Social Psychology

Student Learning Program

Chapter 10: The norm of obedience: Submitting to authority (pp. 369379)

Ask Yourself?

In this topic

  1. Milgram's Studies of Obedience (pp. 370371)
  2. Attempting to Explain Obedience: Was it the Time, the Place, the People? (pp. 371372)
    1. Obedience in the workplace
  3. The Norm of Obedience to Authority (pp. 373378)
    1. Authority must be legitimate
    2. Authority must accept responsibility
    3. The norm of obedience must be accessible
    4. Incompatible norms must be suppressed
    5. Maintaining and escalating obedience
  4. Normative Trade-Offs: The Pluses and Minuses of Obedience (pp. 378379)
Milgram's Studies of Obedience

In one of the best-known experiments in psychology, people obeyed orders to deliver shocks to an unwilling and clearly suffering victim. They obeyed these orders even though they were not forced to do so (Milgram, 1963) (SP pp. 370371).

Attempting to Explain Obedience: Was it the Time, the Place, the People?

The destructive obedience of Milgram's participants was not due to personality defects, hardhearted unconcern about the victim, or suspicion that the experiment was rigged.

Recent studies show the same results (Askenasy, 1978; Blass, 2000) (SP pp. 371372).

Obedience in the workplace

Many recent studies indicate that "organizational obedience" (obedience that occurs in hierarchical bureaucratic organizations) may occur at even higher levels than suggested by Milgram's studies.

Case study: Abu Ghraib

The Norm of Obedience to Authority

The norm of obedience to authority is the shared view that people should obey commands given by a person with legitimate authority.

Authority must be legitimate

To achieve obedience, an authority must convey that he or she is the person who should be obeyed (e.g., by wearing a uniform).

Authority must accept responsibility

When all responsibility is ceded to the authority, people enter the agentic state: They see themselves as merely the agent of the authority figure.

Individuals differ in the extent to which they abdicate responsibility when faced with orders from an authority figure.

The norm of obedience must be accessible

The more obvious the authority figure in Milgram's experiments, the more likely the norm is to be accessible, and the more likely people are to obey.

Incompatible norms must be suppressed

If alternative norms are more accessible, obedience drops.

Physically distancing oneself and blaming the victim are ways to suppress other norms that are incompatible with obedience.

Maintaining and escalating obedience

Dissonance processes help to maintain obedience once it occurs.

The gradual escalation of obedience reinforces the legitimacy of the authority.

Normative Trade-Offs: The Pluses and Minuses of Obedience

The obligation to obey authority figures can be used for good or evil purposes.

So what does this mean?

In Milgram's studies, people obeyed instructions to deliver shocks to a suffering victim even though they were not forced to do so. The same results are found in recent studies (e.g., obedience in the workplace). Increasing the accessibility of the obedience norm, decreasing attention to other norms, a legitimate authority, and an authority that accepts responsibility, all increase obedience. Dissonance processes help to maintain and escalate obedience.

Next topic

Rebellion and resistance: Fighting back

In this chapter

  1. Chapter 10 introduction
  2. Norms: Effective guides for social behavior
  3. The norm of reciprocity: Treating others as they treat you
  4. The norm of commitment: Keeping your promises
  5. The norm of obedience: Submitting to authority
  6. Rebellion and resistance: Fighting back
  7. Putting it all together: Multiple guides for behavior
  8. Chapter overview (PDF)
  9. Fill-in-the-blanks
  10. Multiple-choice questions