Social Psychology:
The Controversy of Obedience

By: Guari Sarda-Joshi, PhD Candidate

As children, we are taught that our ‘being good’ is contingent on listening to elders and obeying instructions. Obedience may be described as a ‘willingness to agree with the directions of an individual with authority’ [1]. Under most circumstances, this obedience helps a child learn academic information, develop personal rules and understand social norms. It also keeps the child safe when he/she obeys instructions about things like crossing the road and touching electrical appliances. Over time, the child learns to follow social norms, and behave in a socially acceptable way that enables them to contribute to an ordered and productive society [2].

So is it a good thing?

Obedience allows people to develop functional responses to social situations. It helps maintain productive workplaces, be a part of a family and other social units, allows participation in sporting and cultural activities and enables them to provide pro-social responses to problems [3]. This makes obedience an important trait to develop and cherish. But while on the whole Obedience is a valuable trait, there are conditions in which it is less than ideal to be obedient. Crime rings and dictatorships provide examples of how people commit atrocious crimes against other humans and nature simply because ‘they have been told to’. Historical instances of ethnic cleansing like the holocaust also demonstrate the horrific results of people ‘just following orders’ [3]. Such obedience reduces the opportunity to use personal agency, and people often act against their wishes and better judgment. It is thus called destructive obedience.

Describing destructive obedience

Two of the most famous experiments that demonstrated the concerns associated with obedience were conducted by Milgram in the 1960’s and Zimbardo in 1971. In Milgram’s studies, people were asked to ‘help experimenters understand how punishment affected learning’ by providing electric shocks to individuals who made mistakes in a learning task. While in reality no actual shocks were given to the learner (who was also an experimenter), the participant was made to believe that they were giving shocks of progressively higher voltage. Some participants could see who they were punishing, while others had no direct contact. Over a series of studies, Milgram found that a staggeringly high percentage of participants continued to punish the ‘learner’ even though they personally were distressed by what they were doing. Later research demonstrates that people exhibit similar levels of obedience across genders, different cultures and experimental and real world conditions [4, 5]. A model of behavior developed to explain such forms of destructive obedience was also found to explain the behavior of Nazi soldiers who killed large numbers of Jews in an attempt to follow orders [6].

Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment seems to offer an explanation for why people sometimes behave in this manner. In this experiment, a group of mentally healthy students were divided into two groups and assigned to the roles of guards and prisoners in an experiment that ran for a week. Students playing guards had power to discipline the students playing prisoners; and the researcher observed that both groups obeyed instructions and stuck to their roles even when the situation became stressful and involved violent confrontations between groups. It was proposed that if an individual chooses to commit to a course of action, they then find it difficult to decide when to stop, and allow the situation to continue even though they feel distressed about it [7].

Both personality and situational characteristics affect the way people will behave when commanded to do something they are not comfortable with. Destructive obedience is usually seen in rapidly developing situations. People with authoritarian personalities are more likely to be obedient to authority, particularly when their task involves commanding subordinates [1, 8]. People seem to obey even nominal authority, particularly in low cost situations. Also, when people are able to justify their actions by focusing on the need for obedience, or feel that they are not responsible for their behavior (because they have been commanded by an authority figure) they are more likely to engage in destructive obedience. Finally, lesser contact with the person being punished increases the chance of obedience [8].

Reducing destructive obedience

Such destructive obedience is rarely useful; and researchers have tried to find ways to reduce its occurrence. Empirical evidence suggests that there are factors that challenge the need to obey. Some of them are:

  • Reducing proximity of the authority figure: Milgarm’s research and others since have found that distance from the person commanding obedience can reduce the need to obey. People tend to use more personal agency when they are alone, and encouraging distance can help reduce destructive obedience.
  • Questioning their power: People obey someone because they believe that this someone has power over them or the situation without realizing that they have embodied the person with power. Creating circumstances where this power may be questioned can allow people to evaluate the need for obedience [1].
  • Presence of dissenting other / group: People are more likely to obey when alone as they only have social cues encouraging obedience and none against it. When they find themselves in the presence of a dissenting (or even neutral) other, they are less likely to obey against their judgment. Also, obedience becomes less likely with each new other recognized [8]
  • Cues to disobedience: If the individual has been given specific cues to disobedience (“do it only if you feel right” / “you may stop when you want to”), they are likely to use this information to cease obeying. This seems to happen because the individual receives cues that it is acceptable to disobey [1, 4].
  • Increasing information and contact with victim: Destructive obedience is strongly associated with depersonalization of the victim. This means that the victim’s ability to feel, think and act is stripped from them. When contact with the victim increases and information about their experiences becomes available, people are less likely to hurt them [1, 4]. It is important to note that people will use both personal and empirical information, but this information needs to be freely available so that it is received without active effort on part of the dictator [2].


[1] Baron, Robert A. “Social Influence”. In Social Psychology, (12th ed.). Mumbai: Pearson Education, 2009. Pp. 268 – 301.

[2] Bicchieri, Cristina, and Erte Xiao. “Words or deeds? Choosing what to know about others.” Synthese: An International Journal for Epistemology, Methodology and Philosophy of Science 187(1). 2012. Pp. 49.

[3] Baumeister, Roy F. & Bushman Brad J. “Prosocial behaviour: Doing what’s best for others”. In Social Psychology & Human Nature (2nd ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011, pp. 255 – 586.

[4] Hogg, Michael A. “Influence and leadership”. In Fiske, Susan T., Gilbert, Daniel T. & Gardner, Lindzey. Handbook of Social Psychology (2nd ed.). New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2010, pp. 1166 – 1207.

[5] Burger, Jerry, Girgis, Z. & Manning, C. “In their own words: Explaining obedience to authority through an examination of participants’ comments”. Social Psychological and Personality Science 2. 2011. Pp. 460–466

[6] Douglas, Navarick J. “Historical psychology and the Milgram paradigm: tests of an experimentally derived model of defiance using accounts of massacres by Nazi Reserve Police Battalion 101.” The Psychological Record 62(1), 2012. Pp.133.

[7] Bocchiaro, Piero; Zimbardo, P. “Defying unjust authority: An exploratory study”. Current Psychology 29. 2010. Pp. 155–170.

[8] Kassin, Saul M., Fein, Steven & Markus, Hazel Rose. “Conformity” In Social psychology (8th ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2010. Pp. 251 – 292.

Further reading:

Milgram’s experiments:

Zimbardo’s experiment: