Obediency and group mentality
The issue of personality and morals is an interesting one, and one that causes a great deal of confusion. In general, people’s character traits remain fairly consistent. However how are we then to reconcile this with the fact that when in a group or under the orders of an authority figure, people behave very different than they do otherwise? “Group mentality” is an issue that has plagued people for ages, as it questions how much control people really have over their actions. Studies such as the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram experiment study how randomly selected people react in different social situations, and the results are frightening. The Stanford Prison Experiment showed people adapting to their roles as either prisoner or guard alarmingly quickly with brutal results, and the Milgram experiment showed that people are willing to kill if ordered to by someone else. Recent studies suggest that computer models can predict mob behavior, using a mathematical equation. This forces one to question to what extent actions are determined by free will and personality, and to what extent by surroundings and basic human nature.
Studies consistently show that if given the means and permission to do so, people can quickly become surprisingly sadistic. One study that shows this, as well as the influence of surroundings and peers, is the Stanford Prison Experiment. There were 24 participants in the study, but because of the guards’ shifts they were always outnumbered by the prisoners. The prisoners were treated as such, forced to wear smocks with their numbers on them, and made basically powerless by those people hired as “guards”. While these people all knew they were participating in an experiment, the situation quickly escalated into realistic situations and cruelty. After only a day the prisoners rebelled, and this caused the guards to become stricter and harsher. One guard suggested using psychological methods to control the prisoners (who outnumbered the guards), and the situation quickly escalated to routine humiliation. Prisoners had to earn the right to food and bathroom privileges, and they were split up into groups that were treated better or worse at random, creating discord among the prisoners. Slowly both the prisoners and guards began acting more and more like their roles dictated. The guards came up with new and inventive ways to humiliate their prisoners and keep them in line, and the prisoners became “zombie like,” and referred to themselves as their numbers. (1)
It is difficult to reconcile this experiment to common sense, as it seems unlikely that within the course of only 6 days people could convert so thoroughly to their roles. In his book The Lucifer Effect, (2) Zimbardo connects the lessons he learned from the Stanford Prison Experiment to real life situations such as the torture that occurred in Abu Ghraib. On this subject he also says: “The Pentagon and the military say that the Abu Ghraib scandal is the result of a few bad apples in an otherwise good barrel… It's not the bad apples, it's the bad barrels that corrupt good people.” (3) He posits then that it is not the people committing these atrocities that are to blame, but the social structure (or government) that creates situations in which people commit them. The idea he suggests here, that virtually anybody can be driven to torture and torment given the right situation, is a frightening one.
Another frightening example of this change in personality based on societal role is the Millgram experiment. For his experiment, the experimenter had a confederate (a person involved in the study but pretending to be a volunteer) and an actual volunteer where one (the volunteer) was picked to be the “teacher” and one (the confederate) the “learner.” The confederate always mentioned that he had a heart condition as well. They were then separated and put into 2 rooms, where the subject could hear but not see the confederate. The “teacher” was given a voltage generator, and was told to ask the learner a series of questions. He was also instructed to administer a shock to the other participant when the learner got the questions wrong. The voltage was upped each time, and the learner began to make distressed sounds, before ceasing all sound entirely. The teacher would be told, to varying levels of intensity, that he had to continue the experiment. 65% of the participants continued to shock the presumably passed out learner until allowed to stop, and while they questioned the head of the experiment and were very uncomfortable continuing, they nevertheless did. (4) While some may question the people used in the study, not only did it consist of a diverse group of subjects, but it has been replicated all over the world, with the same results.(5)
The ramifications for this experiment are huge, as they suggest that a solid majority of people are subject to the power of authority. As Milgram states: “A commonly offered explanation is that those who shocked the victim at the most severe level were monsters, the sadistic fringe of society. But if one considers that almost two-thirds of the participants fall into the category of "obedient" subjects, and that they represented ordinary people drawn from working, managerial, and professional classes, the argument becomes very shaky.” (6) Here Milgram states the most disturbing but interesting things about these experiments. One cannot simply confine these actions to those of evil, but rather aspects of humanity. Whatever ultimately causes a person to act the way they do, basic universal brain programming unquestionably plays a part.
Both the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment look at the behavioral psychology of human beings. To what extent are people in control of their own actions, and to what extent are their behaviors written into their subconscious? The atrocities committed in places such as Abu Ghraib are not isolated, and in fact people posit that they are not even the result of bad people. Rather they are the result of human nature, and the way people’s very brains are structured. While I do believe that it takes certain personalities to react to the above situations the way these people did, there is a universality that suggests that one cannot simply judge these actions and say “not me.” Rather they must confront the fact that there is something biological about the brain that causes it to listen to authority and conform to stereotyped roles. It is an unsettling thought but an important one, for it is only when we can understand this that we can truly begin fixing the problems it causes. This does not make torture or murder acceptable, but it does suggest that we must look farther than just the actions, and perhaps work to combat the problems as they arise from biology, rather than just society.
1. The Stanford Prison Experiment: Official Site
2. The Lucifer Effect http://www.lucifereffect.com/
3. You Can’t be a Sweet Cucumber in a Vinegar Barrel http://edge.org/3rd_culture/zimbardo05/zimbardo05_index.html
4. Milgram’s Experiment on Obedience to Authority http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/ucce50/ag-labor/7article/article35.htm
6. Stanley Milgram Obedience to Authority http://www.panarchy.org/milgram/obedience.html