We're Taught From Birth to Obey Authority - But What Should We Do If the Authority Is Wrong?

Personal Health

The following is excerpted from the new book Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You're Told To Do Is Wrong  by Ira Chaleff (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015):

I was teaching a class on courageous followership to a group of doctoral candidates at a Methodist university. Courageous followership is a way of being in relation to leaders. It requires giving those in leadership roles genuine support and building relationships with them that will allow those in follower roles to speak candidly when needed to prevent or correct leadership failures. It was a great class with lots of lively, engaged dialogue. During a break, one of the students came up to me and told a story that made a deep impression on me. This story happened twenty years prior to our conversation.

She had been a young nurse, fresh out of nursing school and assigned to a hospital emergency room. A cardiac patient was rushed in. After a quick assessment, the emergency room physician ordered her to administer the medication he judged the patient needed. She was stunned because she had been taught that this particular medication carried grave risks for a cardiac patient.

For a moment, put yourself in her shoes—in those days, probably uniform white shoes. This was an era when nearly all physicians were male, all nurses female, so the gender-based inequality of power was pronounced. The physician was older and more experienced, so this added to the perceived power differential. And, after all, he was a physician, with years more training than she had! Can you feel how many social forces were at work pushing her to snap to and do what she was told? Can you sense the time pressure to act one way or another with a cardiac patient’s life at stake?

She confided that she did not know where the needed courage came from to speak back to this authority figure. She told the doctor that she had been taught that particular medication could be fatal in this patient’s situation.

What was the doctor’s response? As is so often the case with someone in authority, he bristled at the questioning of his decision and in a raised voice, with a stern glare told her, “You just do it!”

Imagine yourself in that moment. You are in an emergency room. You chose nursing as a profession to help people. You want to be a competent, caring professional. If you act against your training and administer the medication and the patient dies, how are you going to feel? How will you face the patient’s family? How will you face a review board that examines actions that were taken? There is no “do-over.” But what if the doctor is right and you disobey? What if your refusal to act endangers the life you are trying to save? How will you live with that? And what will be the repercussions of disobedience on your career that you have just spent several years preparing for?

There’s no time to hesitate. What would you do?

Seriously, what would you do?

We don’t face such obvious life and death choices like this every day, but it is just such a choice that requires us to think about our accountability for obeying or disobeying, regardless of who gave the order. And it gives us a chance to mentally rehearse what it feels like to be under great pressure from an authority figure to do something we feel may be wrong, or even very wrong. When under pressure like this, our ability to make rational or moral calculations may freeze as we are flooded with stress hormones. Our ability to think outside the two choices—obey or disobey—may shut us off from productive alternative responses. The decision to question a forcefully given order usually must be made in a situation of high emotional stress. Will that excuse the choice you make? Will that allow you to fall back on “I was just following orders”?

If you’ve allowed yourself to feel what this young nurse must have been feeling, you realize that you’re at the point where you are going to need to take a deep breath, pump some oxygen to the brain, and quiet your fear sufficiently to make a principled decision.

So I invite you to actually do that now, to keep experiencing what she must have felt like. Take a deep breath. Take a moment. Think about alternatives to responding to the situation you suddenly find yourself in.

Now let’s return to the emergency room to see what the young nurse did. This is a paraphrase of what she told me:

“I hooked up the IV bag to the patient, and I injected the medication the doctor had ordered into the bag. Then I called the doctor over and told him the medication was ready to be administered. All that was needed was to open the valve on the IV bag, but that I couldn’t do it because it violated my training. He would need to open the valve himself.”

Do you see how she found a stance that was neither obeying nor disobeying, but stayed true to the principles she had been taught? Most of the groups to which I tell the story at this point let out low sounds of admiration for the way this newly minted professional found the composure to hold her ground. Icertainly do. I am not at all sure that I would have had the presence of mind to generate the option she chose in that intense situation. That is the value of sharing stories. They mentally rehearse us for times when we find ourselves in similar, intense situations.

What was the outcome of this story?

The nurse’s requirement that the doctor himself open the valve, if he was indeed convinced that his order was correct, stopped him in his tracks. It was enough to get him to rethink the risks and the other options that were available. He changed his order to administer a different medication, which the nurse promptly did. The patient recovered fully.

What was going on here? Was this an incompetent doctor? Probably not. Just as we put ourselves in the nurse’s shoes, we need to put ourselves in the doctor’s shoes. He may have been doing his residency at the hospital, a requirement for all physicians. Hospital residencies are infamous for the brutally long hours they require, particularly in the period this occurred. It could be that he was sleep deprived and that his own mental processes were operating at a reduced level. Emergency rooms can be particularly hectic places where the patient load suddenly spikes as several ambulances arrive at once, or violently ill patients begin retching or having seizures in the waiting area. Maybe the doctor himself had a touch of illness he was working over.

None of these conjectures are to excuse bad decisions; they are offered to humanize the authority figure. Whether a doctor, factory manager, fast-food supervisor, school principal, financial executive, or athletic coach, sometimes those in authority are not at their best, yet the responsibilities of their position require them to act. We must be able to see them as both having legitimate authority and human frailty, and at times be prepared to question them, correct them, or even disobey them. Because we can’t say “we were just following orders.”

