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Obedience to authority: Bias of too much loyalty

Although we could be more impacted by those around us than we realize, it is up to us whether we follow the standard
Published: May 25, 2023 04:01 AM GMT

Updated: May 25, 2023 04:26 AM GMT

Deacons go through the laying-on of hands ritual during an ordination Mass on April 25, 2021, in St. Peter's Basilica at The Vatican, during which the pope ordained nine priests for his diocese as bishop of Rome

Deacons go through the laying-on of hands ritual during an ordination Mass on April 25, 2021, in St. Peter's Basilica at The Vatican, during which the pope ordained nine priests for his diocese as bishop of Rome. (Photo: AFP)

Christians in general and religious orders, in particular, lay great emphasis on the obedience the subjects owe to the superior. In this context, it is insightful to reflect on the bias this obedience may carry with it.

Compliance with orders issued by a higher authority is considered obedience. An actual example of obedience is when a child complies with parental instructions. Another illustration might be a soldier obeying orders from a commander.

The phrase "obedience to authority bias," popular in business ethics and behavioral psychology, refers to the tendency for people to support those who they believe to be authoritative leaders. Even if the individual thinks what they are doing is immoral, this is still true.

This submission to authority is viewed in psychology and ethics as a bias with unfavorable outcomes. People frequently agree to do things that they otherwise wouldn't do on their own as a result of obedience. It only takes one person's authority to persuade someone to make a poor decision.

The propensity for people to appease those in control is known as obedience to authority. This could also signify a readiness to carry out unethical directives. According to psychological research, people often have a tendency to respect and obey those they believe to be in legitimate positions of authority. If people fail to utilize their own independent ethical judgment, this could be problematic.

Most people are able to foresee their superiors' needs and may respond accordingly without being asked specifically to do so. For instance, implicit pressure from high officials was sufficient to persuade division managers to declare false earnings several years ago when Japanese giant Toshiba wanted to boost its profits.

As a result, being willing to obey orders is often a desirable thing. However, when those in power lack moral conviction themselves, unthinking submission to them can have undesirable effects.

A social influence tactic known as obedience is carrying out an action as directed by a higher authority. It differentiates between conformity, which entails changing your behavior to fit in with the rest of the group, and compliance, which entails changing your behavior at someone else's request. Instead, obedience entails changing your behavior in response to a figure of authority.

Obedience vs Conformity

In three crucial ways, obedience differs from conformity: While conformity requires a request, obedience involves an order; Conformity is going along with persons of equal status, obedience is obeying someone with a higher position; While conformity is driven by the desire to fit in, obedience is driven by social influence.

A human community typically has a tendency to conform to one another. First, it's possible that people have a natural propensity to copy other people's behavior. We frequently imitate the gestures, body posture, language, talking rate, and a variety of other behaviors of the individuals we're in contact with, even though we typically aren't conscious of it. Researchers have discovered that this imitation strengthens interpersonal bonds and facilitates more natural interactions.

Psychologists have found two main causes for conformity in addition to our innate propensity to imitate others. Normative influence is the first one. When normative influence is at work, people follow the crowd out of worry about what other people will think of them. We don't want to stand out or draw flak simply because we listen to different music or dress differently than everyone else. The benefits of fitting in include friendship and compliments.

Adverse Effects of Obedience

Although we could be more impacted by those around us than we realize, it is up to us whether we follow the standard. But sometimes choosing what to do is not so simple. Sometimes we are told to do things that we may not want to do by a stronger individual.

The responses people have when issued an order or command by a person in a position of authority are of interest to researchers who study obedience.

Obedience is beneficial a lot of times. Early on, we learn that we should respect our parents, teachers, and law enforcement. Observing the orders of judges, firefighters and lifeguards is also crucial. Additionally, if soldiers stopped following commands from superiors, a military would cease to exist.

But obedience also has a negative side. People are capable of transgressing moral standards and breaking the law in the name of "following orders" or "just doing my job." More frighteningly, obedience frequently forms the basis of the most horrific human actions, including genocide, atrocities, and mass murder.

This uncomfortable aspect of obedience inspired some of the most well-known and divisive psychological studies in the field's history.

Stanley Milgram, an American social psychologist (1933–1984), was interested in understanding why so many virtuous Germans supported the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime during the Holocaust.

According to Milgram, "These terrible practices may have been the brainchild of a single individual, but they could only be implemented on a gigantic scale if a very large number of folks obeyed commands."

Milgram conducted a number of laboratory tests that have now become renowned research on obedience and its detrimental effects in order to comprehend this obedience.  Due to this, the case of Adolf Eichmann, a German-Austrian official of the Nazi Party, has gained considerable notoriety.

Finally, it is also important to keep in mind that even while a number of variables seem to encourage compliance, there are those people who would choose not to do so. In one trial, the researchers determined that the main factors influencing refusal were sympathy, ethics, and awareness of the difficulty of the issue. As a result, people can defy authority in some situations just as there are demands to follow.

We are all more impacted by the people around us than we realize, according to social psychologists. Everyone is different, of course, and eventually, we all get to decide what we will and won't do. However, decades of studies on obedience and conformity have demonstrated that we live in a social world and that much of what we do is a reflection of the people we come into contact with, for better or worse.


In Church circles obedience is considered a very holy and necessary virtue, which is part of seeking God’s will by surrendering one’s will to that of the superior. This demands that superiors are genuinely holy and are searching for the will of God.

At the same time, both superiors and subjects need to realize the dangers that psychology and ethics point out in terms of obedience bias. This is especially true of the Indian subcontinent, where obedience is seen as a necessary virtue, which it is, provided it is done without self-interest.

*Jesuit Father Kuruvilla Pandikattu is a theologian and Chair Professor of JRD Tata Foundation for Business Ethics at XLRI-Xavier School of Management in Jamshedpur, India. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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