Obedience: Biological Factors, Norms and Beliefs

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Obedience is one of the most interesting characteristics to study. The reason why obedience is interesting because there are so many factors that influence people’s behavior, starting from the way they communicate and behave in general and going on to why they choose to obey or disobey. There are biological reasons as well as psychological and normative/societal reasons that can be used to describe why people might choose to obey or not. Before moving on to more specific studies and examples it is important to lay the foundations and know why people obey in their day to day life. According to authors Hamilton and Biggart, this is one of the subjects that has drawn a significant amount of research and the main causes are still unclear, however, the same authors also say that during their research they have found that one of the leading factors towards obedience is authority and power (Hamilton & Biggart, 1985).

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Definition of Obedience

In broad terms, obedience means following order or command. According to Saul McLeod “Obedience is a form of social influence where an individual acts in response to a direct order from another individual, who is usually an authority figure. It is assumed that without such an order the person would not have acted in this way” (Mcleod, 2007) . The definition simply shows what obedience means in its basic form. However, many questions have to be asked when talking about obedience. Is it in human nature to obey? Is it social and normative conditioning? Is it fear or maybe a reward? This research paper will attempt to answer these questions by taking a deeper look and analyzing case studies conducted on the topic of obedience.

Obeying to Authority

As evolution progressed people started to change and survival of the fittest somehow was less present than it used to be in the past. People started to learn their roles within the society and they started to accept their hierarchical positions. There is an enormous number of studies that show that people are likely to obey authority. The initial thought is that people obey authority because they might be afraid. However, this is not always the case since people tend to obey someone that they perceive as authoritative be it because they might be punished, or simply because that person is simply authoritative (Vaughan & Hogg, 1954).

The Milgram Experiment

The Milgram experiment is perhaps among the most famous and the most beneficial experiments when it comes to describing obedience towards an authoritative figure. Milgram’s experiment successfully proved that people will obey an authoritative figure and do as they are told regardless of their belief, normative state, or any other factor as long as two important conditions are met; 1. The person who gives the orders is legitimate or at least is seen as a legitimate and authoritative figure by the subject and 2. The subject believes that the person who is issuing the commands or giving the orders will accept any type of responsibility in the future regarding the actions that the subject is doing under their command (Mcleod, 2007). According to Milgram people are in an “autonomous state” or an “agent state”.

The Agency Theory and Organizational Behavior

People are normally in their autonomous state in which they are more careful and thoughtful of their actions, however, when they move to an agent state they are likely to follow any order or command that is issued to them since they work under the idea that the issuer of the commands is the authoritative figure and they will take the responsibility regarding the command that they issued (Barnes, 2000). This means that in a workplace employees are likely to accept orders from their bosses and follow through whether they are in line with their norms and beliefs or not. They are also more likely to commit different actions (which might even be illegal) since they think that their boss is responsible due to the fact that he/she issued the command. In fact, this is the very reason why Milgram experimented since it was inspired by the Nazi’s actions and their soldiers that always claimed that their actions should be blamed on their commanders since they were the ones issuing the orders.

Workplace and Organizational Behavior

In a workplace, most of the employees have to respond to someone. Thus, they are automatically in an “agent state”. This means that most of the employees will follow the orders that they have been given and they will obey their bosses (Mitnick, 1992). According to the article written by Mitnick, workers that are in an agent state simply will follow the commands. However, this ideology might be problematic in a workplace from time to time since most of the people have a boss which leads us as high as the CEO who might be the only person within a company who can make autonomous decisions (even though even the CEO has to respond to the shareholders).

Reward and Punishment and Organizational Behavior

The Theory

The idea and the theory of reward and punishment are mainly originally developed by B.F. Skinner. This theory mainly revolves around the idea that when a subject obeys to the given commands he or she is rewarded while in the cases when the subject refuses to obey he or she is punished somehow. According to Skinner and this theory, there are two reinforcers, positive and negative (Sincero, 2011).

Organizational Behavior

When an employee is given an order he or she has two options. The employee can comply and do the task as ordered or he/she can reject to do it. According to the reward and punishment theory there are two main points to consider when talking about this particular issue. The first approach is to reward the employee. Thus, the employee will be likely to comply and execute the order as it has been given to him/her by the boss knowing that positive reinforcement or reward will be given. Rewards in a workplace might range from acknowledgments to bonuses, higher pay, and much more. Having this in mind, the employee will not deny doing as they are told. The second approach according to the theory is to punish bad behavior. This means that the employees know that if they do not comply and do not execute the orders as they are given they will be punished. Punishments might range from reduced bonuses to lower salaries, downgrade in position, or even suspension or losing the job. Thus, the employees will be more likely to follow through with the order that they have been given by their boss since they know that in the instance that they do not comply they will be punished. This is the negative reinforcement that the theory talks about and which can also be used as a stimulus to achieve the wanted results.


Obedience is a complex topic. As mentioned at the very beginning of the paper it is still not completely clear why some people choose to obey while others don’t. There are biological factors, norms and beliefs, social and peer pressure, and many other factors that lead towards making decisions such as obeying or not. However, as mentioned in this paper people will most likely obey to an authoritative figure under the agency theory or according to the reward and punishment theory they will be likely to obey based on the reward and punishment criteria.

Although, there have been countless studies done in attempts to find a reason why people obey the definitive answer is still unknown. Obedience is a complex topic and further research is needed to come to a complete conclusion. However, the aforementioned theories explain at least a part of the factors and variables that play a key role in an individual’s decision on whether he or she should obey and complete the task issued by the boss or not.

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