Obedience:  Yes, sir . . . I Was Only Following Orders!

Do you remember the Jonestown massacre?

Among the many details of that horrible event, these are the most bewildering. Dozens of people willingly committed suicide at the urging of their leader, the Reverend Jim Jones. Individuals killed themselves. Husbands and wives killed themselves. Parents and their children killed themselves. And they did because they were told to.

Our first response to such an event is to assume that these people must have been seriously crazy. It is more frightening to consider the possibility that these acts were not driven by madness, but rather by normal human reactions. In this chapter we will try to understand why events like these occur. Our perspective will be based on the concept of obedience.

Obedience Defined

Obedience is defined as receiver compliance to source authority. The classic example is an officer giving orders to a soldier who obeys them. The soldier complies with the officer because the officer has legitimate, organizational power. The compliance does not occur because the soldier likes the officer or necessarily respects the officer’s judgment and expertise. Rather simply, the officer has power and the soldier must obey.

Now, while this example is rather straightforward, it appears to have nothing to do with events like the Jonestown massacre. No one has the power to order another person’s suicide. As strange as it might seem, the research strongly suggests that obedience is a powerful influence tool that has far-reaching implications. In the next section we will look at a set of research studies that demonstrated just how deep and wide obedience runs in people.

Milgram’s Study

We now turn to, perhaps, the most controversial social science study ever done, the obedience studies of Stanley Milgram. Milgram’s research is very simple and easy to understand, but its implications were astonishing when they were first reported and they remain troubling to many to this day. Here’s what Milgram did.

First, he recruited volunteers for a study on learning and memory with ads in local newspapers. He got “just folks” this way, ordinary people, adults. He also did some studies with college students, but it was important that he understand obedience in older people.  Here’s the ad.

When the volunteer showed up for the experiment (which was done in a storefront office in downtown New Haven, Connecticut), he or she was meet by an Experimenter and another waiting research subject (whom we’ll call George). The Experimenter was dressed in a smock lab coat and carried a clipboard as he explained the experiment to the Volunteer and George.

“See,” the Experimenter said, “many people believe that punishment helps people learn better. The classic example is a parent who spanks a child for running into the street. We hurt the child because we believe it will prevent the kid from doing a dangerous thing.

“Well, the Experimenter confessed, “social scientists really do not know if punishment works the way we think. That is, we have no scientific information to claim that punishment does any good or any bad for that matter. The purpose of this experiment is to determine if punishment helps or hinders how well people learn new things.”

At this point the Experimenter explained how the experiment worked and the equipment involved. The task was easy. Either the Volunteer or George would be randomly assigned to be the “teacher.” The other person would then automatically be the “learner.” The teacher would supply the learner with a list that contained pairs of words. For example, the first pair might be, “tree — up,” and the next pair would be, “box — gone,” and so on for twenty or so pairs. The teacher would train the learner in acquiring the pair, such that on a later trial, the teacher would only supply the first word and the learner would respond with the matching word for that pair.

Now, here’s where the punishment part comes in. Every time the learner made a mistake, the teacher punished him. And the punishment came from a machine. Here the Experimenter revealed a piece of equipment that was about the size of a large boom box stereo. On the box was a row of toggle switches and above the switches was a description of the voltage and danger level for each switch. There were twenty switches and the labels above the switches started at LOW and went up to DANGEROUS.

Every time a mistake was made, the teacher would give the learner a shock, then set the toggle for the next highest level of voltage. Thus, the more mistakes the learner made, the larger the shocks would become.

To demonstrate the power of the shocks, the Experimenter attached the lead wire from the shock box to the Volunteer’s hand and gave the Volunteer a shock from the toggle marked, “MILD.”

It hurt.

Now it was time to pick who would be the teacher and who would be the learner. The Volunteer and George looked at each other nervously as the Experimenter had them choose straws from his hand. The Volunteer gulped as he compared his straw to George’s. The Volunteer had the long straw, whew, and was the teacher. George, an older man with thinning hair and a thickening waist, sighed.

The Volunteer and the Experimenter strapped George into his chair and attached the lead wire from the shock box. The Volunteer sat down beside George and began training him in the word pairs. The Experimenter watched carefully making notes on his clipboard.

After the training, the real important part of the experiment was ready to start. All the Volunteer-teacher had to do was provide the first word of the pair, then George was to respond with the correct second word.

“And every time George makes a mistake,” the Volunteer asked, “he gets a shock, right?”

“Correct.” replied the Experimenter.

