Studies In Obedience

Psychologists, social scientists and writers have long been interested in the ‘whys’ of obedience and disobedience; many experiments have been conducted to help in understanding these issues and the influences exerted by outside forces on individuals in their decision making processes. Unthinking obedience can be as dangerous as unthinking rebellion in any society, neither is done with self-reflection as a part of the process; however, care must be used in determining the appropriate time for thoughtful disobedience so that society is not destroyed by the dissention.

In a short story by Shirley Jackson entitled “The Lottery,” reprinted in Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum (382), a fictional New England town is introduced in which all the villagers participate annually in a lottery used to determine which inhabitant is to be stoned to death; performed out of habit, it demonstrates ritualized, unthinking obedience to custom. After the publication of the story in 1948 by the New Yorker, many people objected to the perceived implication that the people of New England or America could be as blindly obedient as the characters in the story to any custom, good or bad.

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As Erich Fromm observed in “Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem” (377), disobedience is the first step towards independence and freedom. He noted that human history began in an act of disobedience, that of Adam and Eve’s “…original sin…” (378), which set man free to develop and grow. One of his main points is “In order to disobey, one must have the courage to be alone, to err and to sin” (380).

Along with Fromm, Solomon Asch, noted psychologist, asserts in his article, ‘Opinions and Social Pressure” (336), that it is most likely the case that a solitary person facing a group espousing a different opinion from his own will go along with the group, even in the face of physical evidence showing the group opinion to be blatantly incorrect, rather than face the disapproval of the group. He noted that having one person disagree with the group frees others to disagree as well, and allows them to have a opinion differing from the individual‘s as well as the group‘s. Asch insists, “Life in society requires consensus as an indispensable condition” (342). Without consensus, society could never have come into being; compromise is essential to human relations, without it, anarchy reigns.

Later, Stanley Milgram, “The Perils of Obedience” (343), conducted experiments in obedience on subjects who were exposed to authority figures demanding the injury of other people in the experiment who failed to correctly answer questions asked of them. The subjects answered the demands for mild injury with ready compliance, the demands for stronger measures with protest and compliance, and lethal injury in two ways: protest and refusal or protest and compliance. Most complied. Some subjects later tried to excuse their obedience and place to responsibility on the experimenter, but most admitted responsibility for their own behavior. The majority of the subjects committed unthinking obedience and would likely have killed the person they were instructed to injure had this been a test of intelligence and not one of obedience.

From all four: Asch, Fromm, Jackson and Milgram, comes a repeated theme of unthinking obedience, of individuals’ decisions being controlled by outside influences. In Jackson‘s “The Lottery,” the social pressures are apparent in the seemingly innocent banter covering the nervousness of the villagers as they gather on the green to await the drawing of the lottery tickets. Fromm’s position would suggest that disobedience is necessary for the society of the village in “The Lottery” to progress and grow: unless and until they are able to break away from unthinking obedience to what he calls “authoritarian conscience” (379), the village will never be able to evolve into a better society. According to Asch’s research, if even one person had been willing to face all the other villagers and point out where their society was going wrong, there might have been a chance that others would have broken out of the mold of unthinking obedience and the end result might have been different in “The Lottery,” different for the villagers as a group and different for Mrs. Hutchinson as an individual. Milgram’s research supports Mrs. Hutchinson’s being unable to break away from her unthinking obedience; even as the mob was preparing to stone her, she never said that the villagers were doing wrong, just that she hadn’t had a fair chance.

Thoughtful, timely disobedience is better than thoughtless obedience, as is demonstrated in all of the foregoing works. Compliance and obedience are necessary for any society to function, but in order for a society to grow and evolve, as it must, the individual members must willingly face public disapproval and censure, paying the price brought on themselves by asserting their thoughtful disobedience when their society takes a wrong turn. In this way alone can society progress, grow and become better

Annotated Bibliography
Baer, L., Rausch, S.L., Ballantine, H.T. Jr., Martuza, R., Dimino, C., Jenike, M.A. (1995). Cingulotomy for intractable obsessive-compulsive disorder. Prospective long-term follow-up of 18 patients. Archives of General Psychiatry, 52(5), 384-392.

Study performed to assess long-term changes in patients suffering from intractable, incapacitating obsessive-compulsive disorder [OCD] following cingulotomy. Out of 18 treated, 30% observed to have significant improvement in condition following surgery. Related to thesis of positive changes.

Cohen, R.A., Kaplan, R.F., Moser, D.J., Jenkins, M.A., Wilkinson, H. (1999). Impairments of attention after cingulotomy. Neurology, 53 (4), 819-824.

Cingulate determined to play role in control of emotional behavior and attention. Study involved testing of 12 subjects preoperatively, then 3, and 12 months post-operatively. Test results show serious impairment in areas of attention and executive function 3 months after surgery, and significant attention impairment after 12 months. Supports thesis of negative changes.

Davis, K.D., Hutchinson, W.D., Lozano, A.M., Dostrovsky, J.O. (1994). Altered pain and temperature perception following cingulotomy and capsulotomy in a patient with schizoaffective disorder. Pain, 59 (2), 189-199.

Cingulotomy and capsulation increased patient’s heat and cold perception, causing with increased perception of pain. Supports thesis of negative changes.

Jeinke, M.A. (1998). Neurological treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder. British Journal of Psychiatry, Supplement, (35), 79-90.
Some patients suffering from nonresponsive obsessive-compulsive disorder can obtain partial relief from neurosurgery: cingulotomy; capsulotomy; limbic leucotomy; subcaudate tractotomy. Partial relief of symptoms supports thesis of positive results.

Sabbatini, R.E.M. (1997). The history of psychosurgery. Brain & Mind Magazine, 1 (2).
Defines and examines psychosurgery, including lobotomies, and looks at the practice of neurosurgery from prehistoric times through the present. Neutral in support of thesis.

Webpage of Massachusetts General Hospital. Describes procedure for receiving cingulotomy for medically intractable obsessive-compulsive disorder, chronic pain syndrome, refractory depression, and addictive disorders. Neutral in support of thesis.

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Studies In Obedience. (2018, Jun 12). Retrieved from