Peer Pressure and Obedience to Authority

Hola mi Gente,
First, from our hypocrites wall of shame files: Recently, Hillary Clinton and now Obama have been fulminating against corporate inversions, a term for the corporate practice of moving to a lower-tax nation, while retaining its material operations in its higher-tax country of origin (IOW leeching). What is interesting is that both Hillary and Obama pushed for trade pacts that make this particular form of leeching much easier.

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Obedience

Power abdicates only under the stress of counter-power.
— Martin Buber (1878–1965)

 

I sometimes work as a public/ motivational speaker. Most of this work involves other professionals, but a part of my work entails addressing young people. A colleague once asked me to substitute for her at an elementary school. The topic was substance abuse and she had a plan all worked out.

Of course, I discarded her curriculum and proceeded to wing it. LOL!

I’ve always been interested in group dynamics and the following is how I “teach” about drug abuse. Please do not try this at home!

I wait until students file into the class, those that are “late” (really students who are the last to file into the classroom) are asked to wait outside the door. Before all this, I have taken the liberty of drawing three lines on the blackboard. One line is obviously shorter than the rest. It’s not blatantly shorter, but short enough to notice upon close inspection.

Before I allow the “late” students in, I address the class and tell them that they will be my co-conspirators in an experiment on social behavior. I point to the lines and ask, “Which of these lines is the shortest?” Of course, a few students raise their hands and correctly identify the shorter line. Once a consensus has been reached, I inform the students that I am now going to allow the “late” students in and ask them the same question. However, the class is instructed to state that the shortest line is not the shortest line, that it is, in fact, the same size as the other lines.

I allow the “late” students in and proceed to ask them the same question. Again, the late students are all in agreement as to which is the shortest line. Then I ask my co-conspirators and one by one, they all say that none of the lines is shortest, that they are, in fact, the same size.

I then ask the late students again, “Are you sure this line is the shortest?” What happens is that one by one, the late students experience a huge pressure to fall in line with the consensus of the majority. Some will stick to their guns, but most will fall under the pressure of the power of the group. At this point, I disclose our little conspiracy and then turn to the class and say, “This is what peer pressure feels like.”

The rest of the workshop is dedicated to exploring those feelings, and how that pressure can be used as a way to do almost anything against our will — drugs, sex, violence, voting for neoliberals, etc.

It’s a powerful way to illustrate the power of the group. If you ask, most people will tell you that they would never succumb to the group. However, studies show that the vast majority will obey authority.

Obedience to Authority

Many of you already know I work with formerly or currently incarcerated men and women. I came about this work more through flow than an actual conscious decision. In fact, I was initially reluctant to work with this population because 1) It’s an extremely challenging group to work with, and 2) even those motivated to change face huge obstacles to successful social reintegration. However, nowhere is danger of obedience to authority more clearly illustrated than in prison settings. One experiment, The Stanford Prison Experiment, led by social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, had to be abandoned because within a couple of days, normal college students role playing corrections officers were abusing the students, and the students role-playing the people who were incarcerated were plotting a prison breakout. Totally engrossing study.

However, the study which I have found the most interesting is one you may have heard about. Anyone who has taken any psych 101 course will have heard of Stanley Milgram, who shocked the world in the early 1960s with his discoveries at Yale while conducting what became known as the obedience experiments. In brief, he found that average, presumably normal, groups of residents of New Haven, Connecticut, would readily inflict very painful, and probably deadly, electric shocks on an innocent victim whose actions did not merit such harsh treatment.

The experiment, supposedly dealing with the effects of punishment on learning, required that the subjects shock a learner every time he made an error on a verbal learning task, and to increase the intensity of the shock in 15-voly steps, from 15 to 450 volts, on each subsequent error. The results: 65% of the subjects continued to obey the experimenter to the end, simply because he commanded them to.

Groundbreaking and controversial, these experiments have had enduring relevance, because they demonstrated with stunning clarity that ordinary individuals could be induced by an authority figure to act destructively, even in the absence of physical force, and that it didn’t take evil or aberrant individuals to carry out mass actions that were immoral and inhumane.

Milgram’s findings have had the effect of making us more aware of our malleability in the face of social pressure, in the process making us reshape our individual morality. While I’m sure most of you reading this would like to think that when confronted with a moral dilemma we would act in line with our conscience, Milgram’s experiments taught us – in shocking, irrefutable detail – that, in a concrete situation containing powerful social pressures, our moral sense can get trampled underfoot.

And this is how evil happens: we allow it to happen through acquiescence, obedience. We’re always looking for the “monster” but the monster can be found in the mirror. Obedience to unjust laws and policies is how that Middle Eastern child today is killed by a drone strike through no fault of his own and how the Black, Jewish, and First Nation People holocausts occur. It is through obedience that we allow the mass caging of mostly black and brown youth in the United States. More to come…

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

 

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