Obedience to Authority: How Far Should You Take It?

Most people have seen the videotape of a passenger being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight. Apparently, the flight was over-booked and four United crew members were needed for another flight the next day. United requested four passengers to give up their seats. Three of the four went quietly, but Dr. Dao, a 69 year old Kentucky physician, refused. Three security officers pulled him out of his seat. Dr. Dao suffered a concussion, broken nose and damaged sinuses and lost two front teeth when he was dragged off a flight. His family was “horrified, shocked and sickened” by the incident. His daughter said “What happened to my dad should never have happened to any human being, regardless of the circumstances.”

There is public outcry about this man’s treatment. United Airlines personnel were acting in accordance with the airline’s policy. They were following protocol. In the aftermath of this incident, United has apologized, refunded the other passenger’s fees, and changed their policy. Although they were following the chain of command, didn’t they have a higher moral principle at stake here? Should they have taken the moral high ground and refused to engage in this violence?

Many of us would like to think that we would’ve tried to intervene to stop the violence. It’s easy to blame the airline, the security officers, perhaps even the other passengers for sitting idly by. In my fantasies, I’d like to think that I would offer myself as a shield and encourage others to do the same. But the truth is, I am not a courageous person. If given a choice of fight, flight or freeze, my history tells me that I would freeze.

There are rules after all, and we are expected to play by the rules, right? Dr. Dao did not follow orders. There may be times when we are called to make a choice between obeying authority and respecting the dignity and safety of another human being. Sometimes our conscious speaks to us. We may know right from wrong, but don’t always act accordingly.

It turns out that humans are hardwired to obey authority. From childhood we are taught to obey authorities like our parents, teachers, religious leaders, and our bosses. We lack training in disobedience toward unjust authority.

There are two psychological studies that address obedience to authority figures, the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments. These studies show that on average, people will obey authority figures despite moral objections, and will become authoritative and cruel in position of power. We are wired to follow leaders and side with in-groups (and against out-groups as we perceive them) at the expense of moral principles.

Stanley Milgram did a study at Yale in 1961 in which an authority figure tells a person to shock a person in the other room when that person gets the wrong answer on a test. As a Jewish American, he wanted to know why the average German would enact cruel orders of the NAZI party, without question. He found that all participants obeyed the authority figure despite moral objections. None of the participants checked on the victim to see if they were OK, and no one requested that the experiment be stopped.

Phillip Zimbardo, conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment, during the 1970s to understand the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or a prison guard. People were randomly assigned the status of prisoner or guard. The study found that the guard became authoritative and abusive, and the prisoners tended to obey the guards, even though they knew it was just an experiment. Repeated studies show similar results all over the world. It is believed that people are naturally primed to obey authority, likely due to group dynamics. Obedience involves a hierarchy of power or status. Conformity happens through social group pressure.

Adolf Eichmann helped organize the Holocaust, in which six million Jewish people were killed. He was executed in 1962. He expressed surprise that Jewish people hated him, stating that he had just followed orders, and that obeying orders is a good thing. He wrote “The orders were, for me, the highest thing in my life and I had to obey them without question.” He did not appear to be a monster – he had a normal family life, was declared sane and was described as very average. His behavior was the product of social expectations.

The United incident happened quickly. What would you do? We don’t always have time to thoughtfully consider our options. Next time you “just follow orders,” take a deep breath, quiet your fears, and make a principled decision.


One thought on “Obedience to Authority: How Far Should You Take It?

  1. Makes one stop and think, doesn’t it? Probably a person wouldn’t know until personally confronted with a situation matching authority with morality. Thanks also for the Dan Rather post. Trump’s “Great Armada” debacle (even with submarines that aren’t really there) is scary. Enough of these might get him impeached. Dick

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