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The Obedience Experiments (Chapter 12) 
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Post The Obedience Experiments (Chapter 12)
I found this chapter fascinating. Where is the line between the necessity to follow orders and the immorality of following orders? We all have been in situations in which our teacher/mentor/guide obviously knew more and had better judgement that we did, and we had to trust their judgement. How much of the willingness to "follow orders" in the experiments described were a result of having been accustomed in our past experience to authority figures who were benevolent (or at least benign), and learning we could trust them not to lead us astray? What are the situations in which people learn not to trust authority figures? The first one that comes to mind is the ghetto and the authority of the police.

That example not withstanding, the universality of willingness to obey authority figures leads me to believe that this trait is a component of human nature (as opposed to human nurture). What that means, I think, is that we need to build our institutions around it, as opposed to in defiance of it. That is to say, providing the previous hypotheses are true, that institutions should be structured to produce "good" behavior from the human norm--the majority of us. Of course, we should also use our culture (nurture) to teach people how to resist nature's instinct to submit to authority. However, where we have evidence that the majority of human beings, put in a specific situation, would not take the "high road," our response should be directed towards eradicating the situation, rather than changing human nature.



Fri Nov 16, 2007 8:33 pm
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Post Re: The Obedience Experiments (Chapter 12)
Disclaimer: I'm not currently reading this book (I might still, but for the moment I'd rather concentrate on our other non-fiction selection), so my statements in this post are strictly in reply to Seeker's comments and are made without the benefit of having read Zimbardo's evidence.

seeker wrote:
That example not withstanding, the universality of willingness to obey authority figures leads me to believe that this trait is a component of human nature (as opposed to human nurture).


I'm not so sure. For one thing "obey authority" seems like something of an artificial construct, and I'm not sure it really holds up at the biological level. Other social animals -- wolves, for example -- don't so much obey authority as they respond in particular ways to recognized dominance. The two may seem similar, but they're not identical. The wolf equivalent of an Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, wouldn't really be possible. Humans differ in the regard that they'd still respond to the instructions of a man who was physically incapable of asserting dominance.

Nor does it strike me that we've sublimated dominance, such that an FDR dominates by intelligence of political power. What seems to happen in the hierarchy of an animal pack is that an alpha establishes its dominance explicitly by besting the previous alpha in combat. Then, for awhile at least, it's dominance is implicit, meaning the others in the pack need no demonstration to take that dominance as a given. But moments of tension will come along when it becomes necessary for the alpha to make that dominance explicit.

It doesn't seem to me that we need to understand our responses to an instruction by someone like FDR as conditioned by dominance, either explicit or implicit. Which isn't to say that humans are free of dominance-submission behaviors. As I understand it, the whole Nixonian approach to foreign affairs was built on a notion of "credibility" that is basically assimilable to that of implicit dominance -- hence victory in Vietnam was necessary as an explicit show of dominance that would stand in support of recognition of American dominance even at times when it was only implicit. (Incidentally, some political commentators have noted that the Bush administration seems to have modelled their foreign affairs policy on the Nixonian model, if that explains anything for you.)

Maybe the best way to understand the difference between the two is to look at the dynamic between the authority figure and the recepient of instruction. In a dominance-submission scenario, the "authority" is the source of the threat, preferably implicit, because that's least risky for the authority, but explicit if need be. There may still be a threat in the case of an FDR, but it doesn't come from the authority figure. An FDR is capable of saying "we" and meaning it. He might say, "If we don't do this, there will be hell to pay," but unless there's some serious cognitive disjunction going on, it's probably recognized that he's not the one dishing out the hell.

So, yes, we do generally respond to dominance -- I think there's a good conflict-management rationale for why it's often safest to do so -- but I don't think that alone explains human responsiveness to authority. I'd say that generally there's a process that supercedes it, and that the dominance model only comes to the fore when that process fails. And it may be that the authority process fails quite often, but I'd say there's at least anecdotal evidence to support the idea that it's the first resort in most cases.

