Social psychologists attempt to determine the extent to which social situations determine what people do. But not everyone is affected in precisely the same way by a social situation. In Milgram’s research, for instance, many Teachers in the Standard Condition fully obeyed the Experimenter, whereas others rebelled against the Experimenter’s authority by ending the experiment. Was there something about their personalities that caused them to respond differently to the same social situation?
Personality and Personal Dispositions
When you use the word personality, what do you mean? Some of you will answer by saying, “it’s the way that people act.” By the word act, you must mean something like a behavioral response to an environmental event or situation. All animals, however, respond to the environment. Would you say that all animals have personalities? You might claim that your dog or cat has one. But would a hamster have a personality? If you answered, “yes,” then how about a fly or an earthworm? Do they have personalities? Both of these groups of species respond to environmental stimulation, but I doubt that most people would insist that they have personalities. Thus, the ability to take action is only part of what is meant by personality.
We can say that individuals within a species have personalities when at least two things are true:
- Prediction of behavioral responses. Personality is characterized by the ability to predict how individuals will act in a particular situation. In other words, the way an individual responds to the situation is stable (i.e., tends to be very similar). For example, perhaps you always become very angry when someone cuts in front of you when driving.
- Uniqueness of behavioral responses. Personality is characterized by differences among individuals differ in the ways they act in a particular situation. For example, you may always become angry when someone cuts you off when driving, but your friend rarely becomes angry in that same situation.
Let’s look at another example. If someone sneaks up behind you and crashes a pair of cymbals together, we can predict with virtual certainty that you will jump. Being able to predict your response satisfies the first requirement of having a personality. But does this response show that you have a personality? No, because we would expect that anyone able to hear the cymbals crash together would respond in the same way. Thus, there is nothing unique about this response (i.e., the second requirement of personality is not met). On the other hand, if someone sneaks up behind you and calls you softly by name, and you fall to the ground, curl up into a ball, and lay there quivering and crying, this definitely says something about you as an individual. We probably would infer, in this case, that you have a “jumpy” or “nervous” personality, at least if this was a reaction that occurred often for you.
In general, we say that an individual has a personality when that individual expresses unique and stable reactions to sets of related situations. For example, a serial killer’s reactions to particular social situations are quite unique (very few people kill others) and stable (by definition, a serial killer has murdered several times before). Because each person’s reactions to various situations are unique and stable, we’re able to make predictions about how they will respond in the future to these situations.
Internal Causes of Personality
Stable and unique reactions must be due to something inside individuals — to internal factors. We will refer to these internal factors as personal dispositions, and will define these as internally generated tendencies to act, think, or feel in particular ways. Personal dispositions are things such as core beliefs, motives, preferences, goals, and so on. For instance, if you are taking this class because an important life goal is to become a psychologist, then we would expect that this goal is going to result in unique responses to situations (faced with a choice between taking a psychology course and a sociology course, you will take the former) that are stable over time (in future semesters, you are likely to prefer taking psychology courses over other kinds of courses).
Because there were individual differences in the amount of obedience displayed by Teachers in his experiments, Milgram wondered whether personality differences had affected the results. In order to test this possibility, all participants were interviewed immediately after finishing the experimental procedure. Milgram or an assistant asked Teachers questions about their occupations, military service, political affiliations, religious backgrounds, educational levels, and so on (Elms, 1998):
- Occupation. Those in occupations that provide help and assistance to others (for example, lawyers, medical professionals, and teachers) showed less obedience, on average, than those in technical professions (for example, engineers and physical scientists).
- Military Service. Those who served for longer periods in the military showed more obedience, on average, than those who served for shorter periods. In addition, former officers tended to show less obedience, on average, than former enlisted men.
- Religious Background. Roman Catholics showed the highest degree of obedience, on average, compared to those from other religious groups.
- Educational Level. Those with more years of formal education showed less obedience, on average, than those with fewer years.
None of these associations, however, were strong, nor did they help much in deciding whether personality differences were correlated with differences in obedience.
In order to examine further the possibility that personality differences were linked to differences in obedience, Alan Elms (Elms & Milgram, 1966; Elms, 1995; Elms, 1998), Milgram’s research assistant during the Summer of 1961, interviewed two groups of participants two months after they had taken part in the study:
Defiant Group. This group onsisted of 20 participants who had stopped the experiment even though they had received only ambiguous communications from the Learner (mostly those Teachers from the “wall-pounding” condition).
Obedient Group. This group consisted of 20 participants who had completed the experiment even after receiving clear and unambiguous communications from the Learner because he had been sitting right next to them during the experiment.
