Chains of Command: Responsibility Attribution in Hierarchies1


  • 1

    Data gathering was partially supported by NSF Grant No. 76–01113 to the author and partially by a grant from the Gordon Allport Memorial Fund of Harvard University to Dr. Herbert C. Kelman. The data reported here are part of a project carried out collaboratively with Dr. Kelman, which will be reported in Crimes of Obedience, a joint monograph in preparation. Data gathering was ably carried out by the Survey Research Program (of the University of Massachusetts-Boston and the MIT-Harvard Joint Center for Urban Studies) under the direction of Dr. Floyd J. Fowler. Thanks to Herbert Kelman, David Rauma, and members of the Psychology Department of Loyola University of Chicago for their numerous helpful comments on previous drafts.

2 Requests for reprints should be sent to V. Lee Hamilton, Sociology Department, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202.


Obedience to authority involves a chain of causation whereby one party causes another to act. Theoretical problems of responsibility in chains of command were addressed and responsibility within interpersonal causal chains was investigated among a quota sample of the Boston SMSA (N= 391). Findings replicated prior investigations of attitudes about the My Lai massacre and Calley trial. Most respondents approached the incident in terms of the assertion versus denial of responsibility—assertion on the basis of personal causation, versus denial the basis of superior orders. Judgments of responsibility for other bureaucratic crimes of obedience (Watergate burglary and cover-up) or for wrongdoing in professional settings differed sharply, but tendencies to assign or reject assignment of responsibility to subordinates were consistently observable across incidents. Demographic cleavages supported earlier conclusions: More educated respondents and religious “others” (Jewish, other groups, and none) were more likely to assert individual responsibility, but education's effects were stronger for non-Catholics. The paper concludes by raising the possibility of training individuals to assert individual responsibility in the face of illegal or immoral commands from authority.