That process consists mostly of an estimation of one's own competancy to handle a particular situation, an estimation of the presumed authority figure's competancy to handle the same situation, and then a comparison of the two. In other words, I yield to the authority of Richard Hofstadter on historical questions because I've estimated his competancy higher than my own. Those estimations are not always (often?) logical or even reasonable -- we're often basing them on cues rather than real evidence, or on observations that don't really have much to do with the matter at hand -- but if you reflect on actual situations in which you've yielded to someone else's authority, I think you'll recognize that they happen, and automatically in most cases. And that thought process usually takes precedent (if not chronologically, then at least behaviorally) over the though process that asks, "If I don't agree, will there be a fight? If there is a fight, am I likely to win? Are the odds such that it's worth the risk?"

Quote:
That is to say, providing the previous hypotheses are true, that institutions should be structured to produce "good" behavior from the human norm--the majority of us. Of course, we should also use our culture (nurture) to teach people how to resist nature's instinct to submit to authority.


I'm opposed. In the first place, I'm not sure you can really structure society one way, and then teach society another. I see the same sort of implicit contradiction in American society -- institutionally, it's built on the premise that human self-interest will always tend towards rapine and exploitation, while popular thought tends to support the notion that we are all good and generous or, at the very least, patriotic enough to behave as though we were -- and I'm not at all sure that American society has successfully navigated those contradictions. And in the second place, institutions that become truly deft at circumventing human nature lend themselves all too easily to totalism and tyranny.


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Fri Nov 16, 2007 9:58 pm
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Here's another point in this chapter I'd like to hear other people's opinions about: (This was in regard to the torturing puppies experiment)

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About half the males [54 percent] went all the way to 450 volts. The big surprise came from the women's high level of obedience. Despite their dissent and weeping, 100 percent of the female college students obeyed to the full extent possible in shocking the puppy as it tried to solve an insoluble task! A similar result was found in an unpublished study with adolescent high school girls. (The typical finding with human "victims," including Milgram's own findings, is that there are no male-female gender differences in obedience.)


Why was there a gender difference with the puppies, but not with the humans? I cannot come up with a single hypothesis that seems adequate to explain it!!!



Sat Nov 17, 2007 6:31 pm
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Post Re: The Obedience Experiments (Chapter 12)
seeker wrote:
Where is the line between the necessity to follow orders and the immorality of following orders?

Keep in mind, sometimes obedience to authority is the more moral course of action. When I read about murder, rape, or assault, I regret that the assailant didn't obey societal dictates forbidding that kind of behavior. We really want people to follow moral societal guidelines which disregarding orders that we view as immoral.

I agree that obedience to authority is part of human nature, though society (nurture) determines who has that authority and what the authority demands. People have always lived in interdependent societies, and without some obedience to authority you'd have anarchy and life would be miserable for everyone, if they could even survive.

I don't mean to give the impression that I'm a pro-authority law-and-order fanatic, which is far from the case. A reasonable balance between individual freedom and societal dictates is ideal.
MadArchitect wrote:
For one thing "obey authority" seems like something of an artificial construct, and I'm not sure it really holds up at the biological level.

"Human nature" refers to any commonalities shared by most, if not all, people throughout history and pre-history. However, the word "human" indicates that it doesn't necessarily apply to non-human animals.

For most of human history, people lived in small groups. I don't know whether those groups had individual leaders or some sort of collective authority. Either way, people generally obeyed the authority of the group decisions, however those decisions emerged.



Fri Nov 23, 2007 2:57 pm
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My previous posting commented on some side issues, but not the main point of the chapter. As seeker points out, people tend to be obedience, and that obedience can readily commonly held moral beliefs. That's a very disturbing conclusion.

Personally, I tend to view myself as a moral individual. On the other hand, I am a conflict-adverse rule-follower by nature. While I'd like to believe I wouldn't so readily succumb to pressures pushing me to do something immoral, that chapter makes me less sure of how I'd behave.

Perhaps increased self-knowledge would help. Now that I'm more aware of the human tendency to give in to external pressures, maybe I can better resist institutional pressures to do things that violate my moral principles.

[Obviously, these arguments apply to everyone, not just me. Personalizing them makes them more immediate and relevant.]



Sat Nov 24, 2007 4:12 pm
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Thank you, MA and JTA, for your thoughtful comments.

MA wrote:

Quote:
Humans differ in the regard that they'd still respond to the instructions of a man who was physically incapable of asserting dominance.


Are you distinguishing between dominance and authority on the basis of whether or not it is physical?

