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Obedience, in human behavior, is the quality of being obedient, which describes the act of carrying out commands, or being actuated.[1] Obedience differs from compliance, which is behavior influenced by peers, and from conformity, which is behavior intended to match that of the majority.

Humans have been shown to be surprisingly obedient in the presence of perceived legitimate authority figures, as demonstrated by the Milgram experiment in the 1960s, which was carried out by Stanley Milgram to discover how the Nazis managed to get ordinary people to take part in the mass murders. The experiment showed that obedience to authority was the norm, not the exception. A similar conclusion was reached in the Stanford prison experiment.


  • I. In general uses.
1. a. The action or practice of obeying or doing what one is bidden; the fact or quality of being obedient; submission to the rule or authority of another; compliance with or performance of a command, law, etc. Freq. with to. See also passive obedience n. at PASSIVE adj. and n.
b. The action or fact of yielding to some actuating force or agency. Freq. in in obedience to.
2. a. The fact or position of being obeyed, or of having others subject to one's authority (usually in a political or ecclesiastical context); jurisdiction, authority, rule. Now hist.
b. A sphere of authority; a realm, district, or body of people subject to a particular (esp. ecclesiastical) rule; a dominion. Now rare.
3. Homage or submission to a person, thing, quality, idea, etc.; a formal gesture or salutation expressing this; a respectful acknowledgement, as a bow or curtsy. Esp. in to make (one's) obedience. Cf. OBEISANCE n. 2 , OBEISANCE n. 3. Freq. with to. Now arch. and regional.
  • II. In religious uses.
4. The vow of submission to proper authority taken by a member of a religious order; the action or fact of keeping this vow. Now chiefly in vow of obedience.
5. An office, duty, or position of responsibility in a religious house or order, esp. as assigned to a particular member by a superior; the room or place relating to such a duty, etc. Also: the written order by which a religious superior communicates instructions regarding such duties.

Forms of human obedience

Forms of human obedience include

  • obedience to laws;
  • obedience to social norms;
  • obedience to a monarch, government, organization, religion, or church;
  • obedience to God;
  • obedience to self-imposed constraints, such as a vow of chastity;
  • obedience of a spouse or child to a husband/wife or parent respectively;
  • obedience of a vassal to his lord, in feudal societies;
  • obedience to a dominant, in BDSM; and
  • obedience to management in the workplace.

Cultural attitudes to obedience

Obedience is regarded as a virtue in many traditional cultures; historically, children have been expected to be obedient to their elders, slaves to their owners, serfs to their lords in feudal society, lords to their king, and everyone to God. Even long after slavery ended in the United States, the Black codes required black people to obey and submit to whites, on pain of lynching.

In some Christian weddings, obedience was formally included along with honor and love as part of a conventional bride's (but not the bridegroom's) wedding vow. This came under attack with women's suffrage and the feminist movement. Today its inclusion in the wedding vow practiced by some Christian sects has fallen out of favor.

As the middle classes have gained political power, the power of authority has been progressively eroded, with the introduction of democracy as a major turning point in attitudes to obedience and authority.

Since the democides and genocides of the First World War and Second World War periods, obedience has come to be regarded as a far less desirable quality in Western cultures. The civil rights and protest movements in the second half of the twentieth century marked a remarkable reduction in respect for authority in Western cultures, and greater respect for individual judgment as a basis for decisions.

Obedience training of human beings

Some animals can easily be trained to be obedient by employing operant conditioning, for example obedience schools exist to condition dogs into obeying the orders of human owners. Obedience training seems to be particularly effective on social animals, a category that includes human beings; other animals do not respond well to such training.

Learning to obey adult rules is a major part of the socialization process in childhood, and many techniques are used by adults to modify the behavior of children. Additionally, extensive training is given in armies to make soldiers capable of obeying orders in situations where an untrained person would not be willing to follow orders. Soldiers are initially ordered to do seemingly trivial things, such as picking up the sergeant's hat off the floor, marching in just the right position, or marching and standing in formation. The orders gradually become more demanding, until an order to the soldiers to place themselves into the midst of gunfire gets a knee-jerk obedient response.

