There are many noteworthy, detrimental social events which involved
individuals blindly conforming or obeying commands. One could argue that these
bad social events were caused by an individual with perceived authority issuing
direct or indirect commands to their followers (clear example of obedience). In
considerable contrast, to blindly conform, individuals would succumb to group
influence (Crutchfield, 1955). In organisations (such as cults and sects)
individuals have inflicted horrific acts in obedience to authority. However,
they may inflict harm to fulfil personal and societal needs, rather than
obeying to authority.  This raises the
question of whether authority is needed for an individual to inflict harm
(physical, emotional or psychological pain) onto others. Even though an
individual’s participation in organisations can be detrimental, they can also be
a force for good. It will be explored as to what extent authority is a mediating
factor in behavioural responses like conformity or obedience.

To truly show the extent of the effect of power of authority
on obedience, psychological evidence such as Turner’s (1991)
self-categorisation theory can be explored. This claims that as social
influence (e.g. authority) so does the group’s function in society as well.
Hence, due to the increased presence of authority, there is an amplified
likelihood that an individual will align themselves with the group and its
ideals. Real life examples show the effect of the self-categorisation theory,
supporting the claim that authority influences obedience. For example, the
Jonestown Massacre (1978), consisted of 900 members of the People’s Temple
committing suicide in response to Jim Jones. These members died in a mass
suicide as parents injected harmful poison into their children’s throats and then
committed suicide under Jones’ watchful eye. Chiu, 2017. One might argue they
inflicted a harmful act upon themselves and their children whilst obeying a
command from their perceived authoritarian of Jim Jones. In empirical support
of the self-categorisation theory, Bion (1961) suggests three psychological
states of which one can be applied here. It can be reasoned that members of the
People’s Temple showed characteristics of the dependency group. They turned to
an omnipotent leader for security whilst seeking directions and following orders.
The preacher had been idealised and placed on a pedestal. By idealising Jim
Jones and his authority (a key source of social influence), individuals enabled
themselves to commit harm which are aligned with the People’s Temple’s

On the other hand, the social identity theory emphasises
authority may not have the detrimental effect as thought by many. This theory
emphasises the role of the self in showing behaviour and claims that an
individual may conduct their behaviour in alignment with their pursuit to
fulfil their social identity. To construct their social identity, individuals
may try to find a community who share similar values as them, emotionally and
significantly (Tajfel, 1974). But, these values may be harmful, in which could
incite an individual to commit harmful acts, in their quest to construct their
social identity. A clear example of which individuals committed harm on either
themselves or others is the presence of Internet Suicide Pacts in Japan, as
found by Ozawa-de Silva (2008).  This
phenomenon involved the idea of people posting death adverts where people were
looking for someone to die with, thus looking for someone with same values. The
reason individuals are looking for someone to die with is because they lack
ikigai (the worth of living, which may inflict harm on others as they are
encouraging others to also commit a harmful act). But it can be argued that
they may have posted these death ads to belong to a social group (as they wanted
to create their social identity) that they may be comfortable with someone that
shares the same social values as this. It raises the question in society as to
what is more important: an individual’s social identity or the acts they commit
to fulfil them. In support of this being used to assess human behaviour, Turner
et al. (1994), highlight the interactionist nature of the social identity
theory. They claim that this theory is not reductionist, individualist, but is
rather interested in how psychology is interested in the social nature of humanity.
In further support and as claimed by Oakes (2002), the social identity theory
attempts to specify when subjective identification happens and how this
influences behaviour, thought and perception.

Regardless of this, theorists have argued that individuals
may inflict harm on others because they are more susceptible to group influence
due to their reduced self-awareness (also known as being in a deindividuated
state). Classical deindividuation theorists like Zimbardo (1969) proposed that
anonymity in a group can lead to decreased self-awareness which results in
antisocial behaviour (e.g. causing harm). Hence, being in a group decreases
identifiability, whilst increasing the likelihood of committing antisocial
behaviour. The effects of an deindividuated state leading to harmful behaviour can
be observed in key events in history, an example being the London Riots in
2011. These riots started in Tottenham and swept across the UK. Many academics
wanted to know what caused such an epidemic of antisocial behaviour. For
instance, Chaplain (2017) commented that the cause of widespread rioting, was individuals
feeling united against a common enemy (in this case being the police).
Furthermore, five people died, and property damage estimated at £200 million,
and 3,000 arrests were made by the police (The Telgraph, 2017).  It could be argued that due to a lot of
people rioting the streets of London, the lack of identifiability motivated
individuals to cause harm. Other cases which support the harmful effects of deindividuation
include the reporting of a 17 year old being driven into killing himself by 300
people as he jumped of the top of a parking garage (Britten, 2011). The act of
these individuals prompting this boy to jump can be seen as intending to
inflict harm (in which he eventually did) in absence of authority.  Thus, there is no need for authority to be
present to influence if an individual performs harmful behaviour, supporting
the claim and the classical deindividuation theory.