JTA wrote:

Quote:
Personally, I tend to view myself as a moral individual. On the other hand, I am a conflict-adverse rule-follower by nature. While I'd like to believe I wouldn't so readily succumb to pressures pushing me to do something immoral, that chapter makes me less sure of how I'd behave.


Likewise.
I find it frightening that the majority of the SPE prisoners who tried to resist the imposed authority ended up having emotional breaks of one form or another. I wonder what would have happened to them if that hadn't gotten them out of the situation.



Sun Nov 25, 2007 8:11 pm
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seeker wrote:
Are you distinguishing between dominance and authority on the basis of whether or not it is physical?


I'm distinguishing between the two on the basis of where the threat originates. An animal is dominant if it is recognized as a threat to anyone who would challenge its authority. But someone like an FDR presents, themselves, no particular threat. We respond to their authority because we think them more competent in dealing with a threat that comes from some other source. Whereas, Nixonian foreign affairs was premised on the imperative of making the threat of American military intervention palpable on a global level -- hence, "credibility".

Quote:
I find it frightening that the majority of the SPE prisoners who tried to resist the imposed authority ended up having emotional breaks of one form or another.


I think it likely that those breakdowns have a lot to do with the terms of the situation. It resembles, as best I can tell, the sort of totalistic situations described by Robert Jay Lifton -- the Communist Chinese "brainwashing" environment, for example. But it would be a mistake to suppose that the SPE situation is even approximately analogous to most normal social situations. We simply don't have so much inclined against any resistance we might present to an authority figure.


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Mon Nov 26, 2007 2:15 am
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MadArchitect wrote:
I'm distinguishing between the two on the basis of where the threat originates. An animal is dominant if it is recognized as a threat to anyone who would challenge its authority. But someone like an FDR presents, themselves, no particular threat. We respond to their authority because we think them more competent in dealing with a threat that comes from some other source.

There are many kinds of authority. Someone may possess authority because they have the power to punish anyone who violates their orders (your animal example). Or, someone may have authority because other people depend on them in some way (the FDR example).

However, Zimbardo focuses on a different version of authority. People crave social acceptance, especially from those with the greatest influence. Those social pressures exert a major influence of people's behavior, even in the absence of any direct threat.
MadArchitect wrote:
But it would be a mistake to suppose that the SPE situation is even approximately analogous to most normal social situations.

I'm not sure of that. We're all under pressure to live by various societal rules, which we take for granted. The SPE had rules and a power structure that are rather different than those we're use to. Still, the reason the SPE received so much attention is because many analogous situations do exist in the outside world.



Mon Nov 26, 2007 2:47 am
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JulianTheApostate wrote:
However, Zimbardo focuses on a different version of authority.


My discussion of types of authority doesn't really have any direct basis in Zimbardo's book. I was responding specifically to Seeker's comments about obedience as an instinctual trait in humans. I don't think it is -- at least, not across the board, and not to an over-riding extent. I brought FDR and Nixon into the fray mostly as political illustrations of how authority might constitute it self in other ways. Nixonian foreign policy constructed political authority as a demand for obedience, while Roosevelt's authority was rooted in a more communal approach to problems.

Quote:
People crave social acceptance, especially from those with the greatest influence.


Again, I think that's far too simplistic a summation of the circumstance. That can't really be Zimbardo's point, can it? It raises all sorts of problems that don't look, from the outside, terribly liable to resolution. For one thing, it's practically tautological. But if we take it as a hard and fast rule, then accounting for social dissidence and disagreement becomes particularly difficult, despite the fact that we see continuous evidence of both.

I will grant that we as a species have a particular facility for constructing societies around us. A spider doesn't go out looking for a web, he builds one. If you take those as two distinct activities -- seeking acceptance versus constructing a society -- the second sounds to me like a more likely candidate for human nature. For one thing, it accounts for more than the idea that we all instinctually seek social approval; dissidence is rarely evident without some corresponding social aim in mind. Not only that, but the social construction perspective that I'm suggesting here can also be seen to encompass the social approval perspective. By which I mean to say that the act of seeking social approval is probably better seen as a process of negotiating with others to achieve a more elaborate or advantageous social construction, but I see little reason to suppose that it precedes the urge to construct societies or that it is, itself, a primary fixture in human behavior.

