Being submissive to authority is an everyday reality that all people share. Paying taxes, working to earn money, obtaining a driver's license, obeying rules of conduct in public places and so on are just a few examples of how you obey a higher source. Just as it's important for children to obey their teachers, it's important that teachers follow the principal's rules about curriculum, which in turn follows the standards set by the local school district. There are four elements — social norms, surveillance, buffers, and justifying principles — that help determine what causes you to be (or not to be) obedient:

  • Social norms — These are rules that have been established and are delegated by the community, government, or other empowered group for individual associates and constituents to follow on a regular basis.

  • Surveillance — When the delegators of the established rules and regulations are not around to administer them, they aren't always followed. However, when they are present, obedience levels increase as every effort is made to display how the rules are being followed.

  • Buffers — A buffer is a device or situation that permits obedience or disobedience to occur more easily. For example, the guard hitting the switch on the electric chair may find it easier to obey his superior's orders because he doesn't have any real contact with the ill-fated convict.

  • Justifying principles — The guard may not believe it's right to kill another human being, but his duty is justified by the ideals of his superior: the person performed inhumane crimes and therefore must be punished, and the guard believes in following the orders of a superior without question.

  • In many ways, obedience can be a good thing. It causes children to do as their parents and teachers ask and helps maintain an ordered, lawful society. But what happens when people obey orders that are unjust, immoral, or downright evil? Social psychologist Stanley Milgram (1933–1984) conducted one of the best-known experiments on obedience, demonstrating the dramatic affect that authority has on how far a person will go to obey. In his experiment, people were asked to take the role of a “teacher” and deliver an electric shock to a “learner” if questions were answered incorrectly. The learner was actually an accomplice in the experiment, who was simply pretending to be shocked. After each error, the “teacher” was instructed by the experimenter to proceed to a progressively stronger shock. Eventually, the “learner” began begging to be released, even screaming in agony, while the experimenter continued to insist that the experiment must continue. Shockingly, more than 65 percent of participants continued participating and delivered the maximum shocks. Milgram's experiments, while obviously unethical by today's standards, demonstrated that obedience can be a dangerous thing and that the situation can play an important role in how far people will go in order to obey an authority figure.

    1. Home
    2. Psychology
    3. Social Interactions and Interpersonal Behavior
    4. Obedience
    Visit other About.com sites: