Crimes of Obedience

In my last post, we discussed a psychological term, the fundamental attribution bias, and were able to determine how it affects the way people make judgments about others. To recap, the fundamental attribution error is a term, which refers to the common human error in which people tend to underestimate situational influences and overestimate individual personality factors, when explaining behavior.

This post will focus on the phenomenon of crimes of obedience, which is defined as: an act performed in response to orders from authority that is considered illegal or immoral by the larger community. This phenomenon can occur in various circumstances of violence, and even in cases of nonviolence including white collar crime in the corporate world.

An example of crimes of obedience within a nonviolent political context could be Nixon’s Watergate scandal. In summary, this was a highly publicized political scandal occurring in the United States due to the 1972 break-in at the DNC (Democratic National Committee) headquarters in Washington, D.C.

One “shocking” study, mentioned in nearly every psychology textbook, which was conducted by Milgram in 1977, demonstrated the effect of obedience to authority in a sample of males aged 20-50 years old. The participants were instructed milgram's study of obedience | Kenneth Padowitz, P.A. | DUI Attorneyto administer a fake “shock” to another individual (a confederate), who was pretending to scream in pain and agony until finally going unconscious. Roughly 2/3 of the participants objected, but continued to obey the researcher when instructed to continue to administer the shocks until the highest level, which was labeled “XXX”.

Today, there are numerous real life examples, and experimental studies (including the famous Stanford Prison Experiment) which have demonstrated the power that the situation has in determining an individual’s behavior. Situational influences play a much larger role in determining behavior than many may believe. In my next post we will explore another situational factor that influences behavior, deindividuation.


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