People are naturally primed to obey authority figures. This trait is inherent to human psychology due to the way we are socialised as children, and commanded to obey the authority of parents, teachers, law enforcement etc. And it is also part of our evolutionary psychology, as obeying commands given by the leaders of a tribe was associated with survival and prosperity.
Respecting and granting authority to those with more expertise and wisdom is understood by people as being logical, and it is logical, so long as those who are granted authority are honourable.
However, throughout history, there have been those granted authority who were not honourable. And they committed, and gave orders to commit, heinous and abominable acts. Yet because of people’s natural disposition to trust and obey authority figures — these acts often went unchallenged for long periods.
The vast majority of humans do feel empathy, and they do naturally adhere to certain basic ethical and moral standards. Thou shalt not harm others unless in self-defence, is generally agreed upon around the world. But throughout history, there have been numerous, entirely unprovoked atrocities committed against defenceless people.
How does this happen?
People obey authority figures for different reasons:
- They see a rationale behind what an authority figure is suggesting, and they go along willingly.
- They yield because they want to please the authority figure and be rewarded.
- They conform to social pressure because their peers are obeying the authority figure.
- They obey because they fear being punished if they do not obey.
And people are much more likely to follow the orders of authority figures when situations are uncertain, ambiguous or confusing, and in particular when a situation is unfolding quickly or there is an apparent crisis. During these situations, people look to those with expertise and authority to guide them. They acquiesce their responsibility, and obey authority figures more readily.
If the authority figure then becomes insistent and emphatic, people will be even more likely to obey. And if the orders are given in small incremental steps — people will often carry on obeying, even if what they are doing begins to conflict with their ethical and moral values.
Many psychology studies have revealed that people will obey orders from authority figures, even when they are faced with enormous inner conflict about doing so. Even orders to harm others are often followed if a person thinks the authority figure knows best.
What’s happening? People are relinquishing their power and responsibility to someone else. They are justifying their actions because, ‘They are following orders from an authority’. And that has been the excuse for many a war criminal — even highly ranked Nazi officers said at Nuremberg they were, ‘Just following orders’.
Once a person begins to obey, they typically find it hard to reconcile turning back and disobeying — especially if they have agreed to follow orders. And so, they abandon their personal responsibility in order to appease their inner conflict. They become automatons, ‘Just following orders’.
But people will also look to their peers for instructions on what to do. Humans are also primed to yield to social pressure and conform to a group. If the group consensus is against the authority figure, people are much more likely to disobey. But if there is consensus in favour of the authority, or the group is divided with no consensus, people will usually resort to obeying the authority figure.
When people see others around them disobeying authority figures, they are much more likely to disobey, especially if they are already in a moral dilemma about what they are doing.
As has happened many times throughout human history, once a situation becomes unclear and the authority figures are seen to be losing control — people break out of their patterns of obedience. They start to question the authority figures. They start to question the legitimacy of what is happening.
This tends to occur when authority figures openly disagree with each other, or when they have been exposed as being incompetent, immoral, corrupt or illegitimate.
In order for the dominoes of disobedience to begin, people have to redefine the situation they are in, and they have to redefine their perspective of the authority figures. They have to realise what is happening is wrong — and then they have to reorient themselves and follow their moral compass — and disobey.
It was disobedience that brought an end to tyranny many times through history. It was the people who chose to stand by their ethics and values who paved the way to justice.