The Psychology of Obedience

The psychology of obedience

The psychology of obedience is one which has been studied extensively by psychologists since the end of world war two. The revelation of the horrors of concentration camps induced many to gain a greater understanding of the reasons why people obey, even the most terrible commands.

The trial of Adolf Eichmann (directly responsible for the logistics of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’) shocked many. Beyond the ‘evil’ acts these men were far from ‘monsters’ but appeared as soft-spoken, mild mannered, polite individuals.

They claimed they were simply following orders

Milgram (1974, 1992) set out to examine whether there was something obedient about German culture. He was not satisfied with the explanation offered by Ashe’s experiment and needed a control group to get a base rate. He never followed through with his original study as the outcome of the control study became the basis of his research.

Milgram (1963) Assumptions:
  • People are socialised to respect the authority of the state
  • If we enter an ‘agentic state’ we absolve ourselves of any responsibility for what happens.

Participants in study:

  • Respondent to ad in newspaper
  • 20-50 year old males
  • Not attending university
  • Range of socioeconomic levels
  • One study included women (results the same as the men)
  • Study on the effects of punishment on learning
  • Arrived in pairs
  • The learning (a confederate, part of the experiment)
  • The teacher (the subject of the experiment
  • Meet by
  • The experimenter (man in lab coat – symbol of authority)

Teacher saw learner strapped to the chair and electrode paste and electrode attached (heard the experimenter say the paste was to prevent burns and blisters). Also heard the learner say he has a mild heart condition.

  • Teacher taken into room with the shock generator
  • Instructions:
    • To administer progressively larger shocks every time the learner makes a mistake (15v for the 1st, 30 v for the next, and so on)
    • Teacher given sample shock of 45 v (this is the only real shock given during the experiment)
  • (Note the labels – up to xxx)

Obedience Milgram

  • Learner would give some correct and some incorrect pairings
  • All responses of the learner were playbacks of recorded responses
  • The teacher was agitated throughout, and would ask for breaks
  • Experimenter responded with an order sequence of replies from mild to more direct replies:

­ ‘please continue’
­ ‘the experiment requires that you continue’

­ ‘it is absolutely essential that you continue’
­ ‘you have no other choice, you must go on’

  • 110 ‘experts’ (including 39 psychiatrists) on human behaviour asked to predict how far a ‘normal’ person would go
  • Predicted the only 10% would exceed 180 V and no one would obey to the end

In a slightly modified experiment (could not see or hear learn, he could pound on the wall) almost everyone continued to 255 V and 65% until the end.

obedience milgram

  • Once committed people will continue even if the cost increases (Fox & Hoffman, 2002)
  • Foot-in-the-door technique
  • Immediacy effect:
    • Less likely to give shock if seen the victim, therefore immediacy may help prevent dehumanisation of the victim
    • The presence increases the likelihood of developing empathy
    • Pregnant women report greater commitment to their pregnancy after seeing a scan with body images ( Lydon & Dunkel-Schetter, 1994)
    • Easier to press a button and wipe out a whole village if distance from victim
    • Use of drones in war?
  • Proximity/immediacy of the authority figure
  • Reduced to 20.5% if the experimenter was not in the room and instructions via phone
  • Group pressure
    • Presence of others who disobeyed reduced this to10%
  •  Legitimacy of the authority figure
    • Initial experiment the experimenter wore a lab coat
  • Moved to a run-down inner-city office
  • Obedience dropped but only to 48%
Bushman (1984, 1988)
  • Confederate dressed either in a uniform or shabby outfit
  • Stood next to a person fumbling for change for a parking meter
  • Stopped people passing by and ‘ordered’ them to give the person change for the meter
    • Uniform – 70% obeyed (reasons given: told to)
    • Shabby – 50% obeyed (reasons given: altruistic behvaiour)

obedience milgramBy Country:

obedience milgram


People tend to obey orders without thinking about:

  1. What they are being asked to do
  2. The consequences for other people
  • But obedience has an important social use
  • Such as workplace flights, hospitals, army
  • Yet even then blind obedience can be dangerous
  • Lesar, Briceland & Stien (1977) found that many medical errors can be attributed to nurses deferring to doctors, even when they have concerns.
  • Remoteness of the victim and emotional distance
  • Closeness and legitimacy of the authority figure
  • Diffusion of responsibility: obedience increases when someone else does the dirty work
  • Institutional authority
  • The liberating effects of group influences
  • No personal characteristics

Ecological validity

While some studies had provided support in real life,such as Sabini (1983) who found that when 56% of people asked for their seat on the tube gave it up. However, does it really explain something like the ‘final solution’ and those who carried it out?

The importance of the situation and the context

Yet we continue to speak about the ‘person’ and fail to really examine the situation and the context that makes blind obedience more likely.

Diffusion of responsibility

A key question asked by many participants concerned responsibility. Either explicit or implicit removal of personal responsibility played a key role.

Taught to obey

From childhood we learn the importance of ‘doing what we are told’, therefore it should not be a surprise than people will obey. More so if they think the person is in a position of authority.


Empathy clearly plays a role, as does distance but what about other emotions, fear, concern of consequences, ability to identify and relate to the other.

This is a fascinating topic, one which we could continue writing much more about. But we hope this information is interesting to you whether you are a student or just interested in learning more about the theory of psychology.

Read more here about The Milgram Experiment

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