It is absolutely essential that you read this blog post.



Obedience is a funny thing. Some of you will read this blog post because it caught your interest, others will ignore it, and some will read it just because the title told you to (I’m sure plenty of you psychology students/graduates are reading it because they recognise the header image…). But why do we obey orders? And why do some of us rebel against orders? Obedience is relevant to our every day lives – we obey our parents, our teachers, our bosses, members of the emergency services such as policeman and fireman. Even bigger than that, there have been events in recent years where respectable soldiers have been found guilty of committing war crimes just because they were told to…

Focusing on the social psychology side of the process of obedience, this blog post is going to look at what obedience to authority means, the history of the psychological study of it and how it explains a lot of our behaviour. First, let’s look at the psychologican definitions of the topics we’ll be looking at throughout this post.

Obedience: A form of social influence where an individual responds to an order from another individual, who is usually an authority figure. When it comes to obeying an individual, it is assumed that without the order the individual would not have behaved in such a way.
Conformity: Conformity occurs through social pressure, where the majority of people are doing one such thing, that thing becomes the norm.
Authority: A person in authority has power over others, and has the capacity to influence individuals either directly or indirectly. It involves a hierachy of power; an individual with authority has a higher status or more power than the individual he/she is giving orders to (the individual who is obeying)

From 1939-1945 Hitler reigned over Germany, and world war II occured. Within this war, hundreds of German soldiers executed thousands of jews by way of the gas chambers and concentration camps. There is reason to believe that these hundreds of German soldiers would not have done so unless they were ordered to –  at the Nuremberg War Criminal trials, those accused based their defense upon “obedience” – that they were just following orders from their superiors.

In 1961 Stanley Milgram took it upon himself to look at this. He not only wanted to look at how obedience to authority works, but he was influenced by the happenings of WW2 and wanted to know if the Germans were different to everyone else and whether it was due to their German nature or the human nature of obedience to authority as to why they slaughtered jews in their thousands.  He advertised for participants in a newspaper, and said he required them for a study of learning at Yale University.

The procedure involved a “learner” being taken into a room and having electrodes attached to his arms. The participants did not know this at the time, but the learner was an actor, and a confederate, who was part of the experiment. The participants, aka the “teachers”, had the job of going into the room next door with an experimenter, asking the learner questions, and giving the learner an electric shock each time they got an answer incorrect – also unknown to the participants, the electric shocks were not administered but the learner instead acted as though he had been shocked.

If the participant refused to administer a shock, they were verbally prompted by the experimenter with prompts such as “you have no choice but to continue”, “it is absolutely essential that you continue”, and “the experiment requires you to continue.”

Each time the learner got an answer wrong, the voltage of their ‘shock’ increased, going from 15 volts all the way up to 450volts. It was scripted that at 350 volts the learner would start complaining of pain, and at 400 volts they would fall silent.

The results are actually quite shocking. 100% of the participants continued to ‘shock’ the learner up to 300 volts. A whopping 65% continued up to the highest level of 450 volts – at least two thirds of participants continued shocking the learner after they had fallen silent.

Milgram concluded that normal, ordinary people, are pretty likely to follow orders form someone who appears to be an authority figure, and this can go as far as killing a person. Despite the participants possibly (hopefully) having morals that are against them harming other people, authority overuled this in the majority of cases and caused them to inflict pain on someone that could induce death. All of the participants were given a long debrief after the experiment, and were checked on a year later – sadly, this experiment displayed to at least 65% of people that they are capable of murdering someone making it highly unethical to repeat. Two people were so shocked at their actions and under so much stress they actually had mild seizures. However, despite it not being easy to obey such immoral and harmful orders, it’s still important to remember that 65% of participants did.

Milgram’s study certainly showed how powerful the social influence of obedience can be, however it did fail to look at the individual differences – despite 100% of participants shocking the learner up to 300 volts, why did the other 35% of people not obey the experimenter all the way up to 450 volts? Is it someones personality that allows them to disobey easier than others? Do some people have stronger morals than others, allowing them to rebel against authority?

Milgram used his Agency Theory to help explain the behaviour of his participants and people in the general population. He believed that people have two states of behaviour when they are in a social situation, and individual differences can be explained by people switching between these states dependent on their personality and their morals:

Autonomous state: If people are in this state, they are in control of their own actions and take responsibility for their actions and the result of them.
Agentic state: When in this state, people see themselves as the agents of others. They are able to direct the respinsiblity of their actions to the person giving them the orders – they do not have to worry about the consequences of their actions because that is someone elses doing.

