Bocchiaro et al., (2012) – Disobedience & Whistle-blowing

Bocchiaro, P., Zimbardo, P. G., & Van Lange, P. A. (2012). To defy or not to defy: An experimental study of the dynamics of disobedience and whistle-blowing. Social Influence, 7(1), 35-50.

This is the contemporary social psychology study which you will look at for your H167 AS OCR Psychology exam. You will also need this study for your OCR H567 A Level Psychology core studies exam.


You might find it useful to read the following books in order to gain a deeper understanding of whistleblowing:

In order to best understand this study, it is highly recommended that you first learn Milgram’s (1963) study. 

From Milgram’s (1963) we learned that people are highly obedient to authority figures, even when they know what they are being asked to do is unethical. From this Bocchiaro et al., (2012) attempted to study the extent to which individuals disobey authority and even whistle-blow.


What is a whistle-blower?

A whistle-blower is an individual or group of individuals who expose the unlawful or unethical activities or behaviours of a person, group of people, or organisation.

In order to blow the whistle on unethical behaviour, individuals must first disobey, which is an interesting behaviour itself, as the whistle-blower must reject authority in order to act inline with their internal values and attitudes. This may be quite difficult, as we saw in the Milgram (1963) study, people have a strong tendency to follow the orders of an authority figure.

Aim of the Experiment

To study the people who disobey and who blow the whistle.

To understand the personal and situational factors involved in disobedience.

The researchers aimed to replicate Milgram’s (1963) method, in which indididuals predicted the outcome of the study prior to the study taking place.

To go beyond Milgram’s original paradigm for studying obedience, by giving participants the opportunity to blow the whistle as well as disobey. 

Method and Design

The method of this study was a laboratory experiment. However, technically, it is not an experiment as there was no independent variable. In the exam, refer to this study as a ‘laboratory study’ or as Bocchiaro et al., (2012) suggest, a ‘scenario study’.

The study was conducted in a laboratory at VU university in Amsterdam.

Two rooms were specifically prepared for use in the study.

All the timings between the sections of the study were kept constant for each participant.

The dependent variables were the participant obeying, disobeying, or blowing the whistle on the experimenter and participant scores two personality inventories (the 60-item HEXACO-PI-R – tgis and the nine-item Decomposed Gaes measure – this measured Social Value Orientation -SVO).

Sample and Sampling Method

Participants were recruited by flyers posted in the campus cafeteria of the VU University at Amsterdam. Therefore, the sampling method was volunteer sampling. 

The first sample (who were only asked what they would do in the study), were 138 undergraduate students from VU university in Amsterdam.

The main sample were 149 undergraduates from VU university (96 women, 53 men, mean age = 20.8, SD = 2.65) took part in the study for either 7 euros or course credits.

A total of 11 participants were removed from the original sample of 160 because of their suspiciousness about the nature of the study.


The first sample of 138 undergraduates were only asked about the study. They were given a detailed description of the study and the experimental setting and then they were asked ‘What would you do?’ and ‘What would an average student at your university do?’

The researchers conducted eight pilot tests, involving 92 undergraduates from VU university. These were conducted for a number of reasons including, standardising the experimenters behaviour and ensuring that the experiment was ethically sound.

The entire session lasted approximately 40 minutes.

Participants were informed about the study. They were given the right to withdraw and they signed consent forms, which guaranteed their confidentiality in the results of the study.

The experimenter was a Dutch Male (the university was in Amsterdam), who was formally dressed and possessed a stern demeanour.

The experimenter proceeded with a (seemingly unjustified) request for each participant to provide a few names of fellow students and then presented the cover story.

The gist of the cover story:

The experimenter and an Italian colleague were investigating the effects of sensory deprivation on brain function.  A recently conducted experiment on six participants in Rome who spent some time completely isolated, unable to see or hear anything, had disastrous effects – all panicked, their cognitive abilities were temporarily impaired, some experienced visual and auditory hallucinations. Two participants asked to stop because of their strong symptoms but were not allowed to do so because invalid data may then have been collected. The majority said it had been a frightening experience. – The experimenters wanted to replicate this study at the VU University using a sample of college students as there was currently no data on young people but some scientists thought that their brains may be more sensitive to the negative effects of isolation. – Although it was difficult to predict what would happen, the experimenter wanted to proceed with the experiment.

