What Is Obedience? Psychology, Definition, Theories, And Experiments

By Julia Thomas|Updated April 14, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Lauren Guilbeault, LMHC

Obedience may seem like a simple concept. An authority figure tells you to do something, and you do what they say. Or is it that you behave properly according to the way you know they want you to act? Psychology’s definition of obedience has a specific meaning. Yet recently, there has been some debate among psychologists about whether the accepted definition is accurate. Here's a bit of background on the idea of obedience and how it is evolving even today.

The Definition Of Obedience

The standard definition of obedience among psychologists seemed to be set in stone for many years. A similar definition was used in textbooks and research. It is based on controversial research that Stanley Milgram conducted in the 1960s.

One social psychology textbook gives an obedience definition that is a version of the most widely accepted one today. It goes like this:

"Obedience is behavior change produced by the commands of authority."

In other words, someone gives you a direct order or command, and you comply with that order. Recently, researcher and analyst Stephen Gibson questioned whether that definition was sufficient. One problem is that the usual definition of obedience doesn't explain what is meant by an order or command.

Milgram defined “command this way:

"A command consists of two parts: a definition of action and the imperative that the action is executed. (A request, for example, contains a definition of action but lacks the insistence that it be carried out.)"

However, Milgram's work showed that there was something else going on. As it turns out, the context present in the obedience studies seemed to have as much impact or more than the words spoken. Even though the authority figures in Milgram's study often made requests rather than demands, the subjects did what the authority wanted, even when it was distressing to them.

Milgram's Obedience Experiments

Milgram studied obedience in the 1960s. He recognized that in war and various other circumstances, authorities often told the people below them to hurt or kill a person. Milgram wanted to find out what circumstances would cause the authorities' inferiors to refuse to obey the orders.

The Study Design

In Milgram's study, there were three types of participants. The experimenters took charge of each session. Then there were the subjects of the experiments. These people he called "teachers," and they were told their job was to assist. Finally, there were paid actors whom Milgram called the "learners," who pretended to be volunteers but were actually in on the whole thing.

The experimenter told the teacher and the learner that the goal of the study was to find out what effect punishment would have on the learner's ability to memorize information. The learner was strapped into what looked like an electric chair.

Next, the teacher read a list of word pairs. Then they read each of the words separately, giving the learner four possible answers. If the learner chose the wrong answer, the teacher pushed a button that they were led to believe would give the learner a shock. The learners didn't get a shock, but going along with the experiment as they were paid to do, they pretended they had. The teachers (the subjects) were told to administer a greater shock with each wrong answer. Of course, they didn't know that there never was any shock being given at all.

If a teacher said they didn't want to do this, the experimenter prodded them, saying each of these things in order:

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice; you must go on.

If the learner kept saying they wanted to stop after all four prods were given, the session ended. If not, it didn't end until the teacher had given what they thought were 450-volt shocks three times in a row.

After Milgram designed this experiment, he took surveys of psychology students, his colleagues, and psychiatrists to find out what they thought the results would be. Most thought that the subjects would refuse to participate after a certain point and that only a tiny fraction of the people would make it through the entire experiment.

The Study's Results

Milgram went ahead with the experiment, and what happened was stunning. Every teacher in the study continued until they had delivered what they believed was a 300-volt shock. Sixty-five percent of them went on with the experiment until they pushed the button for the 450-volt shock. Even though the teachers were so uncomfortable with doing so that they were showing physical signs of distress like sweating, trembling, and stuttering, they continued.

Milgram's Theories

Milgram interpreted the results as being related to two theories: the theory of conformism and the agentic state theory.

The theory of conformism says that the subject who is unable or unknowledgeable to make the decision leaves the decision to the person in charge. In short, they relied on the experimenter because they felt the experimenter knew more than they did.

The agentic state theory says that the subject obeys because they see themselves as an agent of the experimenter, so they take no personal responsibility for what happens. In other words, they thought it was wrong, but hey, it wasn't their fault.

Is There Another Explanation?

