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Agency Theory


The agency theory was proposed by Stanley Milgram, the American psychologist who carried out the infamous blind obedience studies.

Milgram’s theories arose in response to Nazi war crimes, particularly Adolf Eichmann’s trial. Adolf Eichmann was tried for war crimes in Jerusalem in the early 1960s. Eichmann was a key organiser of the Holocaust, but he claimed throughout his trial that he was "just obeying orders." Even though Eichmann was hanged for crimes against humanity, detractors claimed that his mindless devotion was part of the German national spirit.

Milgram decided to investigate the idea that the Nazi atrocities occurred due to anything particularly harsh or thoughtless in the German national character. Hence, he decided to do this through his famous 1963 baseline study (which can also be found on where Milgram planned to take a sample of American citizens and have a random perceived authority figure order the increase in voltage for each question that a confederate got wrong. Milgram then planned to go to Germany and replicate the study in order to see if there was in fact something within the German character. However, he did not manage to get that far into his study as his American sample already proved the blind obedience theory shocking the world at that time.

Milgram then came up with an explanation for obedience, the agency theory.

Autonomous State:

In the autonomous state, we are in complete control of our actions and take full responsibility for the consequences these have. Throughout this state, we take our own actions based on what we perceive to be right or wrong, and usually stay in this state when we are on our own, with family, friends, or individuals we perceive as below us in the social hierarchy.

Agentic Shift:

Agency Theory suggests humans have two mental states:

  • Autonomous: In the autonomous state we see ourselves to be responsible for our own behaviour and our own actions, therefore we feel guilt for what we do

  • Agentic: In the agentic state we see ourselves to be the agent of someone else’s will; the authority figure is responsible for our actions which means that we do not feel any guilt.

The agentic shift is defined as the switch from autonomous to agentic states, often when we perceive someone as an ‘authority figure’, and we believe that the actions of our consequence now fall onto them. Individuals we perceive as ‘authority figures’ may wear authority symbols (such as a uniform) or have status (like a rank).

The agentic shift also has an evolutionary rationale, according to Milgram. He claims that obedience is a survival trait that allowed early human communities to thrive. Disobedient early people did not survive the prehistoric world's hazards, and we did not inherit their genes.

Conditioning, according to Milgram, also has a role. Our parents, neighbours, and teachers encourage us to respect authority figures from an early age. When we are respectful, they reward us, and when we misbehave, they penalise us (operant conditioning). Obedience is thoroughly entrenched by the time we reach school age.

These two explanations are mutually exclusive (they work together). Our upbringing may have enhanced our tendency to agency, but evolution may have given us a predisposition to it. In psychology, this is an example of nature vs. nurture.

Agentic State:

Agentic state is the state in which we switch, in order to allow us to carry out orders given by an authority figure. During this state, we separate ourselves from the actions we do and the consequences they have by believing we are acting on the behalf of the authority figure (becoming their agent of theirs), and that all responsibilities of our actions and consequences now belong to them. Milgram highlighted that the agentic state is what leads people to commit acts of destructive obedience as was done by the Nazis.

Moral Strain:

Moral strain refers to a person's uncertainty or reluctance when an authoritative figure gives them an instruction that contradicts their beliefs. When someone is under moral duress, they may express emotion or show bodily indicators of anguish.

When asked to administer high voltage shocks to another person in Milgram's shock experiment (1964), several volunteers displayed evidence of moral distress. When the subjects appeared to be uncomfortable, Milgram encouraged them to continue, explaining that it was a condition of the experiment. Even though they knew it would cause injury, 65 percent of the individuals delivered high-voltage shocks to another person.

This shows that the participants went through an agentic shift that alleviated their moral distress, resulting in behaviours taken while in the agentic state.

Research Into Agency Theory:

According to Milgram's famous shock experiment (1964), if an authoritative figure assumes responsibility, a person will inflict injury on someone else if instructed to do so.

The Meeus and Raaijmakers experiment tested agency theory in a similar way to Milgram. Instead of electric shocks, participants were asked to insult another person in this experiment, which was comparable to Milgram's shock experiment. In the control group, no prompts were offered, therefore no insults were uttered, yet 92 percent of participants obeyed commands to do so. Because the obedient participants were in an agentic condition, the high levels of obedience in this experiment primarily corroborate the Agency Theory.

