Obedience is doing what we are told by people who are in a position of authority over us. In most cases people who have authority over us have been placed there legitimately and their orders are rational. History shows us, however, that there are many cases in which people obey orders even when the authority figure is exploiting his position and the order he gives may lead to harm and disaster. Psychologists have conducted experiments to see why this is so.

Milgram (1963) conducted a now very famous experiment in which it was his aim to see how many people were willing to follow an irrational order. In this experiment participants were told that they were involved in a learning and memory trial and were asked to apply an electric shock to the learner each time he failed to remember a pair of words correctly. With each incorrect response a higher level of voltage was applied and the learner’s response to the pain could be heard. What these participants didn’t know is that the learners were actors and the screams of pain they could hear were only recordings.

    • The results: It was anticipated that many of the participants would refuse to cooperate if they knew that the ‘learner’ was experiencing a lot of pain. In reality though, all forty participants delivered 300 volts and 65 per cent applied 450 volts, even in cases where the recording indicated that the learner was having a seizure.
    • Conclusions and limitations:Milgram had no choice but to conclude that people are willing to obey extreme orders if the person giving them holds a position of authority. It has been suggested, however, that some of the participants may have known that the shocks weren’t real, although the evidence would suggest otherwise. The experiment has also been criticised for lacking ecological validity

Why are people so obedient?

A number of explanations for people’s obedience have been put forward. They include the following:

    • Incremental commitment – This means that people who have agreed to do something they don’t like are easier to persuade to do something else more extreme against their will, and so on. In Milgram’s experiment participants were encouraged to give ever bigger shocks.
    • Real authority – If someone with real authority tells you to do something, you are perhaps more likely to be convinced that what they are telling you to do is legitimate.
    • Socialisation – From the moment we are born we are taught to obey our elders, our parents and our teachers. It is difficult to break a habit of a lifetime.
    • Absence of responsibility – If someone tells us to do something, especially if they are in a position of responsibility, we may feel that the consequences are not our responsibility.
    • Removed from consequences – If people can’t see the consequences of their actions, or are removed from them, they may perhaps be less inhibited about carrying them out. Pilots who drop bombs, for example, do not see the suffering these weapons cause at close range.