When we think of authority, it is common for our minds to become preoccupied with negative thoughts. As a psychology student, this negative portrayal of authority is be due the classic studies conducted by Milgram’s electric shock experiment and Zimbardo’s prison experiment which portray “the Lucifer effect” of how good people can turn bad. Research however, has shown that authority can often have positive outcomes in terms of parental – child and peer relationships. These positive outcomes may be mediated by the amount of reciprocity we experience.
Whilst the majority of people were celebrating the turn of the 21st century, four researchers, Laursen, Noack, Wilder, & Williams’, were instead investigating how our cultural contexts have shaped our interpersonal relationships with our peers and parents. Laursen et al (2000) broke their overall aim down into four goals. For the aim of this blog, I will only be focusing on whether reciprocity, authority and closeness correspond across relationships with mothers, fathers and peers and whether these patterns differ across their two chosen samples (American and German adolescents).
Adolescents from the two countries were split into high closeness or low closeness groups according by their score on the relationship closeness inventory as can be seen in figure 1 (Berscheid et al, 1989). This inventory assessed the quality of their paternal, maternal and peer relationships. Overall, it was the German adolescents that reported higher levels closeness in regards to all 3 relationship types. It was however found that German adolescents were closer to their mothers and peers than their fathers and US adolescents were closest to friends, mothers and then fathers. This can be explained by the negative, authoritative, discipline provider role fathers tend occupy. However, this explanation becomes complicated as mothers who were rated as closest by adolescents, were also the most authoritative. Surely we should dislike our mother for being too authoritative if this is the reason why we have a sense of dislike towards our father’s right? Wrong. We are emotionally, physically and genetically tied into a lifelong relationship with our parents. This means that we have to accept a degree of authority from them. It therefore seems as though small doses of authority are not negative. Darling et al (2007) however, found that adolescent’s willingness to listen to authority varied depending on the context. The way the child had been socialised and disciplined also determines how likely they are to obey authority (Darling et al, 2007).
Figure 1. The differences in high or low closeness across the German and US sample in regards to relationships with mothers, fathers and peers.
Adolescent peer relationships were instead found to be characterised by reciprocity. Unlike the obligatory relationship we have with our parents, we can shut down unrewarding friendships with our peers. Reciprocity is therefore necessary to maintain cohesion and balance amongst peers. Other research has found that reciprocal peer friendships are rewarding because they allow the adolescent to have more control and dominance (Hunter, 1984). As a matter of fact, Laursen et al (2000) found that higher the level of reciprocity corresponded to higher levels of closeness. What is interesting is that Laursen et al (2000) found that if an adolescent had a reciprocal and close relationship with their peers or mother, they did not place much emphasis or effort in forming relationships with others. It is almost as though having these few close bonds led these adolescents to feel socially satisfied. Overall, it was the German adolescents who reported higher positive associations in terms of closeness, reciprocity and authority with friends and their parents.
The overall findings therefore suggest that despite the society an adolescent is reared in, there is some interconnectedness between authority, closeness and reciprocity in terms of how we perceive others and form relationships.
Darling, N., Cumsille, P., Martinez, M. L. (2007). Adolescents’ as active agents in the socialisation process: Legitimacy of parental authority and obligation to obey as predictors of obedience. Journal of Adolescence, 30, 297 – 311.
Hunter, F. T. (1984). Socialising procedures in parent-child and friendship relations during adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 20, 1092 – 1099.
Laursen, B., Noack, P., Wilder, D., & Williams, V. (2000). Adolescent perceptions of reciprocity, authority, and closeness in relationships with mothers, fathers, and friends. International Journal of Behavioural Development, 24, 464 – 471.