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Obedience

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Obedience

Can you teach a flea to do a trick? In a renaissance Victorian flea circus, a ringmaster instructed fleas to pull carriages, walk over tightropes and kick balls. It is reported that 85% of the time, they did what they were told. But why would they obey the command? Would they show obedience?

In this situation, the obedience of the command is a trick played on the audience these fleas aren't following instructions at all; they are strapped into tiny wire harnesses, which limit their natural movements and create the illusion of obedience.

What then determines obedience? Even getting a dog to carry out commands is not an easy task. In one experiment, dogs did not obey commands from owners who did not consistently give them attention, compared to attentive owners. Furthermore, some raccoons can put coins into a slot for reward; however, eventually, they will ignore rewards to do what comes naturally to them.

It is interesting to consider factors that may determine whether a human will or won't display a specific behaviour in response to a command or instructions. Is it just part of some peoples' nature, or do specific circumstances determine whether people will obey?

To be able to answer these questions, let us first cover the basics: the definition of obedience, different types of obedience, and the difference between conformity and obedience. We will also look at several explanations and theories.

What is obedience in psychology?

In psychology, obedience is a specific type of social influence, where people are explicitly told what to do. Often, people merely go along or comply with a command from an authority figure who can punish them if the command is disobeyed. This kind of authority figure is called a legitimate authority.

What's the difference between obedience and conformity in psychology?

Although they're both types of social influence, conformity doesn't require instruction, but obedience does. When you clean your room on your own accord because you know your parents expect you to keep a room tidy, that is conformity. However, if you clean your room because you're being told to do it, that is obedience.

What is the meaning of constructive obedience?

Obedience is essential for the orderly functioning of society. Obeying the directions of first responders in an emergency can mean the difference between survival and safety or grave danger. Cooperating with first responders or obeying laws is considered constructive obedience, meaning it benefits the social group or the individual.

What is the meaning of destructive obedience?

Obedience can be destructive too. If police shoot innocent people or if people obey discriminatory laws, this would be an example of destructive obedience, meaning it produces negative outcomes for the individual or the social group.


What are some examples of famous psychology obedience experiments?

One of the most famous experiments in psychology is Stanley Milgram's shock experiment. In this study, participants were instructed to shock another person to dangerous levels of voltage, and when the participants refused, they were prompted to continue with increasing levels of urgency. 63% of study subjects complied, showing that people will be obedient given the right circumstances.

Milgram's first study investigated destructive obedience in general. He continued to investigate many variations and found variables such as location, uniforms, and proximity to affect obedience.

Milgram went on to develop his Agency Theory which offers further explanations as to why people obey.

Agency theory

If someone believes an authority figure will 'take the fall' for the consequences of their actions, agency theory suggests a person is more likely to obey that authority figure.

Agency theory focuses specifically on personal responsibility and how that will affect a person's decision making in a social setting. There are two major states:

  1. The autonomous state: people are personally responsible for their own actions, making their own decisions.
  2. The agentic state: people follow the orders of others, and consequences are the responsibility of those giving the orders.

The person giving the orders cannot be a random person with no legitimate authority. Those following orders have to truly believe the authority figure is qualified to direct them and is willing to take full responsibility for others actions, according to Milgram. When it was suggested that the participants would actually be taking responsibility, and not the authority figure as was thought, they would refuse to obey and continue in Milgram's subsequent investigations.

Dispositional influence: Adorno (1950)

Adorno established the idea that personality is more of a factor in obedience than social setting (the participant's environment), and is something that begins in early childhood. Strict parenting styles and dependence on obedience for love and affection from parents taught children a particular style of behaviour.

By studying around 2000 American, white, middle-class families' attitudes to fascist beliefs and behaviours, he investigated authoritarian personalities using the F-scale. High scores on the F-scale usually indicated that participants associated more with 'strong' people and were hostile to 'weak' people.

Those who had an authoritarian personality were more likely to be willing to obey those who they viewed as higher or more authoritarian than them but were more openly hostile to those they regarded as beneath them.