The most important distinction between the two perspectives, it seems to me, is the difference in how they present societies. The social approval perspective presents them as something external, which the actor may either belong to or not. But there never was any such thing as Victorian culture apart from Victorians behaving as though they interacted with a society. And to say that there were no actual ancestor spirits with which to interact does nothing to invalidate the observation that Confucians exhibited social behavior as though they were a part of the society of their ancestral dead. To the end that the social construction perspective presents society as something that exists only by virtue of its being "projected" by social animals, I'd say it's more workable as a description of actual phenomenon.

Quote:
The SPE had rules and a power structure that are rather different than those we're use to. Still, the reason the SPE received so much attention is because many analogous situations do exist in the outside world.


Certainly analogous situations exist. I've named a few in this thread, in fact. But those situations are extremely difficult to construct and maintain, particularly on a wide scale. Zimbardo's experiments, as I understand them, are useful and enlightening, but I think it's a mistake to take them as broadly applicable.


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Mon Nov 26, 2007 7:38 pm
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MA wrote:

Quote:
I'm distinguishing between the two on the basis of where the threat originates. An animal is dominant if it is recognized as a threat to anyone who would challenge its authority. But someone like an FDR presents, themselves, no particular threat. We respond to their authority because we think them more competent in dealing with a threat that comes from some other source.


JTA wrote:

Quote:
There are many kinds of authority. Someone may possess authority because they have the power to punish anyone who violates their orders (your animal example). Or, someone may have authority because other people depend on them in some way (the FDR example).

However, Zimbardo focuses on a different version of authority. People crave social acceptance, especially from those with the greatest influence. Those social pressures exert a major influence of people's behavior, even in the absence of any direct threat.


So here are three different motives for acquiescing to the leadership of another: fear, trust, and the need for acceptance. Zimbardo's point seems to be that we do not adequately appreciate the power of the third (although the SPE also involved the first) to produce destructive behavior. We expect people to "just say no" to authority (of whichever type). While there are a few who can and do, there are many more who, in fact, do not. So, is it more effective to try to reform individuals or to try to reform institutions that create situations in which people must defy authority to be moral.



Mon Nov 26, 2007 7:43 pm
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seeker wrote:
So here are three different motives for acquiescing to the leadership of another: fear, trust, and the need for acceptance. Zimbardo's point seems to be that we do not adequately appreciate the power of the third (although the SPE also involved the first) to produce destructive behavior.


I'd say that the second probably also played a role. It seems entirely likely to me that the test subjects intuitively trusted the other participants to not take the experiment too far -- the inmates trusted the guards, and both trusted the people administering the test. Frankly, I'm not sure how to evaluate which of those three factors played the primary role.


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Mon Nov 26, 2007 7:51 pm
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MadArchitect wrote:
I'd say that the second probably also played a role. It seems entirely likely to me that the test subjects intuitively trusted the other participants to not take the experiment too far -- the inmates trusted the guards, and both trusted the people administering the test. Frankly, I'm not sure how to evaluate which of those three factors played the primary role.


I did not pick up that the prisoners trusted the guards. After the first day there was a rebellion. Where did they trust the guards. Or are you implying that their trust was inherent in the situation?


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Mon Nov 26, 2007 8:56 pm
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misterpessimistic wrote:
Or are you implying that their trust was inherent in the situation?


It was a volunteer experiment, right? I doubt many of them would have volunteered if they hadn't assumed beforehand that the situation would be at least marginally safe.



Mon Nov 26, 2007 9:03 pm
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MadArchitect wrote:
misterpessimistic wrote:
Or are you implying that their trust was inherent in the situation?


It was a volunteer experiment, right? I doubt many of them would have volunteered if they hadn't assumed beforehand that the situation would be at least marginally safe.


hmm...not sure about that. I can agree that all these guys probably went in with "it is only an experiment" attitude (which we see the prisoners exhibiting in the beginning) but to say that that type of trust contributed to the prisoners bowing to the guards authority does not seem to follow from what I have read.

I tend to think it is more the fear factor...and plain old wear down tactics by the guards.

Mr. P.


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Tue Nov 27, 2007 11:48 am
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I'm not reading the book just yet, so my interpretation could be way off base, but I really don't see how any of it could taken place without some trust, at least in the early stages.



Tue Nov 27, 2007 12:21 pm
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