April 14, 2008


Image courtesy of wikipedia.

When all is said and done, El Cabrero would wager that most of the sins of the world are not those of rebellion but of obedience. Far more people have been killed or injured by fairly "normal" people following the orders of authority figures than by sadists or sociopaths, who are fortunately rare.

[Note: a while back on this blog, I did a series about the classic and shocking (literally, sort of) experiments of Stanley Milgram on obedience to authority. You can find it by searching the archives.]

Even though normal people have strong resistance to killing or hurting others, especially at close range, authority figures can overcome that resistance. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, the following factors contribute to the likelihood that soldiers in war will obey authority figures and engage in lethal violence:

*the proximity of the authority figure. During World War II, for example, Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall found that nearly all soldiers would fire when their leaders were present and encouraged them to do so. But when the leaders left, the firing rate dropped to 15 or 20 percent. Similarly, in Milgram's experiments, subjects were more likely to shock the victim when the "scientist" was in the room giving orders to do so rather than when the orders were given over the telephone;

*the respect for the authority figure. Known and respected leaders are more likely to be obeyed than unknown or discredited ones;

*the intensity of the authority figure's demand for killing; and

*the perceived legitimacy of the authority figure's authority and demands. As sociologist Max Weber noted, in the modern world authority is legitimized by bureaucratic laws, rules and procedures rather than by tradition or charisma. Socially sanctioned authority figures giving lawful orders are more likely to be obeyed than random individuals.

In such cases, as Milgram noted, people often stop functioning as autonomous moral individuals and enter into what he called the "agentic state" in which they function as a small part of a larger group. The effect is amplified with training that emphasizes unquestioning obedience.

The sad truth seems to be that most people taken one at a time are fairly harmless. Put them in a group based on hierarchy and command and all bets are off.

THE GROWING DIVIDE. A new study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute looks at inequality on the state level. Here's a brief summary and here's the data on El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia.

ON A RELATED NOTE, here's Krugman on consumer attitudes as the economy tanks.

CONSUMPTION AND HAPPINESS don't necessarily go together.

SAY WHAT? Can cell phones help combat global poverty?

IS THIS BIGFOOT SEASON? The hunt is on in WV.


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