Therefore, those participants who refused to continue were in a more autonomous state than those who continued. This is also reflected in a variation of Milgram’s study, where the participants could instruct an assistant to press the switch in order to shock someone. The participants in this study felt less personal responsibility, as someone else is physically pressing the switch, and the rate of obedience when shocking to the maximum 450volts increased to an unbelievable 92.5% of participants. Furthermore, when an authority figure was not physically present and instead was instructing the participant over the phone to shock a learner the obedience fell to 20.5%, as it was easier to remain in an autonomous state rather than switch to an agentic one.

Another famous study on obedience is Hofling’s hospital experiment. Within the hospital setting in real life there is a hierachy, and nurses tend to be below Doctors on that hierachy – they have less power to influence change and decisions and cannot prescribe medication.

Hofling wanted to set up an experiment in order to look at the relationship between nurses and doctors and to look a the obedience levels between the two, so he set up a naturalistic study which involved nurses who were unaware that they were part of a study.

In the study, the nurses were phoned by a “Dr. Smith”, who was just a stooge, and was asked to administer “20mg of the drug astroten to a patient called Mr Jones.” Dr Smith told the nurses that he was in a hurry and would sign the authorisation forms when he came to the hospital later on. When nurses checked the mediciine cabinet, they should have seen that the “astroten” had a maximum dosage of 10mg. Therefore, if they obeyed the doctor not only would they be doubling the maximum limit stated on the dosage box, but would be accepting instructions over the phone which is against hospital rules, and also administering medication without the appropriate forms completed.

This study is a more realistic one than Milgram’s. There are more likely to be occurences where this situation would happen than being asked to give electric shocks to someone. Also, the nurses had no idea that they were part of a study at all, so to them it was a normal night shift at work and just another Doctor telling them what to do.

The results? A scary 95% of nurses complied with the doctors orders and went to administer the drug that was a) double the maximum drug dosage allowance and b) actually not an authorised medicine for the hospital. Many of the nurses, once they were debriefed, said that they had not even noticed the dosage was above the maximum allowance, and those nurses that had noticed said they just assumed it would be safe because they were ordered by a doctor.

Hofling’s study demonstrated that people are unwilling to question authority, despite that authority being both morally and legally wrong, and despite the possibility of harming someone else and losing their job over the situation. The study can also be reflected on modern day hospitals, and how corrupt doctors can easily order nurses and get them to carry out their wrong-doing. It is quite scary, considering when working in a hospital the responsibility does fall back to the doctor, but nurses and other staff still have to live with the guilt and the investigation if something goes wrong.

As interesting and as shocking as these results may be, let’s just take a step back for a moment and evaluate the validity of these results and how they reflect upon the real world.

Milgram’s study was an experiment; it was set up by experimenters and the participants knew they were being used for an experiment (they did not correctly know what the experiment was about, but they knew it was an experiment all the same.) The environment was strategically set up for Milgram’s study, and there was a script that was followed. Furthermore, it is very unlikely in real life that someone would be ordered to electrically shock a stranger, so these results cannot be generalised to the general population and day-to-day situations of normal people. This makes it not very ecologically valid – the results do not reflect how things occur in the real world.

Contrasting this, Hofling’s study was a field study. It was still an experiment set up for the purpose of collecting results, but the participants were totally unaware that they were being experimented on. So whilst this has downsides as the participants were unable to consent to being used for a study, it increases the ecological validity as the behaviour of the nurses was more likely to be natural than that of the participants of Milgram’s study. The nurses were also in their natural habitat, and receiving orders from a Doctor is part of their job, so the ecological validity was high. However, it still was an experiment, and part of the experiment was scripted (the phone call from the “Doctor”). Whilst it was a real-life event for the nurses involved, it is one that tests the theory of obedience rather than naturally gives evidence for it.

Something that can give evidence for the theories of obedience and authority, and does not need to be set up, is an event that so happens to reflect what psychologists outline in their theories. The best example of this in relation to obedience and authority within social psychology is the case of prison abuse that occurred to prisoners of war in Abu Ghraib, 2004.

American soldiers tortured, starved, sexually abused and tormented prisoners of war in the prison camp in Abu Ghraib during the Iraqi war. They took pictures of themselves doing this, and these horrific pictures were leaked to the media – many prisoners were naked with their limbs tied behind their back, some were smeared in faeces, others had bags over their heads, many were placed in sexualised positions and the majority of the American soldiers were smiling in these pictures with their thumbs up. It only took one American soldier to be the so-called “whistle-blower” in the camp and to get the pictures to the media, and for the American soldiers involved to face the consequences of their actions.