Hofling did a field experiment where it was found that 21 out of 22 nurses would administer a mystery drug to a patient when they were ordered by an unknown doctor to administer the drug. The nurses were fully aware that this was a complete violation of the hospitals’ rules. This study also supports agency theory as the nurses were in an agentic state under the authority figures.


Adolf Eichmann was a pivotal actor in the design and execution of the Holocaust, which resulted in the deaths of six million Jews in Nazi concentration camps. He assisted with logistics, including as the collection and transport of Jews to concentration camps where they were murdered.

Eichmann was judged to have normal mental functioning after a thorough psychological examination. There was nothing about him that made him more prone to engage in such actions. He had a typical family life as well.

He stated in court that his acts were just the result of following orders from Adolf Hitler's dictatorship. He was following orders, which he took as a sign of excellent character. This method demonstrates that Eichmann was functioning as an agent.

The use of such a historical incident is cautionary; it demonstrates that, in the right circumstances, even seemingly ordinary people might do crimes they would never have considered doing otherwise.

In Rwanda, a horrific genocide occurred in 1994, killing approximately 75 percent of the ethnic minority Tutsi people. The assassinations were carried out by a mix of police, army, and citizens. Between 170,000 and 210,000 civilians are thought to have killed or gravely injured members of the Tutsi community.

Some of the regular citizen perpetrators were questioned about their motivations during interviews. Personal motivations (such as hatred for Tutsis, national pride, and patriotism) to social influence were all mentioned. Some, on the other hand, claimed that they had no choice but to carry out the killings because they were ordered to by state authorities. The civilian perpetrators were in an agentic state, which supports the Agency Theory.


  • A major strength of this theory is that it is supported by Milgram’s 1963 study, where he found that 100% of participants would administer electric shocks to a confederate for a mistake he may have committed. Whilst 65% went beyond the ‘danger, extreme shock’ label.

  • The theory explains how key historical events like the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide were characterised by obedience. It can be used for a variety of other large-scale crimes committed around the world.

  • Milgram's shock experiment (1964), Meeus and Raaijmakers' (1995), and Hofling's (1995) study all corroborate the idea (1966).

  • The theory recognises the role of the authority figure in compliance, which can aid us in preventing authority figures from expressing potentially damaging or biased thoughts (or at least holding them accountable). This could be crucial for society's more susceptible sections, such as children.

  • Milgram's shock experiment was modified to show that when certain situational variables, such as the authority figure's clothing, are present, compliance levels can increase. This lends credence to the Agency Theory and the authoritative figure's credibility.

  • Furthermore, Agency Theory has strong application to real life and is most commonly found within the military, where specific terminology has been produced to reduce moral strain. Whilst ranks and discipline are introduced from the early stages of training to establish a hierarchy and ensure soldiers understood who their superiors are in order to fall under the agentic state quicker.


  • While the majority of Milgram's shock experiment volunteers complied, 35% did not. This implies that there must be additional factors at play when it comes to compliance and disobedience.

  • Furthermore, Perry (2012) highlighted and questioned the internal validity of Milgram’s study claiming that the majority of participants could see through the deception and just portrayed demand characteristics, however, some even questioned the researcher if the shocks were real.

  • Because it mostly ignores personal motivations for carrying out certain actions, the thesis may not be universally applicable to global tragedies and historical events. This was evident in the Rwandan genocide perpetrators, as a large portion of their motivation sprang from personal prejudices and sentiments toward the Tutsi community.

  • The Agency Theory overlooks Theodor Adorno's dispositional influence (1950) theory, which claims that personalities play a large role in compliance since certain types are more likely to obey than others.

  • Psychotherapist Steve Reicher has challenged the notion of portraying people as too passive; social environment and pressure are not the only factors that influence human behaviour. Personal incentives can also have a significant impact.

  • Rank and Jacobson (1997) conducted a study with nurses, where they found that a staggering 89% of nurses failed to obey a doctor who asked them to administer an overdoes, showing that there are flows in agency theory and perhaps highlighting that agentic shift is actually avoidable.


References/ Further Reading:

Milgram – Wikipedia -

Milgram Agency Theory – Simply Psychology -

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