A University Research Committee was evaluating whether to approve the study and were collecting feedback from students who knew details about the experiment, to help them make their decision. – Participants were told that Research Committee forms were in the next room. – Participants were to write a statement to convince the students they had previously indicated to participate in the experiment. Statements would be sent to the identified students by mail.

The experimenter left the room for three minutes to allow participants to reflect on the action-based decisions they were about to make.

Participants were then moved to a second room where there was a computer for them to use to write their statement, a mailbox and the Research Committee forms.

The participants were instructed to be enthusiastic when writing their statements and they had to use two adjectives such as ‘exciting’, ‘incredible’ and ‘superb’.

They were instructed not to mentioned the negative effects of the sensory deprivation.

The experimenter instructed the participants to begin and then left the participants in alone in the room for 7 minutes.

If a participant believed the proposed research on sensory deprivation violated ethical norms he/she could anonymously challenge it by putting a form in the mailbox.

After the seven-minute interval the experimenter returned and invited the participant to follow him back to the first room where he/she was administered two personality inventories, probed for suspicion, fully debriefed and asked to sign a second consent form, this time fully informed.


Of all the respondents in the first group:

Only 3.6% indicated they would obey the experimenter. Most believed they would be either disobedient (31.9%) or whistleblowers (64.5%).  When they were asked to predict the behaviour of other typical students at their university, only 18.8% thought an average student at VU University would obey, while they believed most other students would either disobey (43.9%) or whistleblow (37.3%).

Of the 149 participants in the experimental situation:

76.5% obeyed the experimenter (n = 114), 14.1% disobeyed (n = 21) and 9.4% (n = 14) blew the whistle. – Among whistleblowers 6.0% (n = 9) had written a message (Anonymous whistleblowers) and 3.4% (n = 5) had refused to do so (Open whistleblowers). – No significant differences were found in any of the groups in relation to gender, religious affiliation (Christian/Islamic), or religious involvement (defined in terms of church attendance). However a significant difference was observed with regard to faith (defined as a confident belief in a transcendent reality), X² (2,149) = 6.74, p = .03

Results for individual differences in personality among the three groups showed no statistically significant differences in any of the six personality factors measured by the HEXACO-PI-R.

Results in terms of SVO showed that “prosocial” and “individualistic” participants were not unequally distributed among the three groups, X² (2,118) = 2.25, p = .32

Qualitative data from the study showed that those participants who obeyed did so because of external forces – “It was expected of me, that’s why I continued’’, ‘‘I cooperated because the experimenter asked me to’’; they had entered the agentic state and were not responsible for their behaviour. • However, the opposite was true for disobedient participants, who felt responsible for their actions. ‘‘I don’t want to do unethical things, I would be very disappointed in myself’’, ‘‘I disobeyed because I felt responsible towards friends’’, ‘‘If the experiment would really hurt people, I wouldn’t want to be responsible for that’.’


As with Milgram (1963), people tend to obey authority figures, even if the request is unethical.

Disobeying and blowing the whistle of demanding acts for individuals to conduct.

People can claim what they or others will do in a situation, but they are often wrong. People act far differently than how they claim they would behave.

Behaving in a moral manner is difficult for individuals.

Bocchiaro et al., (2012) Evaluation

+ Laboratory study – the laboratory environment allows the researchers to control many aspects of the environment and experience of the participant, which reduces confounding variables and thus increases the internal validity of the study.

+ Standardised personality inventories – the use of standard personality inventories is highly reliable and easy to replicate.

+ Ethics – the participants were given the right to withdraw from the study and were guaranteed confidential for participating in this study.

– Ethics – on the other hand, this study may be considered ethically dubious because the participants were placed in a situation, which may have caused them distress, especially if they obeyed the unethical request.

– Questionnaires – the use of questionnaires (personality inventories) in this study may be considered a weakness because they are highly subjective and gather ordinal data, which may not be valid or reliable when repeated with the same participants.


Bocchiaro, P., Zimbardo, P. G., & Van Lange, P. A. (2012). To defy or not to defy: An experimental study of the dynamics of disobedience and whistle-blowing. Social Influence, 7(1), 35-50.

Further Reading

Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View

Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments

The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil

Psych Yogi’s Top Ten Psychology Revision Tips for the A* Student

Article Name
Bocchiaro et al., (2012) - Disobedience & Whistle-blowing
Bocchiaro, P., Zimbardo, P. G., & Van Lange, P. A. (2012). On of the core studies for OCR H167 and H567 Psychology AS and Level.

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