Remember that nurse. There is one great role model, whatever your profession.


The following is a foreword to Intelligent Disobedience, written by Philip Zimbardo, creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment, 2014:

From our earliest socialization, we are rewarded for obeying all authorities: parents, teachers, religious leaders, politicians, and more. Nowhere in our educational system, or even our social system of values, is there training in appropriate disobedience or simply to distinguish between obedience to just authority and defying unjust authority.

In our private and public institutions, we see perennial catastrophic results of this failure among adults who should know better, but conform, comply, and obey anyone who conveys a sense of authority. In the schooling of our young, we see patterns of obedience being formed that lead to misplaced obedience when they become the adults in those institutions. Where do we turn to for fresh answers to striking the right balance between obedience to authority and independent choice?

We can turn to two places. First we turn to traditional social sciences for research-based answers and maybe solutions. Then we turn in a totally new direction, which we can learn from the training of trusted guide dogs who are taught what is called Intelligent Disobedience.

It is has been a half century since the great social science experiments on authority and obedience, first by Stanley Milgram at Yale University in the 1960s, then followed by my Stanford Prison Experiment in the early 1970s. Milgram’s work revealed that among ordinary citizens, two-thirds were willing to deliver painful shocks at the insistence of an authority who was a stranger to them. The good news in that research program was that when participants observed people like themselves refusing to deliver the painful shocks, then 90 percent of them refused. That means we are prone to obey authority, but also affected by the behavior of our peers. Thus we are all social role models, and what we do—for good or for bad—has a ripple effect when other people observe us.

My research at Stanford University extended the Milgram paradigm away from a single authority issuing commands to having participants embedded in a social context where the power resided in the situation. Normal, healthy college students, randomly assigned roles of prisoner or guard, lived in a simulated prison setting—prisoners did so day and night, the guards for eight-hour shifts. We intended the study to run for two weeks but had to terminate it after six days because it had run out of control.

Our goal was to create the mindset in these college student participants that they were real prisoners and real guards in a real prison. That goal was accomplished far beyond what I could imagine when we began. In the contest between good people and evil situation, humanity lost and the situation won. Put differently, the dispositions of the individuals predicted nothing about how they behaved in either condition when overwhelmed by a powerful, novel social setting.

Even I was caught up in the power of that situation by mistakenly playing dual roles of principal investigator and prison superintendent. In the latter role, I became indifferent to the suffering of these young men, allowing the guard abuse that emerged to continue much longer than it should have. The takeaway message from this study is that human behavior is more under the control of situational influences than we want to believe, as we continue to cherish the concept of freedom of the will and inner determination of our behavior.

More recently, I have been conducting research in the Netherlands and Sicily, with my colleague Piero Bocchiaro, to illuminate the conditions that can lead to disobedience to unjust authority. We introduce the concept of productive disobedience, an act of peaceful noncompliance with laws or norms or the demands of authority that, if followed, would hinder the moral progress of society.

What happens when a scenario is described to college students that clearly depicts an authority figure making unethical and unjust demands on student participants, and they describe how they would react? The vast majority report they would rebel; however, when their classmates are actually put into that very same situation, just the opposite occurs—more than 80 percent blindly obey! This again reveals the power of situational norms to dominate moral reasoning.

Our only bright light was discovering that those high on the anti-authoritarian personality trait were best able to be defiant. We found disobedience could be enhanced when in the presence of student rebels and when obedience had a high personal cost. The overall high rate of obedience to authority was, however, distressingly high.

Despite my proselytizing these messages for many years, humanity is no closer to having absorbed the lessons of these experiments than it was before they were made part of our social consciousness. In ourprivate and public institutions, we still see perennial catastrophic results of this failure among adults who should know better. It is evident in the schooling of our young where we see patterns of rigid obedience being formed from day one by teachers and officials. This leads, in turn, to misplaced obedience when these students become the adults and taxpayers supporting those institutions. Nowhere is there any attempt to teach the fundamental difference between just and unjust authority, the former earning our respect, the latter justifying disobedience and rebellion.

Where do we turn for fresh answers for striking the right balance between rigid, mindless obedience to authority and independent choice? Our society gives lip service to creating independent thinkers as a primary result of all education. But so far, there is not much to show for the success of that ideal.

I was surprised to discover the answers I was seeking in this remarkable book by Ira Chaleff. He offers us a metaphor and an effective model from “man’s best friend.” It is clear that we painstakingly teach guide dogs how to discern between when to obey and when to resist in order to avoid causing harm if given dangerous commands. Surely, we can do the same in the acculturation of our young and the development of our professionals in the highly sensitive roles that our society gives them to make things run properly. Whether training teachers for classroom management, guards for the security roles that have become ubiquitous, or information specialists who control our privacy and the protection of our identity, it is crucial to develop new ways of distinguishing between appropriate obedience and rightful disobedience.

Reading this remarkable book has given me new hope for the prospect of humanity finally learning the overdue lessons needed to cope effectively with the many urgent challenges of our times. I do hope that you, dear reader, will also learn and apply the vital messages contained in Intelligent Disobedience. It is our communal responsibility to see that its lessons will be taught in relevant ways at every stage of human and professional development—to our youth, as well as to our social, religious, business, and political leaders.

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