Obedience - Key takeaways

  • Obedience is a type of social influence where a person does what they are told by an authority figure even if the order doesn't match their values.
  • Conformity is similar to obedience in that a person does something that might not match their values, but in contrast to obedience, they don't have to be explicitly told what to do.
  • Obedience can be harmful (destructive) or beneficial (constructive) to individuals and society.
  • Milgram investigated obedience to legitimate authority in his 1963 study. He found that when pressured by an authority figure, 65% of people would shock another person with dangerous levels of electricity. This indicates that it is normal behaviour for humans to obey authority figures.
  • Variables of obedience include location, uniforms, and proximity.
  • Agency theory suggests that if someone believes an authority figure will 'take the fall' for the consequences of their actions, a person is more likely to obey that authority figure.
  • Adorno found that those who had strict parents growing up developed an authoritarian personality and would be more likely to obey authority figures they viewed as above them and were hostile to those they regarded as beneath them.

Frequently Asked Questions about Obedience

Obedience is a type of social influence, where an authority figure explicitly tells an individual how to behave.

Both conformity and obedience refer to a person doing what is contrary to their own values. In contrast to conformity, obedience is when explicit instruction is given by an authority figure to an individual. Conformity refers to both implicit and explicit pressures that a group puts on an individual.

Constructive obedience helps the smooth operation and fast response within many large hierarchical organisations in society such as the military, police, and health services. Obeying laws is a prerequisite for a lawful and orderly society. Destructive obedience is relevant because it’s often used as a defense for human rights abuses.

In 1963 Milgram did a study that tested the obedience of participants to an authority figure, where they were instructed to shock another person to dangerous levels. Most study subjects did so, showing that people will do what others tell them, given the right circumstances.

Final Obedience Quiz

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What is obedience?




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Obedience is a specific type of social influence on human behaviour; it is when people follow an explicit command given by a legitimate authority.



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What are the advantages of obedience?




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Obedience helps maintain order and structure in society and helps the general public maintain shared societal values



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What are the disadvantages of obedience?




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Obedience has led to dangerous outcomes if the authority figure is seeking to harm a person or group of people.



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According to Milgram’s Agency Theory, when does obedience occur?




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Obedience occurs when people are in an agentic state. This means the individual does not feel responsible for their actions as they are acting as an ‘agent’ of the authority figure that has given them a command.



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What is the relevant study for Milgram’s Agency Theory?




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The relevant study is Milgram’s shock experiment (1964).



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What was the name given by Adorno for the influence of personality on obedience?




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The name for the influence of personality on obedience is dispositional influence. 



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What is the relevant study for Adorno’s dispositional influence explanation?




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The relevant study is Adorno’s dispositional explanation study (1950).



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What is situational influence?




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Situational influence measures the impact of environmental factor(s) on obedience.



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How did the situational influences of the proximity and uniform of the authority figure affect obedience in the variation studies?




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Obedience levels decreased in the variation studies when the authority figure was not in close proximity to the participant and when the authority figure wore everyday clothes instead of a laboratory coat.



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It was found that there were higher levels of obedience in a study conducted at an office building than at the campus of Yale University. Is this true or false?


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This is false. There were lower levels of obedience when the study was conducted in an office building. 



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Which explanation for obedience discusses the influence of personality on obedience?


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The explanation of dispositional influence discusses how different types of personalities affect obedience. It states that those with authoritarian personalities are more likely to obey as they favour authoritarian systems.



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Why were variations of Milgram’s shock experiment (1964) held?




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Researchers wanted to see whether situational influences, namely environmental changes, affected obedience levels. They aimed to test whether factors such as the location of the study, uniform and proximity of the authority figure had an impact on obedience.



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What are the key components of the Agency Theory?



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The key components of the Agency Theory are the agentic state and legitimate authority. The theory states that obedience occurs when we act in an agentic state. This means the individual does not feel responsible for their actions as they are simply acting as an ‘agent’ of the authority figure. We are more likely to obey if we have a legitimate authority. 



