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Obedience, or submissive compliance, is the act of obeying orders from others. This differs from compliance, which is behavior influenced by peers. This is in turn different from conformity, which is behavior intended to match that of the majority. The inclination toward obdient behavior has been regarded as a personality trait

Obedience is often associated with social dominance and submission.

Some animals can easily be trained to be obedient by employing operant conditioning that places the human being in the role of a dominant animal. Obedience schools exist to condition dogs into obeying the orders of human owners.

Obedience tranining seems to be particularly effective on social animals, a category which includes human beings. [How to reference and link to summary or text] Other animals do not respond well to such training.

Humans have been shown to be surprisingly obedient in the presence of perceived legitimate authority figures, as demonstrated by the Milgram experiment in the 1960s. Milgram carried out his experiments to discover how the Nazis had managed to get ordinary people to take part in the mass murder of the Holocaust. The experiment showed that compliance to authority was the norm, not the exception. A similar effect was found in the Stanford prison experiment.

Forms of human obedience[]

Forms of human obedience include:

  • obedience to laws
  • obedience to social norms
  • obedience to a God
  • obedience to self-imposed constraints, such as a vow of chastity
  • in patriarchial societies, obedience of a wife or child to their husband or father
  • in feudal societies, obedience of a vassal to their lord
  • in BDSM, obedience to a dominant

Cultural attitudes to obedience[]

Obedience is regarded as a moral virtue in many traditional cultures; historically children have been expected to be obedient to their elders, wives to be obedient to their husbands, slaves to their owners, serfs to be obedient to their lords, lords to their king, and everyone to be submissive to God. Even long after the end of slavery in the United States, the Black Codes required Black people to obey and submit to Whites, on pain of lynching.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

In Christian weddings, obedience was formerly included along with honor and love as part of a conventional bride's (but not the bridegroom's) wedding vow. This came under attack with women's suffrage and the feminist movement. Today its inclusion in the wedding vow has fallen out of favor.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

As the middle classes have gained political power, the power of authority has been progressively eroded, with the introduction of democracy as a major turning point in attitues to obedience and authority.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Since the democides and genocides of the First and Second World War periods, obedience has become regarded as a far less desirable quality in Western cultures. The civil rights and protest movements of the post-War period marked a remarkable reduction in respect for authority in Western cultures, and greater respect for individual ethical judgment as a basis for moral decisions.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Obedience training of human beings[]

Main article: Socialization

Learning obedience to adult rules is a major part of the socialization process in childhood, and many techniques are used by adults to modify the behavior of children.

Main article: Military training

Extensive training is given in armies to make soldiers capable of obeying orders in situations where an untrained person would not be willing to follow orders. Soldiers are initially ordered to do seemingly trivial things, such as picking up the sergeant's hat off the floor, marching in just the right position, or marching and standing in formation. The orders gradually become more demanding, until an order to the soldiers to place themselves into the midst of gunfire gets a knee-jerk obedient response.

Experimental studies of human obedience[]

Obedience has been extensively studied by psychologists since the Second World War -- the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment are the earliest and most commonly cited experimental studies of human obedience. [1] [2]

The first and best known obedience experiments were the Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment, which were used to understand the roles participants would play in different social interactions, and also to understand the influence a dominant persona, or authority figure and to "fill the gap" within a largely spacious body of psychological research. [1][2]

The Milgram experiment[]

Main article: Milgram experiment

The Milgram experiment, first carried out in 1961, was one of the first experiments used to look into the power of authority figures as well as the lengths which participants would go as a result of their influence. [1] Milgram's results showed that, contrary to expectations, a majority of civilian volunteers would obey orders to (apparently) apply electric shocks to another person until they were (apparently) unconscious or dead. Prior to the experiment, most of Milgram's colleagues had predicted that only sadists would be willing to follow the experiment to its conclusion. [3]

In studies which predated the Milgram experiment, very little emphasis was put upon the participants' responses to authority and was more focused upon general fields of human behavior. Despite the fact that there was relatively little work which had been done directly in terms of obedience, there had already been several previous pieces of work done by Milgram himself, which had already shown trends of obedience increase due to to the prestige of the authority figure -- in their case, an undergraduate research assistant posing as a Yale professor whom had a much greater influence someone of lesser status, regardless of prestige of the institution in which the study was based. [1][2]

The Milgram experiment was one of the first experiments used to study the power of authority figures and the extent to which we obey these figures within social situations. [1] Despite the fact that the study showed revealing information, the study was thought to be in breach of newly formed ethics, in which the rule of abdication was removed. [4]

The Stanford prison experiment[]

Main article: Stanford prison experiment

Unlike the Milgram experiment, which studied the obedience of individuals, the 1971 Stanford prison experiment studied the behaviour of people in groups, and in particular the willingness of people to obey orders and adopt abusive roles in a situation where they were placed in the position of being submissive or dominant by a higher authority. In the experiment, a group of volunteers was divided into two groups and placed in a "prison", with one group in the position of playing prison guards, and other group in the position of "prisoners".

