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Social Psychology – Obedience

Answers the Question

What circumstances produce obedience to authority even when doing something that can inflict extraordinary harm on their fellow human beings?

How it Began

One of the most famous studies of obedience in psychology was carried out by Stanley Milgram (1963).

Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted an experiment focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience.  Milgram was interested in researching how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person. Stanley Milgram was interested in how easily ordinary people could be influenced into committing atrocities for example, the justifications for acts of genocide offered by those accused at the World War II, Nuremberg War Criminal trials. Their defence often was based on “obedience” – that they were just following orders of their superiors.

Milgram selected participants for his experiment by advertising for male participants to take part in a study of learning at Yale University. The procedure was that the participant was paired with another person and they drew lots to find out who would be the ‘learner’ and who would be the ‘teacher’. The draw was fixed so that the participant was always the teacher, and the learner was one of Milgram’s confederates (pretending to be a real participant).


The learner (a confederate called Mr. Wallace) was taken into a room and had electrodes attached to his arms, and the teacher and researcher went into a room next door that contained an electric shock generator and a row of switches marked from 15 volts (Slight Shock) to 375 volts (Danger: Severe Shock) to 450 volts (XXX).

The teacher is told to administer an electric shock every time the learner makes a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger – severe shock).

The learner gave mainly wrong answers (on purpose) and for each of these the teacher gave him an electric shock. When the teacher refused to administer a shock and turned to the experimenter for guidance, he was given the standard instruction /order (consisting of 4 prods):

  • Prod 1: please continue.
  • Prod 2: the experiment requires you to continue.
  • Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  • Prod 4: you have no other choice but to continue.

65% (two-thirds) of participants (i.e. teachers) continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.

Key Terminology

Obedience – form of social influence where an individual acts in response to a direct order from another individual, who is usually an authority figure. It is assumed that without such an order the person would not have acted in this way.

In Brief

Ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being. Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from the way we are brought up. Obey parents, teachers, anyone in authority etc.

Milgram summed up in the article “The Perils of Obedience” (Milgram 1974), writing:

“The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.”

What does this mean for Organization Development?

The obedience experiments have been widely used in various domains to create broader organizational changes in large segments of society. Some textbooks on business ethics have used those experiments to warn students about the unethical demands that might be made on them by their bosses in the business world.

Obedience occurs when you are told to do something (authority), whereas conformity happens through social pressure (the norms of the majority). Obedience involves a hierarchy of power / status. Therefore, the person giving the order has a higher status than the person receiving the order.

We did not need Milgram’s research to inform us that people have a propensity to obey authority; what it did enlighten us about is the surprising strength of that tendency-that many people are willing to obey destructive orders that conflict with their moral principles and commit acts which they would not carry out on their own initiative. Once people have accepted the right of an authority to direct our actions, Milgram argued, we relinquish responsibility to him or her and allow that person to define for us what is right or wrong.

An application of Milgram’s research is that it suggests specific preventive actions people can take to resist unwanted pressures from authorities:

Question the authority’s legitimacy. We often give too wide a berth to people who project a commanding presence, either by their demeanor or by their mode of dress and follow their orders even in contexts irrelevant to their authority. For example, one study found that wearing a fireman’s uniform significantly increased a person’s persuasive powers to get a passerby to give change to another person so he could feed a parking meter.

When instructed to carry out an act you find abhorrent, even by a legitimate authority, stop and ask yourself: “Is this something I would do on my own initiative?” The answer may well be “No,” because, according to Milgram, moral considerations play a role in acts carried out under one’s own steam, but not when they emanate from an authority’s commands.

Don’t even start to comply with commands you feel even slightly uneasy about. Acquiescence to the commands of an authority that are only mildly objectionable is often, as in Milgram’s experiments, the beginning of a step-by-step, escalating process of entrapment. The farther one moves along the continuum of increasingly destructive acts, the harder it is to extract oneself from the commanding authority’s grip, because to do so is to confront the fact that the earlier acts of compliance were wrong.

If you are part of a group that has been commanded to carry out immoral actions, find an ally in the group who shares your perceptions and is willing to join you in opposing the objectionable commands. It is tremendously difficult to be a lone dissenter, not only because of the strong human need to belong, but also because-via the process of pluralistic ignorance-the compliance of others makes the action seem acceptable and leads you to question your own negative judgment. In one of Milgram’s conditions the naïve subject was one of a 3-person teaching team. The other two were actually confederates who-one after another-refused to continue shocking the victim. Their defiance had a liberating influence on the subjects, so that only 10% of them ended up giving the maximum shock.