Law and order keep us safe and under control. For the most part, we can all get along with that. So, what is it in our psychology that makes some people content with obedience, while others shun the whole idea?

Obedience and obeying the rules seem like second nature to most of us. We navigate our entire lives within the confines of the rules set by our parents, our schools, our jobs, and our country. This is not a bad thing, despite what the class clowns might want you to think.

The Psychology of Obedience

There are a whole host of reasons for why we obey. These extend from a fear of punishment to truly believing in what we’re told to do. These reasons can be personal or very general, based on our natural human psychology.

Status Quo Bias

This theory on the psychology of obedience highlights our desire to avoid change. Traditionally we tend to stick with rules and routines that we’re used to. We obey rules that are ingrained in society because deviating might mean losing what we’ve already established.

We feel we have less to lose if we obey the rules. This is because our lives will stay the same when we don’t deviate from tradition. Just like choosing the same meal in a restaurant with every visit, we simply try to avoid regret. This is called Loss Aversion.

We’re also victims of the Mere Exposure Effect. This theory suggests that we choose obedience simply because we’ve been exposed to it. This suggests that psychological obedience is actually created environmentally. If our parents and friends are obedient people, we usually are too.

Mass Surveillance

We know we’re being watched. Sometimes, our obedience isn’t psychological at all. We may disagree with the rules. We may wish we were behaving differently.

Unfortunately, the presence of CCTV cameras means we typically do our best to obey the rules. The risk of being caught in the act is too great when we know we could be seen.

Coercive Power

When we fear punishment, we obey the rules. Authority figures have this kind of power. The psychological element of this kind of obedience is the anxiety we feel when it comes to consequences. We are terrified of being scolded. We dread having our luxuries taken away. If we disobey at work, we lose our job.

Similarly, our obedience can be influenced by Reward Power. In this case, we obey the rules and demands of others because we want to be rewarded. This could be praise, a raise, or even awards. Psychologically, rewards can even be more influential on our willingness to obey than the fear of punishment.

Agentic State

Psychologists hold that The Agentic State is a mind-space we enter which influences our obedience. This especially applies when the order or rule we’ve been given is not something we like. We shift into this state to put blame on those who gave the orders, rather than ourselves.

A real-life application of this psychological state is seen in those who commit terrible crimes. Psychologists first noticed this phenomenon during the trials of officers who worked under Hitler. These Nazi officers would use the “I was only doing as I was told” excuse to justify their part in such heinous crimes.

The agentic state allowed them to hide behind their superiors, and genuinely believed they were blameless, despite carrying out monstrous acts. By convincing ourselves that we wouldn’t be to blame, we’re much more likely to obey even the evilest of commands.

But why, if we’re so psychologically prone to obedience, do we ever disobey?

Peer Pressure

When we crave popularity or acceptance into a group, we’ll do whatever it takes. Back in school, the “popular kids” tended to be the ones who broke the rules. They skipped class, drank alcohol and took drugs. They disobeyed most rules set by teachers and parents, and they were adored for it.

Especially in our teenage years, rebellion is considered desirable. It shows courage and a laid-back attitude that draws attention.

With this theory, all the psychology that goes into obedience flies out of the window. If we wanted to be liked by the “coolest” of our peers, we had to disobey. Right and wrong weren’t factors.

Intelligent Disobedience

Education is a strong factor in the psychology of disobedience. Simply put, the more naïve you are, the more likely you are to follow without thinking. With intelligence comes the ability to review rules, and especially government policies, for yourself.

The rise in protests and acts of defiance around the world recently can be blamed on new knowledge. These are known as acts of Civil Disobedience.

These rule-breaking, and sometimes law-breaking, protests are the result of education. As we become more knowledgeable about matters of climate change or social justice, we begin to realize that our rules and laws are incorrect. We try to rise up and get noticed by politicians, who we feel aren’t as educated on certain matters.

In order to have these injustices rectified, we have to break some rules. As the saying goes, you cannot make an omelet without first breaking some eggs. Psychologically, we feel our knowledge outranks the traditional hierarchies. This can include parent to child, teacher to student, or citizen to government.

Helper Syndrome

Consider the story of Robin Hood. Steal from the rich, give to the poor. This is an obvious act of disobedience; theft is a crime. However, we can often justify our actions if we think we’ve done them for the greater good.

If your family is poor and starving, is it okay to steal bread to feed them? If you’re under threat, is self-defense a valid excuse for murder?

Sometimes, we believe we must do something bad in order to rectify wrongdoing. This could be to ourselves personally, or on behalf of society as a whole.

References:

  1. https://www.psychologicalscience.org
  2. https://www.thoughtco.com
  3. https://www.pmi.org
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