December 07, 2011

The factors that drive obedience and conformity

There was an old TV program called Candid Camera that used hidden cameras to capture what people did when confronted with awkward or unexpected situations. While the aim of the program was humorous, usually at the expense of the hapless person who happened to be caught on camera, some of the episodes serve as useful experiments on human behavior.

One particularly revealing one involved the desire of people to conform to powerful norms of behavior that we all follow without even thinking about it. For example, when people get into an elevator, they space themselves as far as possible from others, immediately turn around and face the front, and not make eye contact or speak, apart from sometimes a quick nod of greeting upon entering. But in this episode, the camera noted what happens when the norms seem to suddenly change.

Although the above experiment is amusing, psychologist Philip Zimbardo, the person behind the famous Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) , reflects on it and the Milgram obedience study, and says that the Candid Camera elevator experiment reveals how the strong desire to conform to the norms of the people around us can lead to behaviors that are evil, something he calls 'the Lucifer effect'. (Zimbardo has written a book titled The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil that I have bought and plan to read and write about soon.)

Zimbardo points an interesting feature in the Milgram obedience and the SPE studies about the role that religion plays in the willingness to obey authority and inflict pain on others even when one's own moral instincts are repulsed by the idea.

The large, diverse cast of ordinary characters in the obedience studies and the normal, healthy, intelligent cast in the prison study also serve to make vivid the tragic conclusion that we all hate to acknowledge: The goodness of Everyman and of Everywoman can be transformed and overwhelmed by the an accumulation of small forces of evil. The character transformation seen in many of the participants in both studies represents "The Lucifer Effect" in action. Both studies teach us lessons about authority; the obedience research teaches us to question authority when it is excessive and unjust, while the SPE teaches us the dangers of too little responsible authority when it is needed to perform oversight of the behavior of individuals within its agency.

Religious upbringing also comes to play in a complex way, leading both to unquestioning obedience to doctrinal beliefs as well as a profound caring for one's fellows. The first values should lead to greater obedience to authority in the Milgram paradigm, while the second should lead to less obedience to such authority. Support for the first prediction comes from a Milgram-like study that compared participants with various measured levels religious orientation in the extent to which they obeyed one of three authority figures: neutral, scientific, or religious. The results reveal that the shock scores elicited in this experiment were highest for the most religious participants, less for those moderately religious, and lowest for the least religious. Among those highly and moderately religious, the scientific and religious authorities were more effective than the neutral authority in eliciting the most obedience. Those who scored lowest on the religious measures, that centered around beliefs that one's life is under divine control, tended to reject any authority, be it religious or scientific. [My emphasis]

There is no question that scientific figures carry authority which is why scientific malpractice or fraud is taken so seriously. It is perhaps not hard to see why being religious or having a religious authority figure makes people more likely to be persuaded to go along with cruel acts. Religious people have usually been indoctrinated from childhood to believe that god is the ultimate authority figure and that unquestioning obedience to god's commands constitutes a virtue that will be rewarded. Their religious texts also have countless examples of the most appalling atrocities that their god has done or commanded people to do and which are supposed to serve a greater good. The appalling doctrine known as 'divine command theory' justifies such actions by saying that whatever god commands has to be good, even if it goes against every norm of humane behavior. Such beliefs can be a powerful force that can overcome the scruples that come with normal feelings of empathy towards other living things.

As a side note, a few months ago, I wrote about people who get lost in Death Valley and have even died because they followed the instructions of their GPS system even when it erroneously instructed them to take roads that barely existed. I wonder if that is another symptom of this phenomenon. After all, an assured and confident disembodied voice telling them what to do is somewhat like what they imagine some god-like authority figure would do, and they follow blindly.


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I like the comment from George Miller at the end of the excerpt you linked to- “I would tell them to stop looking at individual responsibility and start looking at social institutions. I’d ask them to examine the conditions that take responsibility away from people, and let them regard others as a species apart.”

Organized religion all too often is one of those conditions.

Posted by Steve LaBonne on December 7, 2011 02:11 PM


Social conformity is even more powerful when an individual does not know what he/she wants. For example, I've seen this in my work place when we had to decide if we wanted to join a 401k program or not. The uneducated will look and see what the masses will do, and follow them.

It is so important that individuals hear both arguments (whatever it may be) so that they can form an individual opinion on issues.

This is especially true when it comes to voting. There are a lot of voters that get fed rhetoric and fail to see the other side of the coin. Thus, they will "follow the herd" and that one politician get's 5,000 votes.

Thank God for the First Amendment!

I wish there would be a 1 on 1 debate in this next Presidential election.

Posted by Chach the Honolulu Plumber on December 8, 2011 10:31 AM