Apr 29, 2020 in Exploratory

Why Are People Obedient or Disobedient

The conditions of the contemporary society allow people feeling rather safe and protected within the community. These conditions are supported by the obedience of all people to higher authority. Thus, obedience is a source of the greater good and disobedience may represent one of the primary threats to the structure of society. Social studies and experiments demonstrate that total blind obedience sometimes may lead to greater horrors and cruelty displays than random acts of disobedience.

Obedience is believed to be one of the basic elements of the social life of people. It can be explained as an agreement to act according to established rules, obeying and following orders and instructions. Obedience is a deeply integrated behavioral pattern, which sometimes can have a stronger influence on personality than sympathy or any learned ethical and moral standards of conduct. The sociological studies prove that conscious adult people choose to obey the absolute authority more often than their own inherent moral imperatives.


Milgram’s experiment demonstrates that blind obedience and total submission to authority can turn a good person into a torturer and murderer without the latter one being aware of that. His experiment was designed as a study of memory and the effect of punishment on learning. The people were divided to “teachers” and “learners.” The goal of the learner, who is taken to separate room where his arms are tied and an electrode is attached to his wrist, is to show his ability to remember the second word of the simple word pairs demonstrated to him. If the learner makes a mistake, he receives electric strikes of increasing strength. The real goal of the experiment was to watch the behavior of the “teacher”, who can operate the shock generator with a number of switches, each labeled with a voltage designation, which indicated whether the shock was slight, moderate or lethal. The learner actually was an actor, who did not receive any shock at all. 

The goal of the experiment was to study how far the teachers will proceed in the situation, when they are ordered to inflict increasing pain. As the voltage had increased, the learner grunted, complained loudly, demanded to be released, screamed in agony and then did not make any sound at all. Thus, for the teacher the situation becomes tense. The learner’s suffering makes him want to quit, but the authority of the experimenter demands to continue. In order to stop hurting the other person, the teacher has to break with authority. Milgram predicted that only 4% of the teachers would go beyond 300 volts, one in a thousand would use the highest shock button, and that most of the subjects would stop at the point of 150 volt shock when the actor demands to free him for the first time. However, the results were unexpected. More than 60% of the tested individuals in the USA, including students, the unemployed, professionals, white collar and industrial workers, were totally obedient and reached to the point of pushing the button with the highest voltage. One experiment showed the 80% subject obedience. 

The scientists concluded that since the experiment provided the social legitimacy to hurt others, it also allows people express their inherent aggressive and sadistic tendencies. When the person had a right to choose the shock level and was not ordered to increase it, the experiment showed that the average shock level was less than 60 volts, which is lower than the point when the learner showed the first signs of pain. The majority of teachers chose the painless shocks. Thus, it is possible to conclude that the ordinary person shocked the other one not due to his aggressive tendencies, but out of the feeling of obligation and the need to do his duties. The danger of the obedience is in the fact that the person does not regard himself responsible for his actions, when he considers himself a tool of carrying out some others’ wishes. Even though many protested to continue hurting the learner, when the destructive results of their actions became clear, they could not resist the authority.

Many studies emphasize that the sadist behavior with its horrors is a simple faithful following of orders. A research of the University of Florida in 1976 was directed to examine and compare the Rorschach tests of Nazi war criminals and common Americans with both well-adjusted and disturbed personalities without revealing who is who. The results showed that there was no distinction between the Nazis and Americans, which means that an ordinary person can easily turn into a torturer. The ones, who are unlikely to act violently in everyday life, will hurt the others if they are told to by the authority.

One of the greatest dangers of the blind obedience is that it can be taught. The study of the recruiting process to the Greek military police shows that all the recruits had to swear allegiance to the symbol of authority and promise to obey their commanders and follow their orders blindly. The effective recruiting and training includes choosing normal, well-adjusted people for further binding and reducing the strain of obedience. The technique involves: initiation rites and in-group language that isolate soldiers from society and emphasizes the difference between them and rest of people; dehumanizing victims to make hurting them less disturbing; physical and psychological intimidation to prevent logical thinking; rewards for obedience, punishments for disobedience; systematic exposure to acts of violence to make them seem routine and normal. This type of training can make decent people act in a way they would never have acted. Military training both desensitizes soldiers to violence and evokes the feeling of pride and self-confidence after performing acts of violence.

The Stanford University experiment shows how easily ordinary people can turn into torturers. The participants of the experiment were randomly divided to guards and prisoners, who had to be treated as dangerous criminals. Their behavior has changed in a week – the prisoners became passive and dependent, the guards, on the contrary, showed aggression by abusing and insulting the prisoners. The horror of the experiment is that without any special training the students, who were guards, knew what exactly to do and how to behave with their prisoners.

The results of Milgram’s experiment and the study of the methods of military police training demonstrate that authority may sometimes be irrational. Rational authority maintains order, ensures the stable functioning of society, the safety of people and preservation of their rights and freedoms. Rational authority does not infringe on the life, and does not seek to spread destruction, pain, murder, persecution, or humiliate specific individuals. These are the goals and the features of irrational authority, which people must learn to recognize and which must be confronted.

Regardless of the dangers and frequently destructive effects of blind obedience to the authority, order and obedience is the guarantee of the comfort of the civilized life. Most of the orders the society is given must be obeyed to ensure safety and provide protection. Total disobedience might end with the disintegration of society and the return to the animal state. It is widely believed that it is romantic to oppose authority and cowardly and low to support it. The correctness of obedience or disobedience depends on the nature of the order and the behavior it requires. Blind disobedience to any rules is rooted in a disturbed mind state. For a person who rejects all norms and principals to obey means to turn into a slave. An order or a rule are treated as a threat to an ego, thus, the actions of such people might become dangerous to the surrounding community and its structure. The only way to make such people behave appropriately is to use brute physical power against them.  

Milgram’s experiment shows the danger of such ideas as loyalty, duty, and discipline, which seem to represent high moral standards. The threat lies within the fact that the subordinate person believes that he simply does his duties while the motives for the actions are believed to be the motives of some other person. The subordinates do not feel any responsibility for their actions. The cases of the military training and Stanford prison experiment gives evidence that torturers have normal personalities without any sadistic or abusive behaviors prior the experiments or special training. The primary normality of the person is highly significant to turn someone into an effective torturer since he has to control himself completely to obey orders. 

These facts allow concluding that critical evaluation and judgement will always be required to make the right decision. The fear of losing the benevolence of the authority caused by the refusal to obey must not outweigh humane and adequate behavior. Obedience is needed to support the civilized social order of life since rational authority is directed to secure and protect people. Disobedience must take place only when the demands violate human rights, endanger health and life and may lead to death. Otherwise, the total blind disobedience may end in anarchy. Thus, every person must be conscious and aware of his actions and have a good understanding to what consequences his actions may lead.


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