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What is Milgram's Agency Theory?

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Milgram's Agency Theory aims to explain why humans are socially influenced to obey.

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What is the definition of obedience?

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Obedience is a type of social influence when people follow an explicit command given by a legitimate authority.

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What is the definition of an agentic state?


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In an agentic state, the individual believes that the authority ordering them will be responsible for the consequences of carrying out the order. The individual does not feel responsible for their actions as they are simply acting as an 'agent' of the authority figure.

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What is the definition of the autonomous state?


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The autonomous mental state is when people make choices entirely out of free will. Due to this, they feel responsible for their own actions and therefore their consequences.

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What is the definition of moral strain?


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Moral strain refers to the hesitation or reluctance a person may feel when an authority figure is giving them an order that goes against their conscience. Someone experiencing moral strain feels conflicted and may express emotion or show physical signs of distress.

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What is the definition of the agentic shift?


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Humans experience an agentic shift if they are given an order from a legitimate authority figure. The agentic shift puts us in the agentic state and causes us to obey the authority figure.

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Why was Adolf Eichmann classed as acting in an agentic state?


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Adolf Eichmann was acting in an agentic state as he claimed his actions were simply the result of him following orders from an authority figure.

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What are three important studies supporting the Agency Theory?


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Milgram's shock experiment (1964), Meeus and Raaijmakers (1995) and Hofling (1966).

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What is a key criticism of the Agency Theory explanation for obedience?


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A key criticism is that the Agency Theory fails to consider other factors in explaining why people obey, such as personality and personal motivations.

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Why did Adorno study dispositional influence?

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According to Adorno, explanations of social context and pressure did not sufficiently explain obedience. He stated that there must be dispositional (internal) factors that explain why some people obey and others do not. In Milgram's shock experiment (1964), 35% of participants were disobedient despite experiencing the same social context as the participants that did obey. This suggests there are other explanations for obedience.

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What is a dispositional explanation?

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A dispositional explanation is interested in the importance of the individual's personality, ie their disposition. Dispositional explanations focus on the traits unique to the individual and are often used in comparison with situational (environmental) explanations.

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What is the definition of an authoritarian personality?

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An authoritarian personality is a personality that is more likely to obey authority figures, as it favors the status of authority figures and views non-authority figures as inferior.

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What did Adorno believe causes someone to have an authoritarian personality?


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An individual develops an authoritarian personality through childhood experiences with strict parents who value discipline and loyalty. Such parents also have high expectations for the child and criticise the child heavily for any mistakes. Due to this, the child grows up to be respectful of authority figures and critical of those who are inferior.

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What was the procedure of Adorno's study?


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The procedure of the study involved the recruitment of over 2000 middle-class white Americans. Adorno developed a questionnaire to measure levels of authoritarian personality called the California F scale. The 'F' stands for fascism.

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What were the findings of Adorno's study?


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The study found that the participants that scored highly on the F scale were authoritarian personalities. They showed high respect and obedience for authority and were conscious of status. Since such scores measured attitudes towards fascism, it was concluded that agreement with fascist attitudes meant the individual had an authoritarian personality and was, therefore, more likely to obey authority.

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What is fascism?


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Fascism is a movement and a form of nationalism that supports a centralized state authority and a dictatorial power. It is considered a far-right ideology.

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What correlations did Adorno find from the study?

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Adorno found strong positive correlations between authoritarian personalities and obedience as well as between authoritarian personalities and prejudice.

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What was a criticism for the sample used in Adorno's study?


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A criticism of the sample used in Adorno's study was that it had low generalisability as it only sampled white, middle-class Americans. It has been argued that the sample was more likely to have authoritarian personalities due to the nature of the sample itself (white, middle-class Americans) and the time of the study (1950).

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What is a criticism of the correlations found in Adorno's study?

