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Topic: How The Presence Of Others Affects Individual Behavior

Obedience is a form of social influence that occurs when a person yields to explicit instructions or orders from an authority figure.

Obedience, in human behavior, is a form of social influence. It occurs when a person yields to explicit instructions or orders from an authority figure. Obedience is generally distinguished from compliance (behavior influenced by peers) and conformity (act intended to match that of the majority).

Research on Obedience


The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures (1963) was a series of social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram.  The tests involved a “teacher” who conducted the experiment, a participant, and a confederate who pretended to be a volunteer. If the confederate answered a question incorrectly, the volunteer was told to administer an increase in the electric shock. The participants did not know the confederate was not being harmed but could hear screams of pain. They were prompted by the experimenter as a figure of authority to administer the shocks.

Milgram experiment setup: Illustration of the setup of a Milgram experiment. The experimenter (E) convinces the subject (T) to give what he believes are painful electric shocks to another subject, who is an actor (L). Many subjects continued to give shocks despite pleas of mercy from the actors.

It was hypothesized that only a very small fraction of participants (1%) would inflict maximum voltage, however, in Milgram’s first set of experiments, 65% of participants administered the full 450-volt shock, even though most were very uncomfortable doing so. Most participants paused and questioned the experiment at some point, but 26 out of 40 still administered the full shock, even after the confederate ceased to respond. These results demonstrate that participants were willing to obey an authority figure and administer extremely harmful (and potentially lethal) shocks.

Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford prison experiment was a study, conducted by Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University in 1971, of the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard and. Students were selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoner or guard in a mock prison. The participants adapted to their roles beyond the experimenter’s expectations. The guards enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some of the prisoners to psychological and physical torture.

A fraction of the way through the experiment, Zimbardo announced an end to the study. The results of the study demonstrate the obedience of people when provided with a legitimizing ideology, along with social and institutional support. The results indicate that environmental factors have a significant effect on behavior.

Factors Influencing Obedience

After running these experiments, Milgram and Zimbardo concluded that the following factors affect obedience: the proximity to the authority figure, the closer the authority figure is, the more obedience is demonstrated. The prestige of the experimenter: something as simple as wearing a lab coat or not wearing a lab coat can affect levels of obedience; authority figures with more prestige elicit more obedience. The expertise, a subject who has neither the ability nor the expertise to make decisions, especially in a crisis, will leave decision making to the group and its hierarchy. And deindividuation, the essence of obedience consists in the fact that people come to view themselves not as individuals but as instruments for carrying out others’ wishes and thus no longer see themselves as responsible for their actions.

Controversy and Obedience Experiments

The ethical considerations raised by these studies are controversial. Specifically, the subjects were exposed to significant short-term stress, as well as potential long-term trauma. Additionally, neither Milgram nor Zimbardo informed subjects ahead of time of the nature of their participation. While a follow-up of Milgram’s participants indicated that they did not experience any long-term distress, Zimbardo’s prison participants did. Largely as a result of these experiments, ethical standards have been modified to protect participants.


Practice Questions


MCAT Official Prep (AAMC)

Practice Exam 1 P/S Section Passage 5 Question 26

Key Points

• Obedience is generally distinguished from compliance (behavior influenced by peers) and conformity (behavior intended to match that of the majority).

• In Milgram’s experiments on obedience, 65% of participants administered a 450-volt shock to an unresponsive confederate, out of obedience to the experimenter, even though most of the participants felt hesitant to do so.

• In the Stanford prison experiment, participants were selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoner or guard in a mock prison, and they adapted to their roles beyond the experimenter’s expectations.

• Higher levels of perceived prestige and closer proximity to the authority figure are associated with increased obedience. Deindividuation and lack of expertise in the participants were also associated with higher levels of obedience.

Key Terms

obedience: a form of social influence in which a person yields to explicit instructions or orders from an authority figure.

confederate: someone who is part of an experiment, but who pretends to be a participant in the study.

authority: the person or source of power that enables the enforcement of rules and/or gives orders.

deindividuation: a concept in social psychology that is generally thought of as the losing of self-awareness in groups.

compliance: behavior influenced by peers

conformity: behavior intended to match that of the majority

authoritarian: favoring or enforcing strict obedience to authority, especially that of the government, at the expense of personal freedom.

Zimbardo: is an American psychologist  known for his 1971 Stanford prison experiment

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