However, deindividuation theorists have moved away from the
importance of anonymity. Rather, Prentice-Dunn & Rogers (1989) state that
deindividuation is the product of reduced self-awareness which was brought
around by arousal forced by group membership. They also viewed the deindividuated
state as having reduced self-regulation which results in unresponsiveness to
prosocial norms and standards. This type of behaviour can be observed in many
organisations, an example being the Children of God sect. In 1972, there were
130 communities of full time members scattered throughout the world (The Sun,
2018). This sect had internationally brainwashed children into believing that
performing sexual acts with community family members (even at a young age where
they didn’t understand what they were doing) were all a part of God’s
expression of love. If children didn’t believe this, they were sent to the
spanking room as a punishment. One might argue that this sect’s core values caused
young children psychological harm which was enabled by the adult members having
reduced self-awareness (that was aroused due to them participating in this
sect), prompting them to conduct antisocial behaviour. Hence, supporting the
harmful nature of deindividuation rather than authority.

Nevertheless, being in a deindividuated state does not mean
that an individual will automatically commit antisocial behaviour. As commented
on by Zimbardo (1969), being deindividuated doesn’t stop an individual from
committing prosocial acts.  An example would
be the formation of the group in 2003, called Anonymous. They were a collective
of web jokers hitting sites for fun, but turned into an anti-establishment
group whose targets have ranged from the government to child sex abuse sites.
Members pride themselves of them being leaderless, claiming the unique nature
of it. One may argue that them being deindividuated (possessing decreased
identifiability), enables them to perform heroic duties which could not have
been done if the world knew who they were. The formation of this group reiterates
the prosocial nature of not having authority but rather having disinhibitions
of following widely accepted social norms. It also reiterates the fact of
whether humans are inherently evil or are influenced to commit harmful acts,
questioning the biological factors of obedience.

Furthermore, theorists have used the concept of
deindividuation to provide foundation to insights to what affects behaviour. As
proposed by Reicher et al. (1995), the SIDE model claims that when a social
identity is solid, visual anonymity (which is a determining factor in
behaviour) can enhance group prominence and its effects. In explanation, this
should enhance social influence which is in line with group norms. This is
prevalent in real life cases such as the Manson Family, as one might argue they
possessed a solid identity which enabled them to commit heinous acts. Whilst
providing empirical support for the social identity theory, this family also
possessed characteristics which aligned with Bion’s (1961) concept of a pairing
group. The Manson family committed violent and harmful acts in August 1969,
which took many peoples’ lives and landed Charles Manson and his followers in
prison for the rest of their lives. Manson ordered the killings but didn’t
participate. It could be argued that the Manson family committed these
atrocities as they believed that Charles Manson was the new messiah
(characteristics of Bion’s (1961) pairing group concept). Also, ex Manson
family members commented on Manson being the dictatorial ruler of the family,
with some even referring to him as the Maharaja. One might argue that in both
cases (Jonestown and the Manson family), the followers blindly conformed or
obeyed due to the leaders preached powerful religious ideologies. Hence, these
real-life examples add representativeness to the self-categorisation theory.

However, these real-life examples are extreme cases of what
humanity could resort to when exposed to lack of authority regarding conformity
and obedience. Hence, due to the unique nature of these cases, authority may
not be as detrimental. Regardless, the SIDE analysis received more empirical
support than classical deindividuation theories (Postmes & Spears, 1998).
Hence, the SIDE analysis may be more appropriate (in consideration and
comparison of classical deindividuation theories) when trying to explain human

But the power of authority can be argued to significantly
impact an individual. This is because individuals who conform may do so because
they believe in the legitimate authority and power the authoritarian possesses.
As shown by Milgram (1963), the more legitimate authority an individual will
have, the increased likelihood there is that an individual will obey their perceived
authority. This is seen in many cases, an example being the rise of Hitler as a
dictator in WW2. As Bychowski (1948) found, Hitler portrayed his legitimate
authority via his speeches. He observed the use of strength and weakness themes
in Hitler’s speeches, as there was great emphasis upon the strength of German
people, and the reviling of weakness, which resulted in the normalisation of
the need to purify the race of any contamination or sign of weakness. One could
argue that Hitler reaffirmed his status in society and gained the perception of
being legitimate authority in society as the techniques he used in his speeches
had the quality of mutual intoxication as he reassured his followers, who in
turn reassured him (Post, 1986). The extent and casualties of World War 2 can
demonstrate the adverse effect of obedience to Hitler as because there were too
many Jewish casualties, there is no calculated number. Thus, Hitler used his
legitimate authority to command his followers to “purify” the German race by
any means necessary, which might include the use of harm.

To conclude, the role of authority in conformity and
obedience does have good and bad effects on an individual’s attitudes. From
enabling them to commit murder, to liberating the poor from the rich, authority
plays its role in society. Nevertheless, authority can be seen to not be needed
to dictate human behaviour. This could be because humans may be in
psychological states in which they are more susceptible to antisocial and
harmful behaviour, or they would resort to any means to construct their social

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