Elms and Milgram reasoned that, if differences in specific personality characteristics were linked to differences in obedience levels, then these characteristics should be easiest to find by comparing the two extreme groups. They measured personality characteristics in several ways and reported the following results (see Elms, 1998 for a summary):
Social responsibility. Members of the Defiant Group received a higher average score on a measure of “social responsibility” compared to the Obedient Group. According to Elms, 1998: “High scorers on this scale are supposed to be more willing to accept the consequences of their own behavior, to show ‘greater concern for social and moral issues’, [and] to feel a greater sense of obligation to their peer group.” On the other hand, they also are supposed to be “more compliant and acquiescent”and “less rebellious and recalcitrant.” So, it is not clear how this group difference might be used to explain differences in obedience.
Military experiences. Almost all members of the Obedient Group who had served in the military reported that they had fired their guns at the enemy. All members of the Defiant Group who had served in the military reported that they had never fired at the enemy.
Relationship with father. Members of the Obedient Group reported a more negative and distant childhood relationship with their fathers, on average, than did members of the Defiant Group. Members of the Defiant Group, on the other hand, reported more extreme childhood punishments for misbehavior (severe beatings and withdrawal of love) than did members of the Obedient Group.
Judgments of Experimenter and Teacher. Members of the Obedient Group perceived the Experimenter as “more admirable” and the Learner as “less admirable,” on average, than did members of the Defiant Group.
These findings suggested to Elms and Milgram that the Obedient Group was higher on the trait of “authoritarianism.” According to Elms (1998), authoritarian personalities are:
more distant from their stiff authoritarian fathers as children; they presumably would be more at ease in the military; they should see people occupying positions of authority in a more favorable light than those in inferior positions…. Obedience to authority[, however,] does not appear to be absolutely synonymous with authoritarianism…. The authoritarian is reported, for instance, to idealize his parents; but the obedients did the opposite, at least with regard to their fathers. Authoritarians typically report receiving strict discipline as children; obedients report rather spotty discipline….. Nonetheless, the relationship between obedience and some elements of authoritarianism seems fairly strong; and it should be remembered that the measure of obedience is a measure of actual submission to authority, not just what a person says he’s likely to do.
There is good reason, however, to question Elms’ claim about the importance of this personality trait. Although differences in authoritarianism may help to explain the extreme difference found in obedience levels between these two specially selected groups, there is no reason to think that the trait is of general importance for the differences in obedience levels observed in the large number of Teachers who were not members of either extreme group. There were about 40 different experimental manipulations and it seems likely that, if personality differences were linked to differences in obedience levels, the situation is much more complex than was suggested by Elms’s focus on authoritarianism. In fact, Milgram (1974) stated that, although he was “certain that there is a complex personality basis to obedience and disobedience,” he believed that they had not yet found it (p. 205).
What Milgram (1974) was certain of, however, was that variation in the social situations experienced by the Teachers was the primary cause of group differences in obedience. In other words, Milgram claimed that the social situation caused obedient Teachers to act in ways that were unthinkable to them, given their personalities. This claim will be examined in the next section.
Study Questions for Section 6-5
- How would you define “personality” in your own words?
- How would you define “personal dispositions” in your own words?
- Given the definition of “personality” provided above, why would we conclude that the Teachers’ actions probably were not caused primarily by their personal dispositions?
- Given the answer to the previous question, why did Milgram nevertheless suspect that personality characteristics might have some effect on Teachers’ obedience levels?
- What differences in occupations, military service, religious backgrounds, and educational levels were correlated with differences in obedience?
- How would you define in your own words the personality characteristic that Elms and Milgram (1966) claimed was linked to levels of obedience in their research?
- What was their evidence for this claim?
- Why can we not use this evidence to generalize to all Teachers who participated in the Milgram experiments?
- What was Milgram’s conclusion about the primary cause of differences in the amount of obedience shown by Teachers?
Elms, A. C. (1995). Obedience in retrospect. Journal of Social Issues, 51, 121-131. Retrieved November 19, 2011, from http://www.ulmus.net/ace/library/obedience.html
Elms, A. C. (1998). Obedience as personal response. Excerpted from Chapter 4 of A. C. Elms (1972), Social psychology and social relevance (pp. 128-136). Retrieved November 19, 2011, from http://www.ulmus.net/ace/library/obedienceaspersonal.html
Elms, A. C., & Milgram, S. (1966). Personality characteristics associated with obedience and defiance toward authoritative command. Journal of Experimental Research in Personality, 1, 282-289.
Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York: Harper & Row Publishing.