Among psychologists, there has been a standard definition of obedience for many years. One psychology textbook defines it as: “Obedience is behavior change produced by the commands of authority.” In other words, when someone gives you a direct order or command, and you comply with that order. One problem is that the usual definition of obedience doesn’t exactly define what is meant by an order or command.

Stanley Milgram defined command this way: “A command consists of two parts: a definition of action and the imperative that the action is executed. (A request, for example, contains a definition of action but lacks the insistence that it be carried out.” However, Milgram’s work showed that there was something else going on. As it turns out, the context present in the obedience studies often seemed to have as much or more impact as the words spoken. Even though the authority figures in Milgram’s study often made requests rather than demands, the subjects did what the authority wanted, even when it was distressing to them.

Milgram then further conducted more experiments and interpreted the results as being related to two theories

  • Theory of conformism
  • Agentic state theory.

The theory of conformism says that the subject who is unable or unknowledgeable to make the decision leaves the decision to the group in charge. In short, they relied on the group because they felt the experimenter knew more than they did.

The agentic state theory says that the subject obeys because they see themselves as an agent of the experimenter, so they take no personal responsibility for what happens. In other words, they thought it was wrong, but hey, it wasn’t their fault.