Social Psychology of Obedience Research Paper

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Obedience refers to the act of carrying out requests or commands emanating from a person of higher status within a social hierarchy. It is to be distinguished from compliance—which also refers to a form of acquiescence, but does not necessarily involve a situation of status inequality. Obedience is also different from conformity. In the latter, the source of influence comes from others of equal status to the target of influence; such as, a group of peers or other members of one’s society or culture. Additionally, while obedience—as well as compliance—is a result of direct influence attempts, conformity is usually the product of implicit, indirect group pressures felt by the individual to be impinging on him or her. Thus, while obedience represents the maintenance or creation of social inequality, conformity is a social leveler.

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1. Distinctive Feature Of The Social-Psychological Approach

Social-psychological perspectives on obedience to authority see it as a necessary feature of organized social life, contributing importantly to its efficient and orderly functioning. Their most distinctive feature is the primary role accorded to situational factors. Grounded in Kurt Lewin’s ahistorical approach, which emphasized contemporaneous determinants of behavior, social psychologists tend to focus on situational determinants to account for variations in obedience. This is in contrast to the personality psychologist who focuses on inner, stable dispositions to account for obedience and its variations. A prime example of the latter is the personality construct of authoritarianism, which consists of a number of interrelated elements, including a powerful propensity to obey authority (Adorno et al. 1950, Altemeyer 1988).

2. The Contribution Of Stanley Milgram

The most important social-psychological contribution to understanding obedience was that of Milgram (1963, 1974). Although his aim was to study destructive obedience, his findings and insights are readily applicable to more mundane and benign forms of obedience. Milgram conducted a series of laboratory experiments at Yale University from July 1961 to May 1962 to answer the following question: If one person orders another to harm a third person, under what conditions would the second obey the first person’s orders and under what conditions would he or she defy them? In his experiments, subjects who had been recruited for a study of memory and learning were instructed to give what appeared to be increasingly dangerous shocks to a learner every time he made a mistake on a word-matching task. The subjects delivered the shocks by pressing one of 30 switches arranged horizontally along the front panel of a box-shaped ‘shock-generator.’ Each subsequent switch was labeled with higher and higher voltages of shock, in 15-volt steps, beginning with 15 volts for the first switch and ending with 450 volts for the last one. The rule was that the subject teacher had to increase the shock level one switch at a time each time the learner made an error. In some of the conditions, as shock levels became more intense and painful, the learner responded with shrieks and complaints of increasing urgency and demanded that the experimenter terminate the experiment. After a certain point, the learner became silent, suggesting the possibility that he may have passed out.

The main finding was an unexpectedly high degree of obedience. As many as 65 percent of the subjects, ordinary residents of New Haven and Bridgeport, Connecticut, were fully obedient, that is, continued administering what they were led to believe were increasingly painful and dangerous shocks until the 450-volt maximum in response to the experimental authority’s orders. In actuality, the shocks were not real and the learner was a confederate who made errors according to a pre-arranged schedule. Some of Milgram’s additional findings were: Obedience declined as the distance between teacher and learner was reduced and when the distance between the experimenter and subject was increased; obedience increased when the subject was only indirectly involved in punishing the learner, that is, he read the wordlist, but someone else pressed the switch; the subject’s obedience rate diminished drastically after seeing two of his peers refuse to continue and thereby providing models of disobedience; and men and women were equally obedient, although the latter reported experiencing greater tension. Milgram believed that such extreme obedience to potentially destructive commands is made possible by the acceptance of the authority’s definition of the situation and by the subject’s entry into an ‘agentic state,’ a mental state whose central feature is the relinquishing of responsibility to the person in charge. According to Milgram, his experimenter represented a legitimate authority, a person who is seen as having the right to issue orders and as someone whom we feel an obligation to obey.

If the legitimacy of an authority is seen to be of prime importance in enabling him or her to be a powerful source of influence, a logical question is: How do authorities create and maintain their legitimacy? Recent research by Tyler (1997) has addressed this question. He distinguishes between two approaches that suggest why people see authorities as legitimate, and, hence, feel an obligation to obey them: an instrumental model and a relational model. According to the first approach, a prime determinant of peoples’ acceptance of the legitimacy of a leader is whether they are seen as a source of benefits or desirable outcomes. According to the second approach, it is the nature of the treatment people receive from authorities—in particular the integrity and caring that mark their actions—that will determine their perceived legitimacy. Tyler finds that, although both instrumental and relational factors have an influence, the latter is the more dominant factor in judgments of an authority’s legitimacy.

3. Other Social-Psychological Approaches

According to French and Raven (1959) and Raven (1999), a person’s authority or power to influence others can derive from other factors besides from his or her legitimacy. Specifically, according to these authors, social power can derive from six different bases. Besides legitimate power, they are: reward, coercive, expert, referent, and informational power. When an authority or persuader has reward power, people obey or yield because they see the former as a potential source of rewards. Coercive power is operating when people yield out of fear of punishment. Persons are said to possess expert power when others go along with their wishes because of their expertise or special knowledge. An authority or influencer is said to have referent power when people acquiesce to his or her commands or wishes because they like or identify with him or her. And finally, an authority or other source is wielding informational power when people obey or are influenced because they find the information provided by that person to be intrinsically convincing or compelling.

