Social Psychology Phenomena: Obedience to Authority

Obedience is a social psychology phenomenon where people willingly do something to obey a certain figure of authority that instructed them to do something that conflicted with their moral sense. People obey those authority figures because they believe that they have lesser intellectual, power, experience or position than that figure. Obedience comes in many different forms, for example obedience to law, obedience to god, obedience to social norms or obedience to spouse or parent. In some situations our obedience is taken for granted and in turn we rarely question our obedience (Wren, 1999).

There are many studies about obedience to authority, each studies experimenting in different situation. The most well known experiment of obedience is the infamous Milgram experiment, because it brings a lot of controversies and some ethics issues. It was the first study of obedience after the World War II, conducted by Stanley Milgram, when he was a psychologist at Yale University on the year of 1961. And he conducted various study about obedience ever since.

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Milgram urge to study obedience on human was trigger by his concern about the Holocaust (Blass, 1998) and the case of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi soldier, whom also known as one of the major organizer of the Hollocaust (Geothals, 2003).

Milgram himself is Jewish, and he wondered how Nazis managed to get ordinary people to do such immoral action, which was mass murder of Holocaust.Eichmann stated that he was a soldier in a system that expected compliance to authority and that he was obeying orders (Martin & Hewstone, 2003).

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Milgram shock people with his findings from the experiment, which was how most of his subjects (65%), average and presumably normal community residents, were willing to give a series of electric shocks to protesting victim plainly just because they were instructed to do so by an authority figure (Blass, 2011).Milgram’s approach was situational in the sense that the external pressures of the moment applied by the authority, rather than internal initiation of action such as hostility or hatred, are seen as the major trigger of the subject’s harsh action (Blass, 1993). The first scene that showing obedience is when Andy Dufresne in the court hearing the judge decisions about his sentenced, and he was sent to the prison for life.

This scene is actually giving a good example of obedience to law, it is inevitably that our life truly controlled by rules and law. In this scene the judge is representing the law and the symbol of authority. Human are not a solitary but function within hierarchal structures (Milgram, 1963). We actually have structures of authority mediated by symbols rather than direct competitions of physical strength (Milgram, 1963). There is a scene where the warden stated all the rules in the prison and Captain Hadley, the captain of guards, scream to one of the prisoner, “You eat when we say you eat! You piss when we say you piss! You shit when we say you shit!” It is very clear at this point that the warden and Captain Hadley shows to the prisoners that they are in the highest place in the hierarchy of the prison. There is a scene where Captain Hadley beaten one prisoner to death because this prisoner was crying and provoke the other prisoners to make noises, afterwards all the other prisoners stop making noises.

The warden and the guards are parts of the Law hierarchy; they were given powers to manage the prison.Captain Hadley felt that he need to discipline the prisoner so he used violence in order to do so. This scene could be reflected in Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), which was conducted by Philip Zimbardo on 1971. Zimbardo has three goals in this experiment, one of them was to generate another test of power social situations over individuals dispositions by stating the authority figure vaguely (1971). From this experiment Zimbardo stated 10 lessons learned from the SPE, few of them can be relate to obedience to authority theory, which give more clear explanation why human can behave beyond morality. Situational powers involve ambiguity of role boundaries and authoritative, it requires validation of playing new roles, following new rules, and taking actions that ordinarily would be constrained by laws, norms, morals, and ethics.

The last scene that showing obedience very clearly is when captain Hadley shot Tommy, one of Dufresne’s close friend and also they key of his innocence. Hadley was ordered by the warden to shot Tommy when he was given a sign, and they try to make as if Tommy was trying to escape the prison. Hadley knows that the Warden set up Tommy, but he believe he was doing the right thing, because he was Warden’s right hand. This same situation happens to Adolf Eichmann, who stated he just following orders and he had nothing against the Jews. Milgram (1961) found out that obedience to authority that experienced by his participants and the Nazi’s soldiers was strongly influenced by the “common psychological process”.

Although Milgram recognized that there are “enormous difference of circumstances and scope” between obedience in his experiment and Nazy Germany. He argues, “a common psychological process is centrally involved in both events”.He believes that this psychological process was a agentic state, in which “the individual no longer views himself as responsible for his own actions but defines himself as an instrument for carrying out the wishes of others” (Milgram, 1974). According to Milgram (1974) this agentic state wasn’t an excuse or alibi and thought that, in actuality, the obedient subject were being honest when believing them to have been mere instruments of a higher authority and them genuinely did not feel responsible for their actions.


The experiments of obedience have been conducted since the 1920’s, and each time the experiment has shocking results. Basically the results carry out the same thing, how people actually obey to some authority figure and done something that actually immoral. It is inevitably that the power of authority to claim people’s obedience is remain strong. Throughout many experiments there are many aspects that has been suggested and proven that cause the obedience to authority.Milgram had examined that the greater the distance with the victim, the greater the obedience. During the development of the Obedience to Authority experiment he suspected that a command of hierarchy of authority figures and subordinates, orders, and group pressure are the important key needed to produce a Holocaust-like event to happen (Russell, 2009).

Milgram also revealed that in ordinary American the potential for behavior comparable to that of the Nazi’s during the Holocaust. Obedience can happen to anyone, as it was mentioned before that we humans are not solitary but function within hierarchal structures. And there always figure that we put above us and obey the rules or orders from the certain authority figure.Usually obedience happen when the subject is trapped into situation whether they can’t escape.

Blass mentioned that Milgram believes that causal explanation for a person’s behavior was to be sought I the immediate, concrete, social situation (1998). The other thing that triggers the obedient behavior is when obedience was given the high value place and when the subjects being indoctrinate by some belief. This was portrayed in the twelve commandments use to indoctrinate Nazi youth “The leader is always right.” And many generations of German children grew up on warning stories, which carries moral that disobedience could lead to rather drastic, violent consequences. Disobedience can be happening if only there is other that questioning the authority.

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Social Psychology Phenomena: Obedience to Authority. (2016, Oct 24). Retrieved from

Social Psychology Phenomena: Obedience to Authority
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