Gibson's Contribution to Milgram's Obedience Research

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Critically evaluate Gibson’s contribution to the interpretation of Milgram’s research findings on obedience.What can this tell us about the importance of context for studying social influence?

Social psychology aims to understand how the social world influences the thoughts, emotions and behaviours of others. Obedience, a determinant of behaviour, is concerned with the power of social processes and contextual pressures upon individual behaviour, versus the individual’s agency to resist such influences. The powerful findings of Milgram’s (1963) study (cited in Dixon, 2012) into destructive obedience lead Milgram to theorise that when a person is in the presence of a legitimate authority figure, there is a shift in his ‘agentic state’, and the normally independent free thinking individual gives way to obedience. However, Milgram’s work has been re-analysed from a different perspective by Gibson (2011) in which he challenges Milgram’s notion of obedience and the use of experimental methods as a way to understand social influences. Gibson argues that language is a critical factor in attaining and resisting social influences, a factor overlooked by Milgram. This essay, in evaluating Gibson’s (2011) re-analysis and its social psychological implications, concludes that Gibson’s study enhances Milgram’s research by highlighting aspects of the original experiments/theories that were not previously considered.

One of the most recognised experimental social psychological studies, ‘Behavioural study of obedience’, was undertaken by Stanley Milgram in 1963 (cited in Dixon, 2012). Taking a cognitive social psychological perspective, Milgram employed an experimental quantitative approach in which he examined the processes of obedience and the social conditions in which people obey persons in authority. Milgram considered social structure as crucial in influencing individuals’ behaviour even when this behaviour went against their own basic moral values. His method allowed him to systematically vary some situational factors which he believed would best illuminate the underlying processes of obedience. In his experiment, under pretext of testing the effects of punishment on memory, participants were given the role of ‘teacher’. Under orders from an ‘authority figure’ (the experimenter) participants had to deliver electric shocks to a ‘learner’ (a confederate), up to a potentially lethal level, if wrong answers were given. Participants who delivered the maximum shock level were categorised as obedient; those who refused at any point prior to the maximum level being considered defiant. Should the participant show reluctance or refusal to continue, the experimenter had four standardised prompts which he could use to persuade participants to continue, with a further two arbitrary prompts available if needed. The overwhelming results of Milgram’s experiment, where 26 out of 40 participants delivered the highest shock level possible, lead Milgram to theorise that obedience involves a psychological shift in individuals agentic states where, under certain social conditions, they relinquish control of their actions and obey orders, even when the resulting behaviour is morally wrong (as cited in Dixon, 2012). This, Milgram states, demonstrates the power of social structures on behaviour.

Gibson (2011), in his reanalysis of Milgram’s experiments, points to how language and the use of rhetorical analysis can highlight what happens in the actual context of the experimental setting. Gibson analysed audio recordings and transcripts of the interactions between the experimenter and participants in Milgram’s original experiments. Instead of focussing on the outcomes of obedience he sought to highlight the importance of the interactional processes in bringing about obedience, or more importantly, in resisting it; factors he suggested were overlooked by Milgram. Using a qualitative, discursive psychological approach and rhetorical analysis, Gibson sought to highlight the central role of language and interaction in the accomplishment and rejection of social influences, and in the construction of power relations. Gibson draws attention to the rhetorical strategies employed by both the experimenter and the participants in their interactions where they draw upon rhetorical arguments to position themselves within the experiment to achieve their respective goals; the experimenter trying to argue the case for the participant to continue with the experiment, and the participant trying to extricate himself from the experiment. Milgram’s findings points to the power of social contexts and relational interactions on individuals behaviour and the extent of individuals personal agency when within the confines of such social structures. Gibson’s reanalysis, however, highlights a different perspective on the process of social influence and raises a number of questions that challenge the seemingly accepted understanding that people obey persons in authority in certain situational contexts. Gibson (2011) suggests that in attempting to find an overall nature of obedience, important aspects of Milgram’s experiments were overlooked; specifically, how power relations are socially constructed during the experimental process through the use of rhetorical argumentation. His focus, not just on obedience but disobedience, also highlights agency within participants that was not conveyed through Milgram’s study.

