March 21, 2007


Caption: The constant struggle within human nature is here symbolized by a cat playing with a peacock feather and a dog searching a squeaky toy. It's like really deep or something.

This is the fourth post in a series on obedience to authority and all the carnage that has caused over the years. It was initially inspired by reflections on psychologist Stanley Milgram's classic experiment.

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

So why is it so easy to get people to hurt other people who have done them no harm when told to do so by an authority figure?

It would be nice to think that people who do so are abnormally cruel or sadistic, but that's not the case. They (we?) are pretty normal people.

Could it be that a dark and aggressive side of human nature accounts for it?

Milgram explored but dismissed that explanation in Obedience to Authority at least as it applied to the results of his "shocking" experiment and presumably in many related situations.

He describes the aggression argument thus:

By aggression we mean an impulse or action to harm another organism. In the Freudian view, destructive forces are present in all individuals, but they do not always find ready release, for their expression is inhibited by superego, or conscience. Furthermore, ego functions--the reality-oriented side of man--also keep destructive tendencies under control. (If we strike out every time we are angry, it will ultimately bring us harm, and thus we restrain ourselves.) Indeed, so unacceptable are these destructive instincts that they are not always available to conscious scrutiny. However, they continually press for expression and, in the end, find release in the violence of war, sadistic pleasures, individual acts of anti-social destruction, and under certain circumstances self-destruction.

But he ultimately rejects it:

Although aggressive tendencies are part and parcel of human nature, they have hardly anything to do with the behavior observed in the experiment. Nor do they have much to do with the destructive obedience of soldiers in war, of bombardiers killing thousands on a single mission, or enveloping a Vietnamese village in searing napalm. The typical soldier kills because he is told to kill and he regards it as his duty to obey orders. The act of shocking the victim does not stem from destructive urges but from the fact that subjects have become integrated into a social structure and are unable to get out of it.

In one of the permutations of the experiment, subjects were allowed to choose the level of shock they could administer. Overwhelmingly, they gave the lowest possible shocks. Only when they were in a structured environment directly supervised by an apparently "legitimate" authority did most subjects administer the highest shocks.

Another variation on the experiment deliberately frustrated subjects to see if anger and similar emotions would increase the probability that they would choose to inflict severe shocks given the choice. It had very little effect.

Milgram concludes that

The key to the behavior of subjects lies not in pent-up anger or aggression but in the nature of their relationship to authority. They have given themselves to the authority; they see themselves as instruments for the execution of his wishes; once so defined, they are unable to break free.

In other words, our problem is not that we are "killer apes," rather that we are all too human.

He called this relationship to authority "the agentic state," which will keep until tomorrow...

VERY COOL NY TIMES ITEM ON THE EVOLUTION OF MORALITY. In the history of philosophy, there have often been conflicting schools of thought on ethics between those who based it on rationality (like Kant) and those who based it on empathy and emotions (like Adam Smith, Hume, and the Scottish Enlightenment). El Cabrero, as a Scotch-Irish hillbilly with an admiration for German philosophy, has mixed emotions on that one. But it looks like my Celtic cousins are winning as the scientific evidence comes in.

VERY INTERESTING ITEM ON THE FACT THAT WE MAY NOT BE AS NASTY AS WE USED TO BE. Harvard professor Steven Pinker has a fascinating article in the March 19 New Republic titled "A History of Violence: We're getting nicer every day."

Citing studies that show a long term decline in violence, he argues that this trend may be "the most important and most underappreciated trend in the human saga..." As bad as things seem now, he argues that they were worse in the past. Of course, there are more people now and we have more nasty toys. Probably we have shifted from more overt forms of cruelty to more impersonal, systemic, and structural violence.



Anonymous said...

I wonder if the agentic state has more to do with trust than anything else. If we are taught to trust authority completely, then it seems possible that we might be willing to accept the word of someone who takes on the appearance of authority despite the evidence of our own eyes, common sense or conscience.

El Cabrero said...

Hey Kevertt,
That's got to be a big part of it.

Anonymous said...

First, social scientists have a tendency to invent superfluous technical terms, like "agentic state" which annoy the crap outta me.

Second, sometmes obvious observations are more significant than they seem. Is the problem one of obedience or trust? Are people just mindless automatons when they are in the "agentic state" or are they rational people who feel they have good reason to trust the man in authority. My own feeling is that once trust is given, it can be difficult to reclaim. And the more so the longer it has been given. So is the agentic state really a state of trust? What does it mean to be in a state of trust?

I just have an inkling that my last question could take us more deeply into the real question of obedience. Are people trusting, even though that trust is often abused?

El Cabrero said...

Probably too trusting. But I do think people sometimes just get in a mode when they're (we're) acting as part of a bigger group and often the trust isn't in a person.