What Is Obedience as Used in Social Psychology?


Martha Robinson

Obedience is a fundamental concept in social psychology that examines how individuals respond to authority figures and comply with their demands. It refers to the act of following instructions or orders from someone in a position of power or authority, even if these actions may go against one’s personal beliefs or values. In this article, we will delve deeper into the concept of obedience and its implications on human behavior.

The Milgram Experiment
One of the most famous experiments exploring obedience is the Milgram experiment conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s. This groundbreaking study aimed to investigate how far individuals were willing to go in administering electric shocks to another person under the influence of an authoritative figure.

The results were astonishing. Despite expressing discomfort and moral dilemmas, approximately 65% of participants continued administering shocks up to dangerous levels simply because they were instructed to do so by an authority figure. This experiment shed light on the power dynamics at play and revealed the potential for obedience to override personal conscience.

Factors Influencing Obedience
Several factors contribute to an individual’s level of obedience:

1. Proximity and Credibility of the Authority Figure

The physical proximity and perceived credibility of an authority figure significantly impact obedience levels. When an authoritative figure is physically present and seems knowledgeable, individuals are more likely to comply with their commands.

2. Legitimacy of the Situation

People are more inclined to obey when they perceive a situation as legitimate or official. For instance, individuals are more likely to obey a police officer compared to a random stranger giving orders.

3. Group Pressure

The presence of others who are also obedient can exert immense pressure on individuals, leading them to conform and comply with requests they would otherwise refuse. This phenomenon is known as social conformity.

  • Peer Pressure: The influence exerted by peers can lead to obedience, as individuals may fear social rejection or desire acceptance within their group.
  • Groupthink: When a group collectively makes decisions without critical evaluation, obedience to authority becomes more prevalent.

The Dark Side of Obedience

1. Destructive Behaviors

Obedience can be responsible for facilitating destructive behaviors. History is replete with examples of individuals carrying out heinous acts under the influence of authority figures, such as soldiers committing war crimes due to orders from superiors.

2. Blind Compliance

Blind compliance to authority can lead individuals to overlook ethical considerations and act against their own values. This blind adherence can hinder personal growth and inhibit critical thinking.

3. Potential for Abuse

Unquestioning obedience enables those in positions of power to abuse their authority. The infamous Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated how participants assigned the role of prison guards quickly adopted abusive behavior due to the power bestowed upon them.


Obedience is a complex psychological phenomenon that has both positive and negative implications. While it can ensure order and efficiency in society, blind obedience can also lead to dire consequences when individuals relinquish personal responsibility and moral judgment.

Understanding the mechanisms behind obedience is crucial in promoting ethical decision-making and encouraging individuals to question authority when necessary. By recognizing the dynamics at play, we can navigate societal structures with greater awareness and autonomy.