Obedience without orders: Expanding social psychology's conception of ‘obedience’

Stephen Gibson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)


Psychologists have typically defined obedience as a form of social influence elicited in response to direct orders from an authority figure. In the most influential set of studies of obedience, conducted by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s, the orders at the disposal of the authority figure were a series of verbal prods. However, recent research has suggested that Milgram's experiments do not show people following orders. It has therefore been suggested that the experiments are not demonstrations of obedience. However, in the present paper, it is argued that rather than abandoning the idea that Milgram's work is a demonstration of obedience, it is in fact our conceptualization of obedience that is wrong. Obedience should not be understood as requiring direct orders from an authority figure. This argument is developed with reference to an extended case example from one of Milgram's experimental conditions in which a participant completed the experiment in the absence of direct orders. It is argued that such participants can still be understood as obedient if we consider the implicit demands of the system in which participants find themselves. The study concludes by presenting a new definition of obedience that omits the need for direct orders.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)241-259
Number of pages19
JournalBritish Journal of Social Psychology
Issue number1
Early online date29 Aug 2018
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2019


  • authority
  • obedience
  • rhetoric
  • social influence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology


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