Why do People Obey Authority?

Imagine a man who knocks at your door and claims that he is a police officer.  He is dressed in a sleeveless jersey, baggy shorts and flip-flop sandals.

  He commands you to go with him to the police station on his dilapidated Volkswagen beetle and answer some questions there.  Would you believe him and obey him?  In your right mind, probably not.  But even if the man were dressed in uniform, with a Ferrari-like automobile, some people, like many crooks, will still not obey the officer.  For these people, they know that obedience is like being a victim of a trick, like a dog playing dead, rolling over and sitting at the command of its owner.  Indeed, people obey authority because of compulsions from the Freudian id, including fear, instincts from the superego, such as pride, or moderations from the ego—a combination of the two.Fear is a motivation for obedience.  People are conditioned to fear starting from birth.

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  Punishment is a consequence of disobedience, but rewards are given for compliance.  Parents practice this policy with their children, and as they grow up, they experience similar policies with their teachers, professors, clergymen, policemen, government officials, business managers and so forth.  It becomes part of people’s instincts to obey even if obedience sometimes doesn’t make sense.

  But over time, people also learn the tricks of the trade and they stop complying.  During, the European Middle Ages, for example, the Roman Catholic Church was the absolute authority, but people eventually figured out that they were just being conned, so obedience to the Church declined.  Moreover, in the past, many businesses required employees to dress up in suits, ties and even hats.  They also required personnel to address managers by their last names or use authoritative titles.  But over time, employees figured out that they were being scammed.  Sometimes, managers did not know as much as employees, and the clothes that managers wore were all fake and superficial since people knew that they were all naked like animals at the end of the day.  So instead of being obedient, personnel became rebellious.

  In due time, many companies started dressing down and calling each other by their first name, even if they were the president or CEO of the company.Truly, another motivation for obedience is pride.  Some countries like England or Thailand still have monarchies in “power.”  People “obey” or respect their king or queen, just like knights in shining armor, because they may feel a sense of duty to a higher cause, or they might simply idolize them like movie stars or pop idols.  They are attracted to their cause or their personality, and the influence of these star personalities motivates them to obey.  Citizens may also feel a need for order and stability in society; thus, obedience to authority is a must for civilization to survive.Many times, however, people obey as a result of combinations between the two motivations.  This type of motivation comes from the ego—the moderator between the id and superego.

  Employees, for instance, may obey their managers because they may fear poverty or unemployment to some degree, but they may also simultaneously feel a duty to society or the pride of being with an organization with functional components that lead to a better world.All in all, people obey authority because of impulses from their id, superego and ego.  More often then not, they obey due to combinations of fear and pride.  Fear, or the id, is at the bottom of the motivational hierarchy, and the superego and ego are above it.  A competent manager will balance all these.ReferencesFreud, Sigmund. (1923).

 The Ego and the Id.   W. W. Norton & Company. 



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