Although we may be influenced by the people around us more than we recognize, whether we conform to the norm is up to us but sometimes decisions about how to act are not so easy. Sometimes we are directed by a more powerful person to do things we may not want to do. Psychologists who study obedience are interested in how people react when given an order or command from someone perceived to be in a position of authority. In many situations, obedience is a good thing like obeying parents, teachers, and police officers but there is a dark side to obedience. When “following orders” or “just doing my job,” people can violate ethical principles, break laws or harm other people. It was this unsettling side of obedience that led to some of the most famous and most controversial research in the history of psychology.
Milgram (1963, 1965, 1974) wanted to know why so many otherwise decent German citizens went along with the brutality of the Nazi leaders during the Holocaust so he conducted a series of laboratory investigations. In his now famous deception study, Milgram found that 65% of research participants were willing to administer, what they believed were, 330-volt electric shocks to a fellow research participant despite hearing cries and protests. No one was hurt or injured during this study, the research participant receiving the electric shocks was a confederate – part of the study – but the actual research participants did not know this. They were willing to administer electric shocks because the experimenter told them to continue. These were not cruel people but they followed the experimenter’s instructions to administer what they believed to be excruciating if not dangerous electric shocks to an innocent person.
Obedience and Culture
The initial research was conducted using male participants but Milgram found that women participants followed the experimenter’s instructions at exactly the same rate that the men had. Some people have argued that today we are more aware of the dangers of blind obedience than we were when the research was conducted in the 1960s; however, findings from partial and modified replications of Milgram’s procedures recently conducted suggest that people respond to the situation today much like they did a half a century ago (Burger, 2009). Cross cultural studies of obedience found rates of obedience similar to those of Milgram. The United States had an obedience rate of 61% and the mean across other cultures was about 66%. Some countries had much lower rates of obedience (India reported 42% and Spain reported about 50%) while some countries had much higher rates of obedience (Germany and Austria reported about 80%) (Blass, 2011). Culture and social norms shape perspectives of authority, obedience and interact with individual decision making.
Decades of research on social influence, including conformity and obedience make it clear that we live in a social world and that, for better or worse, much of what we do reflects the people we encounter and the groups we belong to. Disturbing implications from the research are that, under the right circumstances, each of us may be capable of acting in some very uncharacteristic and perhaps some very unsettling ways.