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Autonomy & Authority

Dominance hierarchy can be observed in all corners of the animal kingdom. This communal infrastructure requires an ability of the subject to make distinctions between ranks of the group members based on status. Survival of a group member demands the recognition of forbidden and permissible actions based on the ranking of the individual member. Failure to adhere to the hierarchy results in death or exclusion from the group. This animalistic hierarchy may be theorized as a predecessor to the societal hierarchy that pervades throughout human history and across civilizations of the globe.

Over time and evolution, it may be argued, that this cooperation has led to a complex hierarchy socialized into humanity through group activities such as communities, school, work, and family compositions. Cooperation in the order of society is seemed to be valued and rewarded, for example; behaviors of obedience to teachers, parents, authoritative figureheads, etc. are met with positive reinforcement. It is desirable in human society that these behaviors continue. The positive encouragement for this behavior creates a possible mode of being in what social psychologist Stanley Milgram referred to as the “agentic state” (McLeod, 2007). While in the agentic state, Milgram suggested that individuals allow others to direct their actions, behaving as agents of obedience to the authority figure and passing off responsibility for the consequences of their actions. This state is in contrast of an “autonomous state,” in which individuals direct and take responsibility for their own actions and the results of those actions. Milgram demonstrates these states with an experiment done at Yale University in 1961 (McLeod, 2007).

During Milgram’s experiment, it seems individuals displayed a willingness to cede responsibility for their actions to those they perceived as legitimate authority figures. The experiment was conducted with the goal of learning how far the general population was willing to go in obeying the instructions of authority figures if they involved harming another person. In particular, Milgram’s background interest in conducting the study was sparked by individuals’ willingness to carry out the atrocious orders of recognized authority figures in World War II. The participants of Milgram’s experiment included Milgram’s colleagues and 40 men picked at random. The random men were asked to pull straws, which had been fixed, in order to appoint the individual in the role of “teacher” while a coworker of Milgram’s was given the role of “learner.” The unsuspecting teacher was then ordered to shock the learner if the learner gave a wrong answer to a battery of prepared questions. After each wrong answer, the shocks gradually increased in severity. All teacher participants gave shocks up to 300 volts, and two thirds of the men continued to the highest level of 450 volts.

The teachers were not aware that the learners were colleges of Milgram’s and that the shocks were not actually being administered. However, fictitious sounds of reactions to the shocks were prerecorded and played back to the teacher during the experiment. When hesitant to continue administering the shocks, an actor in a lab coat supposed to be an authoritative figure of the study, prompted the participant to continue in dispensing the punishment. From this experiment, it is widely hypothesized that the general population is willing to follow orders given by an authority figure, even if those orders directly harm, or even kill, another human being (McLeod, 2007).

Obedience begins in adolescence as children look toward adult members of the family structure for guidance of social permissions and restrictions. Children wish to please their parents as obedient behavior is rewarded and disobedience is reprimanded. Continuing into years of teenage maturation in the developed world, societal hierarchies become more complex. Peers become inferior and superior based on status in groups, members look toward collective leaders for direction of social cues. Figureheads of rule and law extend outside of parents and onto other societal members, increasing the range of a previously smaller societal hierarchy.

In adulthood, individuals look toward authoritative figures such as governments, bosses, gods, and smaller scale group leaders to direct social behaviors. Authority is externally sourced as individuals give up personal autonomy for formulating decisions in order to remain members of a group. This cooperation may be explained as a collective belief in a common goal. Group members can be focused on the progress of a collective mission, such as with the Milgram experiment. The members of the study participated presuming their actions furthered an objective of scientific progress that was important to the authoritative figurehead conducting the experiment. Allowing an external voice to be the source of authority enabled the participants to relinquish consequences of their actions and continue administering shocks against the obvious discomfort of the shocked individual and personal moral conflictions of the participant.

Disobeying the social order of authority creates discomfort. In the position of choosing whether to obey their own morals or obey the authority figure, Milgram’s experiment (and the subsequent experimental replications) demonstrate societal members’ willingness to abandon personal ideals in favor of perceived authority. Group members value the word of established superiors; trusting their prestige, competence, knowledge, and expertise over individual perspective. World War II produced disconnected lines of, “I was just following orders,” This phrase drew the attention of many scholars toward the implications of power from authoritative positions and the consequences of renouncing individual responsibility in preference for decisions influenced by authority. Culpability for actions under the guise of following authoritative commands, requires an admission of consistent actions up to that point to have been wrong and under the control of the participant rather than the figurehead perceived as “in charge.” It seems to be much easier to surrender control of personal actions to an external source rather than confess the responsibility of those consequences to one’s self.

The Milgram experiment emphasized the power of authoritative conformity. Privately, during critical life situations, the call for consciously evaluating the morality of an action is normative. However, studies seem to acknowledge a submission, when demanded by authority, of unquestioned obedience. Personal motive seems not to be a main influence of the actions of members loyal to societal groups of tribes, nations, churches, and ideologies. To the participant, the actions are of duty, loyalty, and patriotism. Relinquishing personal authority results in a loss of self-awareness and restraint of personal accountability. As a member of the collective the individual is at the mercy of the groups’ experiences—whether those experiences are right or wrong, according to the individual’s own ethical morality.

On a large scale, the history of World War II has provided an example of what implications might arise from disarming personal responsibility in support of perceived authority. One willing to abandon personal independence in the face of perceived power risks deindividuation (Morgan, 2017). The individual may lose autonomy and experience a cognitive dissonance in order to reconcile behavioral conflicts and prior perceived images of Self. Biases of favor to one’s own pre-existing societal arrangement threaten to facilitate a blindness of support to authority and external sourced decisions over personal moral ethics. Maintenance of autonomy requires admission of responsibility of one’s own actions, self-education, an overcoming of biases, and the personal use of consciously evaluating subjective decisions.

For thousands of years the societal hierarchy has demanded obedience. There are alleged consequences for disobeying authoritative figureheads. These types of social groups impose a strict adherence to a moral code enforced by social hierarchies and authorities in positions of power. The perception of an authoritative figure greatly influences the behavior of individuals. Enabling outside forces to dictate personal ethical codes and actions sets a dangerous precedent for a society unable to critically think and care for themselves. Being open to allowing authority to command one’s actions allows the possibility for manipulation and the loss of responsibility of actions committed by the involved person. Individuals participating in this communal practice of relinquishing power may feel a sense of personal identity, however comforting, it is still artificial. Studying psychologist Tami Morgan (2017) confronts the issue of autonomy, asking, “Who is the individual when left without a link to community? Where does community end and Self begin? Is the individual able to become completely independent, free, and willing to act as a responsible agent of one’s own choices?”

The clinical application of an individual’s relationship to authority opens many realms of investigation. Thresholds of development are experienced differently for every individual. What are the life experiences a client has with authority figures in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood? How might this influence current behavior? How can the therapist maintain a healthy boundary between autonomy and the obedience of certain authorities? The societal hierarchy and figureheads of authority in the lives of individuals and how they respond to this power are important factors in facilitating growth and autonomy for the healthy development of an individual.

McLeod, S.A. (2007). The Milgram Experiment. Retrieved from
Morgan, T. M. (2017). Do You See What I See? How Symbol Integration Facilitates Responsibility to Self and Culture (master’s thesis). Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpentaria, United States.