Obedience as a Function of Experimenter Competence

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Simple Reaction Time, Demand Characteristic, Competent Condition, 20th Trial, Implicit Guarantee

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The purpose of this study was to investigate obedience to an E’s commands as a function of E competency. Based upon Orne’s (1962, 1969) discussion of the demand characteristics inherent in the typical aggression study, it was hypothesized that E incompetence would decrease S obedience. Competence was manipulated by: (1) presenting some Ss with a nervous and inexperienced E, and (2)“accidentally” killing the victim (a rat) midway through the experiment. Thirty-two undergraduate female Ss participated in the experiment—supposedly a study on the physiological effects of stress. Obedi6nce was operationalized as the difference, in simple reaction time, between trials on which Ss were told that their response might result in shock to the rat and trials on which they were told that their response might save the rat from shock. Significant differences in obedience were obtained between competent and incompetent E conditions, and a significant “kill” effect was found in the competent E conditidn. The results of this study suggested that the extreme acts of obedience observed in the laboratory (e.g., Milgram, 1963) occur only when E is perceived as competent. This finding imposes limits on the generalizability of laboratory studies of obedience.

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Memory & Cognition, v. 1, issue 3, p. 241–245.