The role of authority figures
One characteristic of obedience as a form of social pressure is that it features an authority figure giving a direct command. The presence of this authority figure i.e. whether the authority figure is physically present affects whether we obey or do not obey an instruction. For example, in a swimming pool, children often run at the edge of the pool instead of walking, but if there is a lifeguard yelling at them to walk, they generally will do so. Milgram (1974) found a similar effect when he replicated his classic experiment with a key variation – the experimenter gave initial instructions and then left the room, afterwards communicating only by phone. The obedience level fell from 65% to 20.5%.
Another factor is personality. When people are given instructions such as from a driving instructor, some people will unquestioningly do what they are told – checking mirrors etc – while others might argue and say that they don’t think it’s necessary. Some people are more confident to argue, while others are generally more rebellious and dislike rules. This may link to upbringing; people who have been brought up with authoritarian parents may obey unquestioningly, while others who have been brought up with a democratic parenting style have, throughout their childhood socialization, been encouraged to debate and discuss rules. However, Zimbardo et al. (1973) have argued that it is the situation that plays the main role in behavior, not our personalities.
Finally, power plays a major role in obedience. In any obedience situation, one person has more power, and tries to change the behavior of people who have less power. One form of power is legal power – the right to punish someone by law if they don’t obey, e.g. a police officer telling someone to stop their car. Another, very different form of power is charismatic power – power which comes from the force of persuasion and someone’s personality. Real world examples of this include the leaders of cults, such as Charles Manson who persuaded vulnerable young teenagers to join his ‘family’ of criminals, and commit murders when he ordered them to.
Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority. London: Pinter & Martin.
Zimbardo, P. G., Haney, C., Banks, W. C. & Jaffe, D. (1973). The mind is a formidable jailer: A Pirandellian prison. The New York Times Magazine, 8, 38-60.