Milgram’s findings suggests that destructive obedience revolves around individuals agentic states, a power-related agency-structure dualism (Holloway, 2012) where in the presence of legitimate authority figures, individuals lose their agency and are overwhelmingly influenced by social structures to behave in ways that contravene their moral values (as cited in Dixon, 2012). However, Gibson (2011), by focussing on the ways that participants, through the use of creative rhetoric to suit the demands of their particular situational context, presents a different view of the participants. It highlights participants interaction and engagement with the experimenter, using rhetorical strategies to question, challenge, defy and frustrate his instructions, actively resisting attempts to elicit obedience. This presents a different view of participants from one of apparently passive obedience, which Milgram’s findings suggest, to one of active participation and resistance. Therefore, the analysis presented by Gibson challenges the idea that it was the pressure of the social context that made participants relinquish their agency and passively obey the person in authority; participants were agents within the experiment, arguers and thinkers (Billig, 1996, as cited in Dixon, 2012) and not victims of its social structure. This highlights participants capacity to resist authority, or at the very least, points to a reciprocal relationship between the social structure in which an individual finds himself and his agency to resist it. This challenges the dualistic assumptions about agency and structure (Holloway, 2012) and has psychological implications for the processes of obedience.

Furthermore, Gibson’s (2011) analysis highlights the power relations at play in Milgram’s experiments, with the experimenter constructing his position of power and authority using rhetorical strategies such as drawing upon the importance of the experiment for scientific knowledge, an ideology prevalent at the time. This, in turn, allowed participants to legitimate their actions as it was for the good of science. Gibson suggests that the experimenter’s rhetoric, both in his instructions and interactions with participants throughout the experiment, is aimed at inducing a position of credibility and power over the participant; for example, in the introduction the experimenter assures participants that the electric shocks will “cause no permanent tissue damage” (Milgram, 1963; cited in Dixon, 2012). However, Gibson points out that many participants placed conditions upon their continued involvement and used rhetorical strategies to undermine the authority of the experimenter. One participant was able to draw the experimenter into a process of negotiation over whether the experiment should continue which led to the experimenter having to deviate from his standard script, to form a flexible and creative argument to persuade the participant to continue. The idea of set scripts was to ensure that the experimenter contributions were neutral and conditions were standardised so that situational processes of obedience could be focussed on (cited in Dixon, 2012). However, Gibson points out that the experimenter could not stick to the set prods which resulted in the experimenter’s rhetoric playing a central role in the process of obedience. Gibson argued that as a rhetorical move, challenging the fourth prod “you have no other choice, you must go on” undermined the credibility of the experimenter, where he had to change from an assertion of no choice, to one where there was indeed a choice. This has implications not only the standardisation of the experimental procedures but also the extent of the perceived authority of the experimenter.

Furthermore, some researchers challenge whether Milgram’s studies were about obedience in the first place (Gibson, 2011; Reicher and Haslam, 2011; Burger et al, 2011). The experimenter’s instructions to reluctant participants to try convince them to continue (using prods 1-3) take the form of arguments of persuasion and coercion, rather than orders. The fourth prod i.e. ‘you have no other choice, you must go on’, which Milgram (1963) considered an unambiguous order to obey, was found to be most ineffective at eliciting obedience (Burger et al’s, 2011 as cited in Dixon, 2012). In their analysis of the effectiveness of the prods in Burger’s (2009) replication of Milgram’s experiment, they found that no participant continued with the experiment after being given this fourth prod; thus challenging whether the Milgram paradigm was demonstrating obedience at all. Gibson (2011) also analysed all uses of prod 4 in the two conditions he was studying. He found that the prod was used in 23 instances; however, it resulted in only two participants continuing to inflict shocks on the learner, only one of which continued to full obedience. Therefore, when prods were framed as orders, the most commanding ‘order to obey’ was in fact completely ineffective in bringing about obedience (Reicher & Haslam, 2011).