Experimental studies of human obedience

Obedience has been extensively studied by psychologists since the Second World War -- the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment are the most commonly cited experimental studies of human obedience, while the Hofling hospital experiment was an early field experiment. [2] [3] [4]

The Milgram experiment

The Milgram experiments, the first of which was carried out in 1961, were the earliest investigations of the power of authority figures as well as the lengths to which participants would go as a result of their influence. [2] Milgram's results showed that, contrary to expectations, a majority of civilian volunteers would obey orders to apply electric shocks to another person until they were unconscious or dead. Prior to these experiments, most of Milgram's colleagues had predicted that only sadists would be willing to follow the experiment to their conclusion. [5]

Studies that predated the Milgram experiment placed very little emphasis upon the participants' responses to authority and focused more upon general fields of human behavior. Despite the fact that relatively little direct work had been done on the subject of obedience, Milgram himself had already conducted several studies, which had shown that obedience tended to increase with the prestige of the authority figure. In these studies, an undergraduate research assistant posing as a [Yale professor had a much greater influence than did someone of lesser status, regardless of the prestige of the institution in which the study was based. [2][3]

Despite the significance of the Milgram experiments, they were regarded as tainted by their breach of ethical standards, in that the participants' right to abdicate was removed. [6] It is worth noting, however, that those being shocked were in reality actors and the shocks were simulated.

The Stanford prison experiment

Unlike the Milgram experiment, which studied the obedience of individuals, the 1971 Stanford prison experiment studied the behavior of people in groups, and in particular the willingness of people to obey orders and adopt abusive roles in a situation where they were placed in the position of being submissive or dominant by a higher authority. In the experiment, a group of volunteers was divided into two groups and placed in a "prison," with one group in the position of playing prison guards, and other group in the position of "prisoners."

In this case, the experimenters acted as authority figures at the start of the experiment, but then delegated responsibility to the "guards," who enthusiastically followed the experimenters' instructions, and in turn assumed the roles of abusive authority figures, eventually going far beyond the experimenters' original instruction in their efforts to dominate and brutalize the "prisoners." At the same time, the prisoners adopted a submissive role with regard to their tormentors, even though they knew that they were in an experiment, and that their "captors" were other volunteers, with no actual authority other than that being role-played in the experiment.

The Stanford experiment demonstrated not only obedience (of the "guards" to the experimenters, and the "prisoners" to both the guards and experimenters), but also high levels of compliance and conformity.

The Hofling hospital experiment

Both the Milgram and Stanford experiments were conducted in experimental circumstances. In 1966, psychiatrist Charles K. Hofling published the results of a field experiment on obedience in the nurse-physician relationship in its natural hospital setting. Nurses, unaware they were taking part in an experiment, were ordered by unknown doctors to administer dangerous doses of a (fictional) drug to their patients. Although several hospital rules disallowed administering the drug under the circumstances, 21 out of the 22 nurses would have given the patient an overdose of medicine.

Factors affecting obedience

Embodiment of prestige or power

Obedience occurs in several situations; most often referred to is the obedience of soldiers to a superior officer. When the Milgram experimenters were interviewing potential volunteers, the participant selection process itself revealed several factors that affected obedience, outside of the actual experiment.

Interviews for eligibility were conducted in an abandoned complex in Bridgeport, Connecticut. [2][3] Despite the dilapidated state of the building, the researchers found that the presence of a Yale professor as stipulated in the advertisement affected the number of people who obeyed. This was not further researched to test obedience without a Yale professor because Milgram had not intentionally staged the interviews to discover factors that affected obedience. [2][3]

In the actual experiment, prestige or the appearance of power was a direct factor in obedience -- particularly the presence of men dressed in gray laboratory coats, which gave the impression of scholarship and achievement and was thought to be the main reason why people complied with administering what they thought was a painful shock. [2]

Raj Persaud, in an article in the BMJ, [7] comments on Milgram's attention to detail in his experiment: "The research was also conducted with amazing verve and subtlety—for example, Milgram ensured that the “experimenter” wear a grey lab coat rather than a white one, precisely because he did not want subjects to think that the “experimenter” was a medical doctor and thereby limit the implications of his findings to the power of physician authority"

Despite the fact that prestige is often thought of as a separate factor, it is, in fact, merely a subset of power as a factor. Thus, the prestige conveyed by a Yale professor in a laboratory coat is only a manifestation of the experience and status associated with it and/or the social status afforded by such an image.

Notes and references

  1. Abate, Frank R. (Ed.). (1997). The Oxford Pocket Dictionary and Thesaurus. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Milgram, Stanley. (1963). "Behavioral Study of Obedience".[1] Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67, 371-378.
  3. Bernstein, D. A., Roy, J. E., Srull, K. T., Wickens, C. D (1988) Psychology Houghton Mifflin Company
  4. Hofling CK et al. (1966) "An Experimental Study of Nurse-Physician Relationships". Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 141:171-180.
  5. Introduction to Developmental and Social Cognition, Dr. Asli Niazi, slide presentation, London South Bank University, online at [2]
  6. A transcript of the original Milgram experiment contains the following exchange between the experimenter and the participant:

"Oh no. You mean I've got to keep going up with the scale? ... [The experimenter says "The experiment requires that you continue".]

  1. The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram, Raj Persaud, BMJ 2005;331;356-, doi:10.1136/bmj.331.7512.356 [3]