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A criticism of the correlations found is that they do not show causation. Therefore other factors may be involved in explaining the link between an authoritarian personality and obedience, such as education levels or cultural upbringing.

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What is situational influence as an explanation for obedience?

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Situational influence is the name given to the impact of environmental factors on obedience.

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Why did researchers carry out variations of Milgram's original shock experiment?

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Variations of Milgram's shock experiment were carried out to test the impact of situational influences on obedience levels.

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What were the independent variables in the variation studies?


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The independent variables were the proximity of the authority figure, the uniform of the authority figure, the proximity of the learner, the presence of other participants, and the location of the study.

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Obedience levels increased when the authority figure was not in close proximity to the participant. Is this true or false?


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This is false. Obedience levels in the variation study decreased to 20.5 percent when the authority figure was not in close proximity to the participant (instructions were given to the participant over the phone).

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What was the effect of the authority figure wearing everyday clothes in a variation study?


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Obedience levels decreased to 20 percent when the authority figure wore everyday clothes instead of a white laboratory coat.

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It was found that individuals are more likely to obey if they cannot see the results of their actions. Is this true or false?


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This is true. In a variation study, it was found that obedience levels decreased to 40 percent when the participant was in the same room as the learner (the person receiving the electric shocks). The participant could thus see the pain or discomfort experienced by the learner.

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What happened when the participants were forced to put the learner's (person receiving the shocks) hand directly onto the shock plate?


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Obedience levels decreased to 30 percent.

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Describe the conditions and findings of the variation study that involved more than one participant administering shocks.


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In this variation study, two confederates (individuals who knew about the experiment, but pretended to be 'ordinary' participants) were present with the genuine participant. The confederates, when given orders to administer the shocks, refused to administer any higher than 150V. It was found that obedience levels then decreased to 10 percent, suggesting that individuals are less likely to obey if they are in the presence of someone who is expressly disobedient.

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Why did the location of the study matter?


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It was found that individuals were more likely to obey if the location the study was conducted in had high status or credibility. This was tested in a variation study that found lower levels of obedience in an office building that was not in a good condition.

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Question

Which of the following situational influences affected obedience levels the most in the variation studies?

  • Location of the study 
  • Proximity of the authority figure
  • Presence of other participants
  • Proximity of the learner
  • Uniform of the authority figure


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Answer

The proximity of the authority figure, and the presence of other participants affected obedience levels the most.

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Which study supported the situational influence of clothing and uniform on obedience levels?


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Answer

Bickman (1974).

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Why were cross-cultural studies on obedience carried out?


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Cross-cultural studies on obedience were carried out to test whether the results of Milgram's experiment varied across different cultures. These were called replications of Milgram's experiment.

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Name the countries in which Milgram's experiment was replicated.


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Italy, Australia, UK, Jordan, Spain, Austria, Netherlands, Germany, India, and South Africa.

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Cite a strength of the variation studies on obedience.


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The variation studies show how seemingly 'small' adjustments to the environment can affect our obedience.

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What are the weaknesses of the variation studies on obedience?


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One weakness of the variation studies is that they lack ecological validity, as they were conducted in artificial settings. Another weakness is that they do not take into account dispositional influences that may affect obedience.

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You regularly take the train to work. You pay for the ticket for £4.50 because you’re a good person but also you don’t want to get fined £100 and to be prosecuted in court. Explain why you pay for your ticket using the terms conformity and obedience.

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When someone pays  £4.50 for the ticket because they are a good person,  they are conforming to the role of “good citizen”. When they buy the ticket because they don’t want to be punished, they are obeying the rules set out by the transport authority.

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What’s the difference between 

conformity and obedience?

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Answer

The difference between conformity and obedience is that obedience is explicitly stated 

and must come from a legitimate authority figure whereas conformity doesn’t require a direct order.



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True or false – If you look at the pros and cons of obedience, the con aspect of obedience is called constructive obedience.

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Answer

False - the pro aspect of obedience is called constructive obedience, the con aspect of obedience is called destructive obedience.

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