Several other interpretations of Milgram's data have been suggested over the years. One is that people learn throughout life that experts are typically right, even if it doesn't appear to be so. Another is that the teachers, as is common, held onto their belief that the experimenters were good even when the evidence seemed to suggest they were not. Still another explanation is that the teachers continued because they believed in the good of science and felt the experimenter was working to contribute to scientific knowledge.

In 2018, Stephen Gibson published a different analysis of Milgram's experiment. First, Gibson noted problems with the study. For one thing, only the fourth prod was a direct order. And as it turns out, the fourth prod was the easiest for the teachers to refuse. Second, the prods were always given in the same order, so by the time the teachers got to the fourth prod, they may simply have gotten to the point that they were ready to resist the experimenter.

Gibson concluded that what happened was not obedience at all, at least not in the sense that Milgram and others had defined obedience. Gibson felt that obedience works in far more subtle ways than simply following direct orders. He proposed a change to the definition of obedience. In his words, obedience is "the submission to the requirements of an authority." To put it more simply, you give the authority what you think they want from you, even if they don't tell you directly to do something.

Zimbardo's Prison Experiment

In the 1970s, Phillip Zimbardo conducted a study that has become one of the most controversial experiments in modern history. He wanted to expand on Milgram's work, so he designed a study to find out how obedience worked in a prison context. He set up his experiment with students assigned to play the roles of prisoners and prison guards. Three "prisoners" were put together in each small cell and had to stay there around the clock. Those designated as guards got to go home at night.

After only 6 of the 14 days allotted for this research, the study had to be stopped. Why? The participants had begun to identify too much with their roles. The "guards" become aggressive and emotionally and physically abusive. The "prisoners" were quickly becoming depressed and passive. This experiment, although most scientists have deemed it unethical, did show the powerful influence of social situation and the roles people are assigned by society.

Conclusion

Obedience is an important part of life. Parents expect their children to be obedient. Teachers expect students to obey them as well. Bosses, police officers, and others expect adults to do what they tell them to do. Even when people aren't directly told to do so, they will often obey the law and other social requirements. When they don't obey, they can face serious consequences.

There are many times when obedience is a positive thing, but there are other times when it is problematic. So what should you do? Should you demand that your children always be obedient? Should you do what you believe authorities want you to do? It isn't always easy to know the right answer.

If obedience becomes an issue for you as an adult, you may need to talk to an expert to explore what it means to you. A therapist can guide you as you consider whether to continue obeying authorities or find a new way to respond. They can help you determine how to treat your children when they refuse to obey. You can talk to a therapist locally. Or you can connect with a therapist through BetterHelp for convenient online counseling. In the end, the decision of what to do about obedience is entirely yours. Yet talking to a counselor can help you find the solution that's right for you.

Therapy For Issues With Obedience: Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) is a childhood mental health condition that involves anger, defiance, and vindictiveness. It is likely caused by a combination of biological and environmental factors. According to a recent review, psychosocial treatment is most effective for ODD. Along with parental management training and school-based training, family therapy and cognitive behavior therapy are recommended.

 Online Therapy for Issues With Obedience

As discussed above, therapy can help your child with mental disorders related to obedience, including oppositional defiant disorder. But it can be difficult to get an angry child to attend in-person therapy. This is where online therapy comes in. You can access BetterHelp’s platform from the comfort and privacy of your own home. In addition, online therapy offers lower pricing than in-person therapy because online therapists don’t have to pay for costs like renting an office. BetterHelp’s licensed therapists have helped adults and children with issues related to obedience. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp therapists from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

“She is really amazing and a great listener. I really enjoy that she works with me and offers different strategies/methods based on what works for ME. I feel very comfortable sharing my thoughts an feelings, asking for clarification on worksheets, and overall asking for different strategies to achieve the best results. She really has worked around my busy time schedule and I have greatly appreciated that. I would absolutely recommend her to anybody who is looking to get into therapy, whether it’s your first time or you are coming back after years of not going to therapy.”

“Mar is awesome! After many failed attempts at connecting with different therapists, I am relieved to find a queer therapist who understands where I’m coming from. They are so thoughtful and gentle in the ways they listen and guide conversations. They have a way about them that effortlessly encourages you to be kinder to yourself, leading by example. They seem to be really tune in with what you need as an individual and work with you on whatever that may be. Highly recommend!”

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