In this case, the experimenters acted as authority figures at the start of the experiment, but then delegated responsibility to the "guards", who enthusiatically followed the experimenters' instructions, and in turn assumed the roles of abusive authority figures, eventually going far beyond the experimenters' original instruction in their efforts to dominate and brutalize the "prisoners". At the same time, the prisoners adopted a submissive role with regard to their tormentors, in spite of the knowledge that they were in an experiment, and that their "captors" were other volunteers, with no other authority other than that being role-played in the experiment. The Stanford experiment demonstrated not only obedience (of the "guards" to the experimenters, and the "prisoners" to both the guards and experimenters), but also high levels of compliance and conformity.

Factors affecting obedience[]

Embodiment of prestige or power[]

Russian paratroopers in Kazakhstan

Obedience occurs in several situations; most often referred to is the obedience of soldiers to a superior officer.

When the Milgram experiment was requesting paid volunteers, it unintentionally created an experiment which showed several factors that affected obedience, outside of the experiment itself. When the experiment recruited volunteers, interviews for eligibility were purposely staged in an abandoned complex in Bridgeport, Conneticut. [1][2]

Despite the dilapidated state of the building used for recruitment, the researchers found that the presence of a Yale professor as stipulated in the advertisement affected the number of people who obeyed. This was not further researched to test obedience in the situation without a Yale professor, due to the fact Milgram had not intentionally staged the interviews to discover factors which affected obedience. [1][2]

In the actual experiment itself, prestige or semblance of power was a direct factor in obedience -- particularly the presence of men dressed in gray laboratory coats, which gave the impression of scholarship and achievement and was thought to be the main reason why people complied with administering what would have been a shock causing severe injury. [1]

Raj Persaud, in an article in the BMJ [5], comments on Milgram's attention to detail in his experiment:

"The research was also conducted with amazing verve and subtlety—for example, Milgram ensured that the “experimenter” wear a grey lab coat rather than a white one, precisely because he did not want subjects to think that the “experimenter” was a medical doctor and thereby limit the implications of his findings to the power of physician authority"

Despite the fact that this is often attributed as a factor of its own, it is thought that prestige is merely a sub-set of power as a factor; the embodiment of a Yale professor in a laboratory coat only being an manifestation of the experience and status linked to it and/or the social status afforded by such an image. Nevertheless, despite its definition or categorisation, it is important to understand why prestige is thought to be of a different factor of its own.

Notes and references[]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 Milgram, Stanley. (1963). "Behavioral Study of Obedience".[1] Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67, 371-378.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Bernstein, D. A., Roy, J. E., Srull, K. T., Wickens, C. D (1988) Psychology Houghton Mifflin Company
  3. Introduction to Developmental and Social Cognition, Dr. Asli Niazi, slide presentation, London South Bank University, online at [2]
  4. A transcript of the original Milgram experiment, appearing to be in breach of ethics in regard to abdication at any point within the experiment;
    "Oh no. You mean I've got to keep going up with the scale? ... [The experimenter says "The experiment requires that you continue".]
  5. The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram, Raj Persaud, BMJ 2005;331;356-, doi:10.1136/bmj.331.7512.356 [3]

See also[]

In humans:

In other animals:

References & Bibliography[]

Key texts[]



  • Baumrind, D. (1964) Some thoughts on the ethics of research: after reading Milgram's 'Behavioural study of obedience', American Psychologist 19: 421-3.
  • Kilham, W. and Mann, L. (1974) Level of destructive obedience as a function of transmitter and executant roles in the Milgram obedience paradigm, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 29: 696-702

Shanab, M.E. and Yahya, K.A. (1977) A behavioural study of obedience in children, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 35: 530-6.

  • Sheridan, C.L. and King, K.G. (1972) Obedience to authority with an authentic victim, Proceedings of the 80th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association 7: 165-6.

Additional material[]



External links[]

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