According to Kelman (1973), there are three social processes that help weaken the normal human reticence against inflicting harm on another and thereby facilitate people’s obedience to destructive orders: authorization, routinization, and dehumanization. Through authorization, individuals are relieved of the necessity of assessing the morality of the actions they are directed to carry out. When an action is authorized, the usual moral considerations fade into the background, and the individual no longer feels responsible for his or her actions, nor any guilt, should those actions be harmful. Routinization—the absorption of the individual in the mechanical and routine details that are necessary for carrying out the authorized actions—minimizes the possibility that he will worry about its consequences. Dehumanization—viewing the target of one’s harmful actions as less than human—further insures that the morality of the commands issued by an authority will not be questioned.

Going beyond obedience in authority–subordinate relationships between individuals, Kelman and Hamilton (1989) analyzed the effects of political authority—the nation–state and its various institutions—on the individual citizen. A central feature of their analysis is a threefold distinction among people’s broad orientations to political authority—rule, role, and value orientations—that they see as potential mediators of the nature of citizens’ responses to morally questionable policies or destructive orders, as the following quote indicates:

For the rule-oriented, moral principles are largely irrelevant both to the actions of the citizen in an authority context and to the actions of the state in pursuit of its primary purposes: ensuring public order and national security. This view has a cynical overtone. The state cannot afford the luxury of concerning itself with higher principles, and individuals can be expected to do only what they must in order to stay out of trouble. For the role-oriented, special moral principles apply to the citizen in relation to the state as well as to the state itself. The morality of obedience—the obligation to obey and support the government—at the level of the individual citizen and the duty to pursue the national interest at the level of the state both override standard moral considerations. Finally, for the value oriented, principles of personal morality continue to govern the behavior of individuals as citizens, and adherence to moral principles is fundamental to the legitimacy of state action. Actions by and on behalf of the state may not always conform precisely to the expectations that govern personal relations, but they have to be chosen and evaluated with reference to standard moral principles (Kelman and Hamilton 1989).

4. A Contemporary Problem: Harmful Obedience In The Workplace

An important implication that Milgram (1974) had drawn from his research was about the potential dangers inherent in organizational behavior: When an individual ‘merges … into an organizational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of humane inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority.’ This observation about the evaporation of individual responsibility in hierarchical organizations anticipated the kinds of tragedies that later resulted from car manufacturers’ employees’ readiness to carry out their bosses’ directives to produce unsafe automobiles, and the tobacco companies’ employees’ acquiescence to policies aimed at deceiving the public.

A current emphasis in research on obedience to authority is the systematic study of this ‘darker side’ to behavior within hierarchical organizations such as businesses and companies. Thus, for example, Hamilton and Sanders (1995), in a cross-cultural study, examined the factors that would affect judgments about a subordinate’s responsibility when his company’s actions could result in physical harm to the public. Brief et al. (2000) showed that, when a company president’s orders not to hire minority group members was accompanied by a business justification —‘Our organization attempts to match the characteristics of our representatives with the characteristics of the population to which they will be assigned’— subordinates were more likely to discriminate against Black job candidates than when no such justification was provided.

5. The Pervasiveness Of Obedience To Authority

Obedience to authority would seem to be one of the universals of social behavior, transcending both time and place, as suggested by two quantitative analyses. One analysis, using the findings of Milgram’s standard conditions and those of all the replications conducted by others, correlated the amount of obedience found in each study with its year of publication and found absolutely no relationship between the two variables (Blass 2000). Another analysis (Blass 1998), also involving Milgram’s standard conditions and their replications, reveals that the average obedience rate found in US studies (61 percent) was very similar to the average rate of obedience obtained in replications carried out in other countries (66 percent). As Milgram once wrote:

We do not observe compliance to authority merely because it is a transient cultural or historical phenomenon, but because it flows from the logical necessities of social organization. If we are to have social life in any organized form—that is to say if we are to have society—then we must have members of society amenable to organizational imperatives (letter to Professor Alan Elms, Sept 25, 1973; The Stanley Milgram Papers, Yale University Archives).

6. Future Directions

Recently, there has been a discernible shift in emphasis away from obedience toward defiance—both as a focus of research (e.g., Modigliani and Rochat 1995, Rochat and Modigliani 2000) and in the implementation of changes in the workplace that facilitate employees’ disobedience of illegitimate or destructive orders from their superiors, such as the creation of hot lines and the placement of ombudsmen. In the future, one can expect a substantive increase in these kinds of developments.


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  2. Altemeyer B 1988 Enemies of Freedom: Understanding Rightwing Authoritarianism. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
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