Obedience to Authority in Psychology

Obedience is a form of social influence where an individual acts in response to a direct order from another individual, who is usually an authority figure.

It is assumed that without such an order, the person would not have acted in this way.

Real-Life Example of Obedience

Millions of people were killed in Nazi Germany concentration camps, but Hitler couldn’t have killed them all, nor could a handful of people. What made all those people follow the orders they were given?

Were they afraid, or was there something in their personality that made them like that? In order to obey authority, the obeying person has to accept that it is legitimate (i.e., rightful, legal) for the command to be made of them.

Adolf Eichmann

Adolf Eichmann was executed in 1962 for his part in organizing the Holocaust, in which six million Jewish people, as well as gypsies, communists, and trade unionists, were transported to death camps and murdered in Nazi Germany and surrounding countries under Nazi control.

Eichmann was a logistical genius whose part in the Holocaust was the planning of the efficient collection, transportation, and extermination of those to be killed.  At his trial in 1961, Eichmann expressed surprise at being hated by Jewish people, saying that he had merely obeyed orders and that surely obeying orders could only be a good thing.

In his jail diary, Eichmann wrote, “The orders were, for me, the highest thing in my life and I had to obey them without question” (extract quoted in The Guardian, 12 August 1999, p. 13).

Eichmann was declared sane by six psychiatrists, he had a normal family life and observers at his trial described him as very average.  Given that there appears to be nothing particularly unusual about Eichmann, we must face the uncomfortable possibility that his behavior was the product of the social situation in which he found himself and that under the right circumstances, we may all be capable of monstrous acts.

Following the Second World War – and in particular, the Holocaust – psychologists set out to investigate the phenomenon of human obedience. Early attempts to explain the Holocaust had focused on the idea that there was something distinctive about German culture that had allowed the Holocaust to take place.

Stanley Milgram set out to test the research question “are Germans different?” but he quickly found that we are all surprisingly obedient to people in authority.

In one of the most famous series of experiments in psychology, Milgram (1963-74) demonstrated that most participants would give a helpless victim fatal electric shocks when ordered to. Milgram later ran a number of variations to the basic study to find out more about the particular factors which might influence obedience.

What is the difference between compliance and obedience?

Obedience occurs when you are told to do something (authority), whereas conformity happens through social pressure (the norms of the majority).

Obedience involves a hierarchy of power/status. Therefore, the person giving the order has a higher status than the person receiving the order.

Olivia Guy-Evans

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.