt others.
The methodology and findings: For an eight-month period, the researchers interviewed the study participants to gauge their social personality, as well as their personal history and political leanings. When they matched this data to the participants’ behavior during the experiment, a distinct pattern emerged: People who were normally friendly followed orders because they didn’t want to upset others, while those who were described as unfriendly stuck up for themselves.
“The irony is that a personality disposition normally seen as antisocial — disagreeableness — may actually be linked to ‘pro-social’ behavior,'” writes Psychology Today‘s Kenneth Worthy. “This connection seems to arise from a willingness to sacrifice one’s popularity a bit to act in a moral and just way toward other people, animals or the environment at large. Popularity, in the end, may be more a sign of social graces and perhaps a desire to fit in than any kind of moral superiority.”
The study also found that people holding left-wing political views were less willing to hurt others. One particular group held steady and refused destructive orders: “women who had previously participated in rebellious political activism such as strikes or occupying a factory.”
FROM THE PEER-REVIEWED ARTICLE:
Personality Predicts Obedience in a Milgram Paradigm
Laurent Bègue Jean-Léon Beauvoir Didier Courbet Dominique Oberlé Johan Lepage and Aaron A. Duke
Journal of Personality 83:3, June 2015 © 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
This study investigates how obedience in a Milgram-like experiment is predicted by interindividual differences. Participants were 35 males and 31 females aged 26–54 from the general population who were contacted by phone 8 months after their participation in a study transposing Milgram’s obedience paradigm to the context of a fake television game show. Interviews were presented as opinion polls with no stated ties to the earlier experiment. Personality was assessed by the Five Factor Model questionnaire (Saucier, 1994). Political orientation and social activism were also measured. Results confirmed hypotheses that Conscientiousness and Agreeableness would be associated with willingness to administer higher-intensity electric shocks to a victim. Political orientation and social activism were also related to obedience. Our results provide empirical evidence suggesting that individual differences in personality and political variables matter in the explanation of obedience to authority.
The present research makes at least three significant contribu- tions to the literature. This is the first study showing that individual obedience in a Milgram-like paradigm can be pre- dicted using the Five-Factor Model of personality. As expected, Conscientiousness and Agreeableness predicted the intensity of electric shocks administered to the victim. Second, we showed that disobedience was influenced by political orienta- tion, with left-wing political ideology being associated with decreased obedience. Third, we showed that women who were willing to participate in rebellious political activities such as going on strike or occupying a factory administered lower shocks
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For more than 50 years, social and personality psychology have tried to unravel the role of personality in obedient behavior. Our results provide new empirical evidence showing that individual dif- ferences in Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, political orien- tation, and social activism matter. Not only “evil” behavior such as destructive obedience may indeed be “banal” in the sense of not relying on extraordinary cruelty of ideological hate, but it also may even be facilitated by dispositions that are consensually desirable elsewhere with family and friends, as Hanna Arendt proposed over 50 years ago. Although our results suggest that adaptive traits in the interpersonal domain may be maladaptive in a context involving destructive author- ity, they also suggest that some behaviors that may disrupt social functioning, 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.