“Well, how far do we go with the shocks?” the Volunteer asked as he noted the highest levels that said DANGEROUS beside them.

“All the way, of course.” said the Experimenter without even looking up from his clipboard.

Okay, let’s take a break in the action here for a minute. You understand how this experiment works and what is going on. Two people who’ve never met are playing teacher and learner in a study of learning and punishment. An escalating series of painful shocks is supposed to be administered with every error. The teacher knows that even MILD shocks hurt and can only imagine how bad the DANGEROUS ones must be.

I’ll ask you the question that Milgram asked of psychiatrists and random samples of college students and working adults. He described this experiment just like we’ve done here, then he asked, “How far with the shocks will the teacher go?”

Most people predicted that the all “teachers” would quit the experiment after one or two shocks and that most teachers would refuse to give any shocks at all. What do you think?

Milgram ran this basic experiment with some interesting variations. Sometimes, he separated the teacher from the learner. Thus, George would be strapped on the shock box in the next room and the Volunteer would communicate via an intercom. Sometimes, the teacher and the learner were in the same room, but at different desks many feet apart. And sometimes, the Volunteer had to sit right next to George and hold his arm down on a “shock plate” to make sure the shock was administered correctly. (Think about having to hold someone down like that.)

And sometimes as the experiment progressed and the shocks became more intense, George would start complaining about chest pains and his weak heart. He was under a doctor’s care and these shocks were really hurting. Once, when George was in a different room, he started pounding on the wall and hollering for the teacher to stop, to stop, to please stop.

What do you think happened? How many people quit the experiment? How soon did they quit?

Here are some of the outcomes.

First, no matter how close or how far apart George and the Volunteer were, at least 20% of the teachers would go all the way and deliver the highest most dangerous shocks. In fact, when George was in the other room, over 60% of the teachers went all the way and complied fully with the demands of the study. And of the hundreds of people who participated in this study, fewer than ten refused to participate at all. In other words, a significant number of people were compliant to the demands of the authority figure, even if it meant hurting another person.

In sum, then, people demonstrated a surprisingly high degree of compliance. Few teachers refused to participate. Most went much farther than predicted. Many teachers went all the way.

(An important postscript: In case you are worrying about George . . . it was all a set up. George was a confederate who was in on the experiment from the beginning. George simply acted out a script and was always selected as the learner every time. Now, to make the story work, the Volunteer was given a real shock from that shock box, but there was a catch. The shock box was really an empty shell and did not control any voltage. The real shock came from a small, but powerful battery hidden in the shock box. Also, at the end of the experiment, all this deception was explained to the Volunteer.)

Why Are People Obedient?

There are two general reasons for obedience. The first one I will call the “shallow” reason, the second one “deep.” These are not the only explanations for obedience, but they are a good beginning for more discussion.

The shallow reason for obedience is simple: People often do not think about what they are doing. Recall the types of mental states during persuasion. People are either on the central route or the peripheral route. And we know that depending on which state a receiver is in, different variables (arguments and cues) will have very different effects. Finally, we also know that most of the time, most people do not think very thoroughly or carefully about what is going on.

From this perspective, obedience is the path of least thinking and least resistance. Obedience is mentally easy. It is easier to assume that the authority knows what is best and just do what you are told to do. Milgram’s research and the violent human record all stand as evidence for how far this lazy thinking can go. If we assume that people can be peripheral processors with issues of life and death, it is simple to assume that people will be even lazier thinkers in the normal comings and goings of everyday living.

The deep reason for obedience is survival. Humans are not biologically well-equipped for survival in the cold, cruel world. We are not the strongest, the biggest, the fastest, or the meanest creatures on the planet. We cannot handle the large variations in climate and weather that many other animals have little problem with. Thus, as individuals, most people have very little chance of surviving alone.

Therefore, one of the primary reasons humans have survived is their ability to form groups. By banding together we can pool our resources and translate our individual abilities into powerful tools and weapons. It becomes imperative, then, that we do what it takes to make groups survive.

The next step in this logic is obvious. One of the ways we make groups function effectively is through obedience to the hierarchy of the group. If obedience stops, then the group will slow down and eventually fall apart.

Seen from this perspective, negative examples of obedience are not necessarily failures of the receivers, but more often failures of the sources. Deep obedience is a reasoned and rational action. It translates into survival and success at the most basic level. Only when unethical or incompetent sources corrupt the proper use of obedience does it become dangerous.