Fundamentally, what makes Gibson’s (2011) reanalysis important is that it highlights how complex the interactions become between experimenter and participant in the context of the laboratory setting. And it is these rhetorical and discursive interactions that highlight how obedience and disobedience comes about (Gibson, 2011; Reicher & Haslam, 2011). The various rhetorical strategies deployed by both the experimenter and participants in their interactions played an important role in the processes of obedience, as all participants were subject to the same psychological torture and persuasion but a great many of them still managed to extricate themselves from the experiment through the strategies they used. Equally, Gibson’s reanalysis shows, in contrast to Milgram’s theory of structured obedience, that participants have agency and do not passively obey persons in authority. Therefore, the studies may be as much about disobedience as they are about obedience. However, Gibson’s reanalysis is not without some limitations. Although Gibson rightly points out the cultural and historical situatedness of Milgram’s research, Milgram’s findings have been successfully replicated within different times and cultures (Blass, 1999), the most recent replication being Burger (2009) (cited in Dixon, 2012). A further point to note in Gibson’s research is that he considered just two conditions from within Milgram’s experiments, but there were many more (cited in Dixon, 2012). Milgram manipulated various situational factors which produced significant variation in obedience levels, inferring that obedience levels are affected by different social conditions (cited in Dixon, 2012). Gibson, by focusing on rhetorical interactions in instances where participants were disobedient, did not consider the extent to which rhetorical interactions impact on levels of obedience. Neither Milgram, in his experiments, nor Gibson’s reanalysis considered the ‘authority’ itself. To ensure tight controls, Milgram allowed a set number of pre-prepared responses (prods), which in itself limits the authority available to the experimenter. Once the experimenter had used all the prods, going in sequence from prod 1 to prod 4, the experimenter had no choice but to terminate the experiment in line with Milgram’s experiment protocol; this highlights the artificial nature of the authority as the only consequence for not obeying the instructions was for the experiment to end. This lack of authority is revealed especially in the final prod, “you must go on, you have no choice”, which was found to be particularly ineffective in attaining obedience (Gibson 2011; Burger et al 2011 as cited in Dixon, 2012).

In conclusion, Milgram’s (1963) classic studies of obedience are the most renowned pieces of empirical research in social psychology and have provided significant insight into the processes of obedience in laboratory settings; similar results being found across various cultures and time periods. However, Gibson’s (2011) rhetorical re-analysis of these experiments has shed light on the role of language and rhetoric on the interactional processes between experimenter, learner and teacher, which had previously been neglected. This re-analysis highlights that, although deceived and emotionally tortured, a great many participants in Milgram’s experiments managed to extricate themselves from the experiment by engaging in rhetorical strategies. By dissecting the procedural aspects of Milgram’s experiments, Gibson reanalysis points to limitations in the use of experimental methods for researching social processes, such as the perceived authority of the experimenter and the deviations from standardised use of the prods. He also challenges the concept of lack of autonomy in obedience to authority and highlights participants active participation in rhetoric in order to extricate themselves from the experiment. Therefore, it is considered that Gibson’s reanalysis extends and enriches our social psychological understanding of obedience/disobedience by highlighting how power relations and agency, interpreted from rhetorical analysis, point to the importance of social structure and situational context in understanding social influences. However, although furthering our understanding of the concept of obedience, it is considered that the nature and processes of obedience would be best understood if situated outside the laboratory, in a real world setting, where all aspects of situational contexts and interactional processes could be considered; for example, in places such as Abu Ghraib where obedience and disobedience carry real life consequences (Lankford, 2009 as cited in Dixon, 2012).



Dixon, J. (2012). Obedience. In D. Langdridge, S. Taylor, & K. Mahendran (Eds), Critical Readings in Social Psychology (2nd ed., pp. 153-181). Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Gibson, S. (2011). Milgram’s obedience experiments: A rhetorical analysis. British Journal of Social Psychology (2013), 52, 290-309. Accessed from PsycInfo on 23rd February 2015

Hollway, W. (2012). Social psychology: past and present. In W. Hollway, J. Lucey, A. Phoenix and G. Lewis (Eds), DD307 Social Psychology (2nd Ed., pp. 27-57). Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Reicher, S. & Haslam, S.A. (2011). After shock? Towards a social identity explanation of the Milgram ‘obedience’ studies. British Journal of Social Psychology (2011), 50, 163-169. Accessed from PsycInfo on 24th February 2015

The Open University (2012). DD307 Social Psychology: Critical perspectives on self, Block 5 audio: Stephen Gibson on Obedience. Available at Accessed from DD307 website on 24th February 2015

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