March 21, 2007


Caption: This man would shock anybody for a squeaky toy.

This is the third post in a series on the issue of obedience to authority (among other things), which has probably led to more atrocities than all the many individual acts of cruelty combined. The series was inspired in part by El Cabrero's musings on the lessons of psychologist Stanley Milgram's classic and "shocking" experiment.

If this is your first visit, please scroll down to the earlier entries.

Obedience is related to but different from conformity in that the former applies to people in a higher organization position while the latter applies to people in a similar position.

One generally obeys people who occupy a higher position within a bureaucratic structure and conforms with the opinions and actions of peers. Still, conformity can reinforce obedience. An example would be a society or subculture where people frown on those who question their leaders. (Good thing that doesn't happen around here, huh?)

In his book Obedience to Authority, Milgram writes

Obedience is the psychological mechanism that links individual action to political purpose. It is the dispositional cement that binds men to systems of authority. Facts of recent history and observation in daily life suggest that for many people obedience may be a deeply ingrained behavior tendency, indeed, a prepotent impulse overriding training in ethics, sympathy, and moral conduct.

He was speaking not only of his well known experiment in which subjects supplied what were apparently lethal shocks to another person when commanded to by a scientist, but also of the complicity of many ordinary Germans in the Nazi Holocaust and more recent examples of military atrocities committed under orders in wartime which inspired it. Regarding the experiment, he said

It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation....

This is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with the fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources need to resist authority. A variety of inhibitions against disobeying authority come into play and successfully keep the person in his place.

Next time: possible explanations.

HEALTH CARE ITEMS. There are two good items about the need for comprehensive health care reform in the latest New Republic, including this editorial calling for universal health care and addressing the tax issue head on:

raising taxes to finance universal health care isn't tantamount to imposing a new financial burden. It's swapping one burden for another. And there is good reason to believe that, ultimately, the new burden will be smaller. Serious reform schemes have the potential to restrain costs substantially--whether by eliminating administrative waste, bargaining harder on prices, or reducing unproductive profiteering.

And there's a much more detailed article by Arnold S. Relman showing that market based approaches to universal health care is a non-starter. Here's the punchline:

A real solution to our crisis will not be found until the public, the medical profession, and the government reject the prevailing delusion that health care is best left to market forces. Kenneth Arrow had it right in 1963 when he said that we need to depend on "non-market" mechanisms to make our health care system work properly. Once it is acknowledged that the market is inherently unable to deliver the kind of health care system we need, we can begin to develop the "nonmarket" arrangements for the system we want. This time the medical profession and the public it is supposed to serve will have to be involved in the effort. It will be difficult, but it will not be impossible.

Well said. No shock for them...



ted b said...

That video was great, laughing out loud now. I remember watching the video on this stuff in psych class back at wvu. gotta love the skinner folks, they put on a good show.

El Cabrero said...

That bad man in the video loves to watch himself on the video. (Or listen to the squeaky toy anyway). I think if I film it, that would be postmodernism...

I'd like to see the video. Milgram was way cooler than the typical behaviorist.