What Is Obedience?

Understanding Obedience to Authority

Milgram's original shock box.
Milgram's original "shock box" displayed at the Ontario Science Centre. (C) Isabelle Adam (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) via Flickr

Why do people sometimes follow orders, even if it means doing something they know is wrong?

Obedience is a form of social influence that involves performing an action under the orders of an authority figure. It differs from compliance (which involves changing your behavior at the request of another person) and conformity (which involves altering your behavior in order to go along with the rest of the group).

Instead, obedience involves altering your behavior because a figure of authority has told you to.

How Does Obedience Differ From Conformity?

Obedience differs from conformity in three key ways:

  1. Obedience involves an order; conformity involves a request.
  2. Obedience involves following the order of someone with a higher status; conformity usually involves going along with people of equal status.
  3. Obedience relies on social power; conformity relies on the need to be socially accepted.

Milgram’s Obedience Experiments

During the 1950s, a psychologist Stanley Milgram became intrigued with the conformity experiments performed by Solomon Asch. Asch's work had demonstrated that people could easily be swayed to conform to group pressure, but Milgram wanted to see just how far people would be willing to go.

The trial of Adolf Eichmann, who had planned and managed the mass deportation of Jews during World War II, helped spark Milgram’s interest in the topic of obedience.

Throughout the trial, Eichmann suggested that he was simply following orders and that he felt no guilt for his role in the mass murders because he had only been doing what his superiors requested and that he had played no role in the decision to exterminate the captives.

Milgram had set out to explore the question "are Germans different?," but he soon discovered that the majority of people are surprisingly obedient to authority.

After the horrors of the Holocaust, some people, such as Eichmann, explained their participation in the atrocities by suggesting that they were just doing as they were commanded. Milgram wanted to know – would people really harm another person if they were ordered to by an authority figure? Just how powerful is the pressure to obey?

Milgram’s studies involved placing participants in a room and directing them to deliver electrical shocks to a "learner" located in another room. Unbeknownst to the participant, the person supposedly receiving the shocks was actually in on the experiment and was merely acting out responses to imaginary shocks. Surprisingly, Milgram found that 65 percent of participants were willing to deliver the maximum level of shocks on the orders of the experimenter.

Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment

Milgram’s controversial experiments generated a great deal of interest in the psychology of obedience. During the early 1970s, social psychologist Philip Zimbardo staged an exploration into the study of prisoners and prison life.

He set up a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford University psychology department and assigned his participants to play the roles of either prisoners or guards, with Zimbardo himself acting as the prison warden.

The study had to be discontinued after a mere six days even though it was originally slated to last two weeks. Why did the researchers end the experiment so early? Because the participants had become so involved in their roles, with the guards utilizing authoritarian techniques to gain the obedience of the prisoners. In some cases, the guards even subjected the prisoners to psychological abuse, harassment, and physical torture. The results of the Stanford Prison Experiment are often used to demonstrate how easily people are influenced by characteristics of the roles and situations they are cast in, but Zimbardo also suggested that environmental factors play a role in how prone people are to obey authority.

Obedience in Action

Milgram's experiments set the stage for future investigations into obedience, and the subject quickly became a hot topic within social psychology. But what exactly do psychologists mean when they talk about obedience?

Some definitions, examples, and observations:

  • "Studies have been conducted with participants in other countries, with children, and with other procedural variations. The same basic result in consistently obtained: many people readily accept the influence of an authority, even when that means causing potential harm to another person. One interesting application of this concept has been to the nurse-physician relationship. Several studies have shown that nurses will often carry out the orders of a physician even when there is good reason to believe that potential harm could come to the patient."
    (Breckler, Olson, & Wiggins, 2006)
  • "Other researchers have since replicated Milgram's findings. High school students were found to be even more willing to obey orders. Cross-cultural research in other Western cultures has also yielded high rates of obedience using Milgram's procedure. Unfortunately, it seems as though Milgram's results were not flukes."
    (Pastorino & Doyle-Portillo, 2013)
  • "Are conformity and obedience unique to American culture? By no means. The Asch and Milgram experiments have been repeated in many societies, where they have yielded results roughly similar to those seen in the United States. Thus the phenomena of conformity and obedience seem to transcend culture... Many of the studies have reported even higher obedience rates than those seen in Milgram's American samples. For example, obedience rates of over 80% have been reported for samples from Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain, and Holland." (Weiten, 2010)

Learn more about:

References

Breckler, S. J., Olson, J. M., & Wiggins, E. C. (2006). Social Psychology Alive. Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper and Row. An excellent presentation of Milgram’s work is also found in Brown, R. (1986). Social Forces in Obedience and Rebellion. Social Psychology: The Second Edition. New York: The Free Press.

Pastorino, E. E. & Doyle-Portillo, S. M. (2013). What Is Psychology?: Essentials. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Weiten, W. (2010). Psychology: Themes and variations. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Continue Reading