Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Authority Engima

We are all thought to have an innate predisposition to obey authority figures. This might not be a bad thing. Many view authority figures as integral components that contribute to the effective functioning of society in a well-ordered fashion. Without say, police officers to enforce the law, the world could become a very dangerous place. The authorities these figures carry elicit compliance and obedience amongst others. However, this can become all consuming and some authority figures have been held accountable for some of the most tragic events through history. For example, the rise to power and acceptance of the dictator Hitler as well as, the case of the ‘My Lai Massacre’ in Vietnam. These alarming illustrations show just how vastly susceptible to subservient obedience we, as humans, are when under the orders of authority figures. Empirical research, such as that investigated in the renown Milgram (1963) experiments, has shown the shocking extent of detrimental behaviours (in this example, of giving fatal electric shocks) people are prepared to give, primarily due to the orders given by seemingly legitimate authority figure.

It is interesting to look at experimental examples of how authority figures can induce compliance in more modern, real life examples. Let us take a look at Brief, Dietz, Cohen, Pugh and Vaslow’s (2000) paper exploring how authority can influence racial prejudice in employment discrimination in the workplace. Participants had the role of rating ten job applications, of which three would be chosen, for a position at a company. The applications consisted of five unqualified white applicants, two qualified white applicants and three qualified black applicants. There were two conditions: half of the participants received the applications accompanied by a note from the CEO describing how the company did not want to employ people from minority groups (the business-justification group) and half did not receive this note (the no-justification condition). Prior to the task, individuals ‘modern racism’ levels were tested with the Modern Racism Scale (MRS) as another interactive factor. The results, displayed in Figure 1.0, show that people were significantly more likely to select less minority group applicants if they were given business justification for this discrimination, compared to when participants had more of a free choice (in the no justification condition). This means that people were more likely to comply with the requests of the company (the authority figure) even in matters as serious as racial discrimination. The results between groups were augmented if participants had higher levels of modern racism compared to those with lower levels – so people who were innately more racist, were even less likely to select minority groups than those were a bit less racist (as rated by the MRS).

                                         Figure 1.0

Discrimination at work is a contested issue in all workplaces, in extreme cases, resulting in employment tribunals and lawsuits. This research interestingly depicts how easily people will discriminate candidates based on race merely at the requests of a legitimate authority figure. Employers seem to be a dominating authority figure with extensive control and the ability to penetrate and manipulate core beliefs, such as discrimination, in certain situations. One has to wonder where does this control end?


Brief, A. P., Dietz, J., Cohen, R. R., Pugh, S. D., & Vaslow, J. B. (2000). Just doing business: Modern racism and obedience to authority as explanations for employment discrimination. Organizational Behavioural and Human Decision Processes, 81, 72-97.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioural study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.

By Mhairi Hay

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