Keep Calm and Carry On

Or would you intervene in the case of abuse, oppression, or bullying?

A recent experiment based on the famous Milgram experiment (people were asked to administer shocks to a subject as part of an experiment. Researchers were surprised at how far people were willing to go under the watch of an authority figure) raises further questions about our behaviour under certain circumstances.

see the Lucifer Effect for a related study.

The article Personality Predicts Obedience in a Milgram Paradigm published in the Journal of Personality in June 2014. Here is the abstract:

This study investigates how obedience in a Milgram-like experiment is predicted by interindividual differences. Participants were 35 males and 31 females aged 26–54 from the general population who were contacted by phone 8 months after their participation in a study transposing Milgram’s obedience paradigm to the context of a fake television game show. Interviews were presented as opinion polls with no stated ties to the earlier experiment. Personality was assessed by the Big Five Mini-Markers questionnaire (Saucier, 1994). Political orientation and social activism were also measured. Results confirmed hypotheses that Conscientiousness and Agreeableness would be associated with willingness to administer higher-intensity electric shocks to a victim. Political orientation and social activism were also related to obedience. Our results provide empirical evidence suggesting that individual differences in personality and political variables matter in the explanation of obedience to authority.

here are various articles on the findings: Psychology Today and mic, whatever that is. Generally, articles sensationalize the findings, however, there is an underlying trend that is key to this issue:

Now a new study using a variation of Milgram’s experiments shows that people with more agreeable, conscientious personalities are more likely to make harmful choices.

This is in keeping with the Abu Ghraib prison (again, covered extensively in the Lucifer Effect), one of the officers in charge of the facilities was a poster boy for the US Military. His service record was impeccable, and the man was professional to the core. He also had a very human need to be accepted. As a result, when put into the untenable situation in Abu Ghraib, he let those around him erode any authority he had until, well, the atrocious happened under his watch.

As Zimbardo has said time and again – these findings may explain someone`s action (or inaction), but they do not excuse it.

I think the most troubling aspect of the above quotation is that it suggests that people are willing to go to extremes in order to feel accepted, part of the group.

Just following orders.

I have found in discussions that question behaviour and inaction, the argument shifted to my lack of politeness, instead of the issue at hand. I try to be respectful, but I don’t suffer bullshit. Hiding behind polite society in the course of acting cruelty is abuse compounding abuse.

More than anything, I think that studies such as these are warnings that we must questions what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and what the responsible course of action is.


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