By using Milgram’s Agency theory we can analyse the behaviour of some of these soldiers. Many soldiers who were on trial for these events reported that they were following orders from above – sound familiar? Seems to me that these soldiers could have been following orders in a hierarchical fashion similar to that in Hofling’s study. It has been reported that there were no set rules and regulations for the keeping of these prisoners, and they were told to “soften the prisoners up” for interrogation. When there are no set rules, things become inconsistent and interpretable, and once one individual interprets it the wrong way but becomes the ringleader, then others will follow in their agentic state. In this case it was reported that the soldier Charles Grener appeared to be this individual. He was described by Joe Darby, who you will find out about in a second, as dark and sadistic.

However, one soldier remained in an autonomous state. Joe Darby came across the pictures of the torture and abuse happening within the prison, and instead of joining his fellow brothers-in-arms, he was the whistle blower and released the images to the press. Why exactly? Perhaps it was his personality that made him stronger than the others, perhaps his morals were too also stronger and despite being in a situation that some of us cannot even comprehend, he stuck to his beliefs and knew that this torture was wrong. Whatever the reason, in this case his autonomy allowed the truth to surface and the soldiers to face the consequences of their war crimes.

This horrific case can also be explained well by using one of my favourite (but probably the most corrupt and ethically immoral) studies in social psychology – Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment (1971). Despite all of it’s flaws, and the way it has been picked apart since it’s publishing, it is still a very good example of a psychological study that probably foresees and explains any abuse that occurs in prison or prison-related environments. The similarities between this study and the events at Abu Ghraib are pretty obvious.

Zimbardo was a social psychologist and this study has been used to look at the psychology of evil, the psychology of group behaviour and also of conformity. His book based on the study is called “The Lucifer Effect” if anyone wants to take a look, it’s quite a good read. He wanted to see what would happen when you take ordinary men and split them into prisoners and prison guards within a prison environment. To give you a simple taste and overview on how the experiment ran, get this – the experiment was meant to run for two weeks, however Zimbardo himself had to stop the experiment after 6 days due to the brutality of the guards and the suffering of the prisoners. Zimbardo himself has said since that he probably should not have even let the experiment run on for that long, however even he was overwhelmed with his new identity as the “prison superintendent”.

The behaviour of the guards was put down to them conforming to their assigned role. Once they were in uniform and ultimately had control of the prisoners, the feeling of power and authority overwhelmed them. Furthermore, guards have always been viewed by society as big, strong, powerful, burly blokes. Prisoners are viewed as scary, dangerous individuals. On the whole, prison guards are seen to be the ones protecting society from these individuals. Therefore, these normal people who were assigned the role of the guards wanted to be seen like this too as that’s how they believe prison guards to be. So even with no real, professional, trained prison guard present, they conformed to the behaviour they believed to be right to fit the role they were in. Realistically, however, with no training they had no clue what they were doing and they went over the top and the power went straight to their heads. Finally, if one guard was to behave in a certain way and everyone else was to follow it can be seen as them being in an agentic state. Zimbardo said that since the guards could not control their behaviour, they could not be blamed for their actions.

Similar to the case of Abu Ghraib, don’t you think? Some of the soldiers were “let off the hook” because of the environment they were in, and the orders they “had to” follow.

So, just to summarise;

  • Milgram’s study looked into how individuals would obey when ordered to carry out tasks by an authority figure, and in this case the ‘task’ was as horrific as electrocuting someone. 65% of individuals gave the maximum voltage of shocks just because they were told to.
  • Hofling’s study looked at obedience within a hierarchal relationship and showed that nurses are willing to break rules in order to follow the orders of a doctor due to their authority and the trust they have with the doctors.
  • Zimbardo’s study showed that when individuals are given the allowance to have power over people they use that authority in possibly vicious ways due to the new hierarchy, despite going into the situation as equals. It raises questions as to what creates evil within a person.
  • The events at Abu Ghraib display just exactly how authority and obedience to this authority can play out in real life events, and lead to scenes of sexual abuse and torture within a war setting.

Moral of the story? Stick to your morals. Be the Joe Darby of the group and be the whistle blower. Don’t electrocute people if someone tells you to, nurses please don’t follow orders from a doctor over the phone, and soldiers and guards please don’t torture your prisoners. Yes, you may well be in an agentic state, but the evidence of the existence of autonomy can be held against you. Keep a hold of your autonomous state and do what you want and not what you’re told to do, particularly in morally conflicting situations…unless it’s my Mum, then do what you’re told cause she can be damn scary when she’s not obeyed.

Check back for more academic posts, and feel free to comment anything you wish for me to look into to write a blog post about! Thanks for reading 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s