The social construction of obedience

Back in the 1960s, a Yale psychologist by the name of Stanley Milgram conducted the infamous “obedience” experiments. Milgram, perhaps looking back on the fascism of WWII, was concerned about authority and compliance. He wanted to know just how compliant humans could be. In order to study compliance, he brought subjects into his laboratory and asked them to apply an increasingly intense, and ultimately deadly (or so they thought) shock to a total stranger to see just how they would react. Cari Romm of The Atlantic explains:

. . . hundreds of people showed up at Milgram’s lab for a learning and memory study that quickly turned into something else entirely. Under the watch of the experimenter, the volunteer — dubbed “the teacher” — would read out strings of words to his partner, “the learner,” who was hooked up to an electric-shock machine in the other room. Each time the learner made a mistake in repeating the words, the teacher was to deliver a shock of increasing intensity, starting at 15 volts (labeled “slight shock” on the machine) and going all the way up to 450 volts (“Danger: severe shock”). Some people, horrified at what they were being asked to do, stopped the experiment early, defying their supervisor’s urging to go on; others continued up to 450 volts, even as the learner pled for mercy, yelled a warning about his heart condition — and then fell alarmingly silent. In the most well-known variation of the experiment, a full 65 percent of people went all the way (Romm, 2015).

You can watch an excerpt from a documentary on the experiments below.

After conducting his experiment, Milgram found that a certain percentage of humans would actually kill another human being if an authority figure was telling them to do it. Milgrim, and others, concluded from this experiment that human beings are wired to follow authority. Humans are sheeple, the conclusion was. If you want them to do something, just wear the right symbols of authority (in this case a lab coat) and you can get them to do anything. This cynical view was echoed by other researchers and, as you see in the video, taught to students. It is what I was taught in my psychology classes all those years ago.

However, over the years, and as a consequence of ongoing research, opinion has shifted. Subsequent and more detailed analysis of his data, and work by other social scientists like Zimbardo (2007), reveal that obedience, far from being something that is an essential part of our human nature, is in fact constructed. Obedience results not from some innate genetic disposition, but from situational factors and a lack of appropriate training. For example, Zimbardo speaks of a System of “complex of powerful forces that create” a situation where violence is accepted and encouraged. Hollander (2015, p. 440) speaks of the ability to train people to resist authority. As he notes, people who disobey “take advantage of a greater range of the full continuum of possible resistance practices than do obedient ones.” People who resist are, essentially, skilled at resistance — somewhere along the line, they have learned the skills they need to stand up to authority, and they do just that. In fact, it may go deeper than that. One author found that people naturally do not follow orders. When experimenters issued statements to their subjects as an order (and not a request), the subjects flat out refused. As Reicher and Haslam (2011) note, “upon closer inspection, it appears that one thing that they show unequivocally is that, when requests are framed as orders, people do not obey” (p. 168).

That people do not naturally follow orders seems to make sense. Soldiers, for example, do not naturally show up at the army door with the capacity to follow orders to kill others. In fact, they show up totally useless to the military establishment, and the establishment isn’t afraid to tell them so. Indeed, as one online marine pamphlet makes clear, candidates go through intense forms of training that prepare them for their role in the military. Interestingly, the military is not above admitting this (Fiocco, 2015). They say that “drill” is the foundation of discipline (a.k.a. obedience) and they admit that the entire reason for basic training is to turn out disciplined (i.e. obedient) soldiers. Well, duh.

The moral of the story here is that it takes a lot of time and effort to overcome genetic resistance to following orders and turn otherwise independent human beings into cogs in a military machine. You can see how the military begins its construction of an obedient soldier in the video excerpt below.

So why did Milgram conduct an experiment that led to the conclusion that humans were sheeple? Well, for one, he was a white, cis-gender, male. As such, he is the model for colonial, capitalist, managerial, authority the world over. As a white, cis-gender, male myself, I can tell you that patriarchal control over others, in domestic, work, and colonial environments, is socialized into us from a very age. It really is no surprise that researchers might use the power and authority of science to unconsciously find ways to justify their patriarchal/colonial authority.

This is even less of a surprise when you consider that Milgram worked for an elite educational institution. An elite education institution is an institution created to train society’s elites. Since elites in society are all about controlling the behaviour of others, it is no surprise that a white, cis-gender male working in an elite institution would construct experiments that provide scientific justification for white, patriarchal, and colonial authority and control. There is nothing wrong with controlling others. No need to feel bad if you happen to be on top. After all, taking orders is something we all naturally do.

You see how that works?

Saying that people are “naturally obedient” helps assuage the guilt and emotional disjuncture that might come to people who make their living exploiting others and telling them what to do. Also, saying that people are naturally obedient helps shift attention onto the actual victims of the process. This shifting of attention is significant, especially if you consider what happens if you spin this conclusion onto its head. If you accept the fact that humans are naturally resistant to authority and NOT naturally sheeple, then the question becomes, what social, political, economic, and ideological mechanisms are used to create this world of compliant, passive-in-the-face-of-ecological-catastrophe, go-to-work-to-be-exploited-every-day individuals.

Looking at the military indoctrination process gives us a small window into the mechanisms whereby humans are “passified” and subjugated to authority. When you look at the military process, you can see, creating “sheeple” takes intense and coordinated effort. When you look at the military process, you also get a glimpse into how it is all done.

However, it is not just military folk whose natural independence is indoctrinated out of them. Once your focus begins to shift, you slowly begin to realize, we all go through the process of subjugation to one degree or another. If you think about it, that’s a dangerous realization, for the elites who depend for their care-free existence on your ongoing compliance. However, once you begin to realize that your compliance is constructed, and once you turn your attention to the mechanisms by which you’re compliance has been created, well then, there’s no telling where you might end up, or what you might eventually do.


Fiocco, S. A. (2015). Roots of discipline found on parade deck. Training & Education Commnand (U.S Marine Corps).

Hollander, M. M. (2015). The repertoire of resistance: Non-compliance with directives in Milgram’s ‘obedience’ experiments. British Journal of Social Psychology, 54(3), 425–444.

Reicher, S., & Haslam, S. A. (2011). After shock? Towards a social identity explanation of the Milgram ‘obedience’ studies. British Journal of Social Psychology, 50, 163–169.

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