Is Destructive Obedience a Matter of Social Identity? an Empirical Investigation of Professional Identification Being a Predictor of Destructive Obedience at the Workplace

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 09:30
Oral Presentation
Katharina KÄRGEL, Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany
Milgram’s obedience studies (Milgram, 1963) are usually understood as demonstrating people’s willingness to perpetrate atrocities on authoritarian order (e.g. Zimbardo, 1999). In recent years, however, a new stream of research is growing, that takes on a social identity perspective on social influence. Therefore, obedience is expected to depend on the extent to which individuals identify themselves with the parties confronting them, i.e. the authority, ingroup, and outgroup (e.g. Reicher, Haslam & Smith, 2012).

The present study expanded on this viewpoint by applying the social identity model of deindividuation effects (Reicher, 1987). Thus, it was suggested that obedient behavior at the workplace can be explained by social identification processes promoted by deindividuation manipulations. Focusing on destructive obedience[1] it was assumed that uniformed employees are more likely to follow such commands than non-uniformed employees.

The conducted partly participatory mixed methods research design includes semi-structured interviews as well as an experimental role play conducted within the Swiss Armed Forces, a German university hospital, a German correctional facility and the police force of one German federal state.

Summing up, an interdependence of social identity and obedience at the workplace was uncovered. Besides, according to the theoretical framework, being uniformed proved to strengthen the degree of professional identification as well as organizational identification. Nevertheless, the role of the uniform differed between the four organizations, indicating that the process of social identification is determined by factors specific for the respective organization.

Against the background of a majority of participants reporting an unquestionable willingness to follow destructive commands at the workplace, the high topicality of obedience studies is shown.

[1] Destructive obedience is defined as following an order that is either illegal or falls into a regulatory grey area or causes moral scruples.