To summarize, I think both of the shallow and the deep reasons for obedience can be operating in the same situation. They are not exclusive or even antagonistic forces.


Realize that there are limitations to this Obedience Effect.  Under highly specified conditions, most people will show obedience to authority that clearly harms innocent people.  Most readers appear to catch the last part – harm to innocents – and miss the first part – highly specified conditions.  The highly specified conditions include:  1) a stranger who is highly credible and situationally powerful, 2) a physical environment that is unusual and contains new technologies, 3) a plausible, but ultimately untruthful cover story, 4) a skilled accomplice performing a script, and 5) physical or psychological distance from the innocent victim.  When these conditions are absent, compliance rates drop to much lower levels; however, a few people will almost always show compliance as long as they see a credible authority source.

People seem to largely ignore these conditions and have raised Milgram’s research to the level of a scientific icon – a powerful symbol that no one really understands, but greatly respects.  All you have to do is observe some situation where authority seems to be present and if something you don’t like occurs, you can wave the Icon over it and deplore it scientifically.   Treating this persuasion example as an Icon robs it of its practical and ethical value.

Practical Implications

Obedience is a powerful human response. Under many conditions it is easy to elicit, even when it leads to dangerous or painful consequences. And, if you think about it, when a source gets obedience from a group of receivers, that source can be a wildly effective influence agent. (Imagine trying to directly talk somebody into shocking another person. It would be next to impossible to produce a set of arguments and evidence that would directly persuade people to do this. However, set up a hierarchy and give people instructions . . .) There are at least four points you should consider about obedience.

1. Teach and encourage people to think and act independently.

Recall the shallow reason for obedience. It is merely the path of least resistance. It requires no central thinking, just a simple acceptance of what a source tells you to do. If people think more carefully about a situation, it is less likely that they will be swept along by authority or peer pressure or mere convention.

The key idea here is thinking, not defiance. We should teach and encourage each other to think about authority and compliance. There is a fine line between questioning authority and defying authority. If you have authority, you should permit people to focus much more on the former than the latter.

2. Be careful when you assign authority to those in your command.

Do you think that most of the Volunteers in Milgram’s study typically used shocks and punishments in their daily life? I doubt it. Most people most of the time do not deliberately use pain to control or influence others. Yet, many of the Volunteers went to the highest levels of shocks when given the authority to do so. Now, if adults can be this way, imagine how children and adolescents react when they have authority. Imagine how new, young employees react?

3. Question your own use of authority.

Many of us achieve some level of authority, especially by mere length of service. Do you use it properly?

Many of us have deliberately harmed people under our authority. We have embarrassed, humiliated, and shamed them. We have denied them rewards, we have given them punishments. And we did it for a reason. We did it to make ‘em grow up. To teach them a lesson about life. To make a big point.

We had the authority to do these things and we used it to accomplish some goal. My question is this: Would you have done these hurtful things if you did not have the authority to do so? Another question: Could you have accomplished these goals without merely using authority?

4. Understand how your own obedience may reduce your effectiveness.

Authority moves in both directions. Some people are obedient to you and you are obedient to others. And to the extent that you demand obedience from others, you in turn may give the same measure of obedience to others. Thus, while we may worry about our children or employees becoming the helpless Volunteer in Milgram’s study, we must not lose sight of our own risks.

Every time a supervisor gives us an order, we have the choice to be merely obedient or to be something else. For example, after the recent West Virginia teacher’s strike, one teacher related an interesting example of teacher obedience. This teacher was part of a legal picket line that was gathered in a legal place in front of the school. The teachers had parked their cars in front of the school and were now picketing in a quiet and peaceful manner.

The principal of these teachers waved one of them into the building and then told her that the teachers must move their cars (from their legal parking spots). This teacher then went back out to the picket line, instructed her colleagues of this event, and then everybody moved their cars.

From this common and rather simple example, we can easily move into more serious concerns. Each of us knows of examples where someone has “followed orders” and done things that were personally repugnant to them. For example, teachers will be ordered to suspend students unfairly or to lift unfairly a student suspension. Middle level managers will be ordered to terminate some employees improperly to hit the bottom line. You might have succumbed to that kind of pressure in your own life.

I am not trying to raise a revolution here. I am only raising awareness. Each of us must make our own choices and defend them to ourselves. My concern here is that you see how the powerful and very human motivation to obedience can make things happen in ways you do not intend.


References And Recommended Readings

Milgram. S. (1974). Obedience to authority. New York: Harper and Row.