Obedience Theory

Obedience is a social influence in which an individual does something in the direction of an authoritative figure. It is not the same as complying with someone else's wishes or even just following the rules (which involves altering your behavior to go along with the rest of the group). On the other hand, obedience entails changing one's actions because of a command from someone in a position of authority

What is Obedience Theory?

It is generally agreed that obedience is distinct from both compliance (behavior influenced by peers) and conformity (conduct intended to resemble that of the majority). Depending on the circumstances, obedience can be perceived as theistic, unethical, or unprincipled. For a long time, psychologists' consensus on what constitutes obedience seemed unmovable. Both academic literature and textbooks employed similarly broad definitions. It draws on the contentious work of psychologist Stanley Milgram from the 1960s.

One social psychology textbook presents the most frequently accepted definition of obedience. The definition of obedience is "the alteration of behavior brought about by submission to authoritative norms." To put it another way, you obey an explicit command given to you by another person. Scholar and economist Stephen Gibson has recently cast doubt on the adequacy of such a definition. Another area for improvement with the common definition of obedience is that it needs to define what is intended by an order or a directive.

What sets Obedient Behaviour Apart from Conformity?

There are three main distinctions between obedience and conformity

Milgram's Experiment

Being part of a Milgram experiment, Stanley Milgram conducted a seminal study that has sparked widespread debate and has been repeatedly duplicated. Like many previous psychological studies, Milgram's approach relied on participant's willingness to be duped. Participants were informed that they would participate in a scientific investigation into the effectiveness of disciplinary measures on knowledge retention. The true focus of the experiment is on participants' submission to oppressive power. Each person was a tutor in learning to make connections between unrelated words. The "learner" (a confederate of the researcher) met the "master" at the start of the experiment and then sat in another room where he or she could hear but not see the "teacher." When the "learner" got an answer wrong, the teacher was supposed to deliver him or her an electric shock. In cases when participants expressed doubt about the experiment, the "researcher" (once again, an ally of Milgram) would urge them to press on. Subjects were instructed to disregard the student's cries of pain and his requests to be released and end the experiment, including his claims that their life was in danger and that he had a heart issue. It was imperative, the "researcher" maintained, that the trial proceed. The amount of electricity used to deliver shocks served as the experiment's dependent variable.

Zimbardo's Experiment

Another classic is the obedience study conducted in the 1970s at Stanford University. Phillip Zimbardo directed the experiment. Undergraduate students were subjected to "social factor" experiments as part of the Stanford Prison Project. Unlike the Milgram experiment, this study randomly assigned half of the participants as prison officers and the other half as inmates. The experiment produced "a mental well-being of confinement by simulating a prison environment."


The Milgram experiment found that most volunteers follow directions even if they hurt others. If urged by an authority figure, two-thirds of the participants would give the learner the maximum shock. "Subjects had learned from infancy that it is a direct violation of personal morality to hurt another person without his agreement," therefore, this result astonished Milgram. Milgram hypothesized that the participants entered an agentic situation in which they allowed the authority figure to take responsibility for their acts to explain why otherwise normal people might conduct potentially lethal crimes toward other humans. I was also more stressed than I thought after the operation. After significant shocks, participants displayed fear and emotional strain. Three patients had uncontrollable seizures, halting the trial.

Zimbardo also discovered that ordered guards became hostile, and the convicts thought the guards were like the other inmates. Zimbardo stopped the experiment after six days because the "guards" traumatized the "prisoners."

Modern Methods

Burger's first study mirrored Milgram's. The Milgram study showed that obedience has not deteriorated over time. Burger also observed that both genders behaved similarly, implying that all participants would obey. Burger's follow-up study indicated that participants who worried about the learner's well-being were less likely to continue. He also observed that the more the experimenter encouraged participants to continue, the more likely they were to quit. Utrecht University replicated Milgram's findings. Over 90% of participants completed the trial despite saying they did not like it. Compared to Milgram and Utrecht, Bocchiaro and Zimbardo showed similar obedience. Participants either stopped the trial at the first sign that the learner was asking for something or kept going until the end. This was called "the foot in the door scenario."

Obedience Therapy: Oppositional Defiant Disorder

ODD, a child's developing health problem, encompasses anger, disobedience, and vindictiveness. Factors, both biological and environmental, may cause it. A recent study found psychosocial treatment most effective for ODD. Family counselling and cognitive behavior therapy complement household leadership training and school-based training.


Having an attitude of obedience is crucial. Children are expected to follow parental authority, and students are also expected to follow the rules set by their teachers. Adults are subject to the will of their superiors, the law, and others. Most people will comply with the law and other social norms, even if they are not told to. If they disobey, they may be subject to severe penalties.

If you are having trouble understanding the concept of obedience as an adult, professional help is available. A therapist can help you determine whether you should stick with your current response to authority figures or try something different. What to do when your kids do not listen to you is something you can learn from these books. In your area, you can find a counsellor to talk to. Better Help also provides online access to licensed mental health professionals who can provide therapy. What you do about compliance is ultimately up to you. However, a counsellor’s advice can guide you to the best action.