May 17, 2010

The French Obey Authority Figures

fluorescent bulb.jpg
do the right thing

I.

A French documentarian creates a fake game show (a la Milgram obedience experiment): he tells the subjects that in this game show, they are to shock the "contestant" if he answers the questions wrong.  (Of course, there was no real shock, everything was faked.)

Just like with the Milgram experiments, most (64/80) of the subjects shocked all the way to the top, despite the anguished screams of the contestant.

Milgram would (and did) say something like:

But the psychological conclusion, at once both facile and unimaginable, is that they were simply following orders: they hated making Jean-Paul suffer and expressed their desire to stop the game -- but, apart from 16 of the participants, never managed to resist orders from an authority figure to carry on.

II.

Here are two important questions I have yet to see asked:

  1. are there really people in France-- in France!-- who have not heard about the Milgram experiments?
  2. are there really people in France who would think that there could be a TV show where you actually torture other people for real?  I realize the EU is crumbling, but let's postulate that France is not in Japan.
It's possible that these people are not so much obedient as idiots, condemned to repeat history because...


III.

But there's another, more likely explanation: these people live in France.

They're brought up in a normal, liberal society that doesn't usually torture its citizens.  It's a TV show, so it's presumably voluntary.  Why would they stop?  Imagine you're the contestant to receive the shocks, you've withstood shocks all the way up to 400 volts, and now the nimrod on the other end decides he's not going to shock you because he finds it morally objectionable--  the same guy who's never heard of the Milgram experiments yet has made a thorough investigation of the relevant balance of ethics.   Now the game is ruined, and you go home with your depression treated, for nothing.

There's a difference between blind obedience to an authority figure, and knowing where you are.

IV.

A lot is made of whether the individual has the moral fortitude to resist an authority figure.  What of it?   No one cares about your particular moral stance, except you, which puts that squarely in the narcissism bin.  You can refuse to participate, but you know they'll simply get someone else, right?  So what have you accomplished?

The important question isn't whether you would refuse to participate, but whether you'd be willing to smash a fluorescent light bulb and wave it around like a light saber and bust that guy the hell out of there.  Or something.  No one expects you to be a Jedi, but don't walk out of there with your head held Facebook high because you chose to think of yourself first.

---

Zimbardo and the Stanford Prison Experiment

Why I Refused To Participate In Milgram's Experiment: I'm a Communist

----

http://twitter.com/thelastpsych







Comments

Crap. I have no answer. I... (Below threshold)

May 17, 2010 5:27 PM | Posted by CC: | Reply

Crap. I have no answer. I thought to comment that Just War Theory requires one to have a reasonable chance of success before starting to tear things apart and go on a rampage, but I think you've correctly cited the Solzhenitziyn we-shoulda-been-like-the-Chechens-and-just-whacked-the-black-maria-guys-as-soon-as-they-came-in-our-apartment theory.

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The important question i... (Below threshold)

May 17, 2010 8:06 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

The important question isn't whether you would refuse to participate, but whether you'd be willing to smash a fluorescent light bulb and wave it around like a light saber and bust that guy the hell out of there.

The pirate is strong in this one.

Only a madman with a penchant for anarchy would so awesomely fuck with the people he knows are fucking with him. The important question here being will this man be acting out of ignorant altruism or malicious mischief. Or something.

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I doubt if he knew they wer... (Below threshold)

May 17, 2010 10:25 PM | Posted by Yoda: | Reply

I doubt if he knew they were fucking with him he'd starting cutting people.

Though I'd wager there's an entire segment of the population who would start cutting because they knew it was a set up, thus giving themselves an excuse to hurt other people.

I'd also wager that those same people wouldn't dare fight if they thought it was real.

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The important question i... (Below threshold)

May 17, 2010 10:57 PM | Posted by Matt: | Reply

The important question isn't whether you would refuse to participate, but whether you'd be willing to smash a fluorescent light bulb and wave it around like a light saber and bust that guy the hell out of there. Or something.

The Milgram experiments, and the inane news articles that follow them, will only end when someone does this.

And that is the real Milgram experiment.

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"bust that guy the hell out... (Below threshold)

May 18, 2010 7:12 AM | Posted by markps2: | Reply

"bust that guy the hell out of there" is a code 44 on my psych ward-hospital-prison if I recall properly.

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"The important question isn... (Below threshold)

May 18, 2010 8:46 AM | Posted by GT: | Reply

"The important question isn't whether you would refuse to participate, but whether you'd be willing to smash a fluorescent light bulb and wave it around like a light saber and bust that guy the hell out of there."

I guess that would be a test of courage then? In which case, so far, every participant failed 100% or put another way, we are all cowards regardless of what we think or feel of our behavior.

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Great post. Myself, I think... (Below threshold)

May 18, 2010 9:22 AM | Posted by medsvstherapy: | Reply

Great post. Myself, I think the "obedience to authority" issue is just a part of a greater phenomenon driving behavior: my crazy theory is that generally we largely do not know what to do. And, we don't take our clues from our "self efficacy," or our "cognitive dissonance," or other intrapsychic constructs.

I believe we have no idea how to act generally, and we take our clues from what we can glean is "normal," what others do.

Others can be leaders or peers, real or perceived.

It never occurs to anyone to go get a tongue piercing until that person see this so much in some cohort that the person identifies with. Then, the idea crosses the line into: "one day I will..."

Why? Because that is normal, and desirable. It helps place you in a category of person. You have an identity, a definition.

In the past, this would happen with people who had too little input from wiser, concerned people, such as parents and co-workers, and friends at church.

But nowadays, these forces are either largely terribly weakened, or are egging you on to go ahead and get a tongue piercing.

So, MTV Spring Break is the greatest influence on your behavior.

They look like normal people, and look how many of them there are. surely, they can't be wrong.

So, we take our cues from others around us. This makes it difficult to spot a narcissist at first: they are doing the same thing. Only they don't get satisfied merely by making the efforts to fit into what they perceive as "normal." They need something more.

Most of us change our behavior to fit in, which is our invitation, our entre, to be connected. Then, we progress to get connected. Social networks and such. The factors that, when studied, are the most profound predictors of contentment and longevity.

The narcissist has the same entre. Talk the talk. and we respond: we give them the benefit of the doubt, like we do all people who have made their entre into whatver social network we are in, and we assume we will all be friendly compatriots on this journey through life. At work, in our neighborhood, our hobbies, church, wherever.

But it doesn't work that way for a narcissist. They need more. And we comply. Why? Because they asked. Just like the man in the lab coat, or the game show host.

It is an awesome concept to ponder what a game show in Japan could ultimately get its contestants to do.

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Aw god damnit... i'm taking... (Below threshold)

May 18, 2010 2:52 PM | Posted, in reply to medsvstherapy's comment, by DCP: | Reply

Aw god damnit... i'm taking this blog off my reader today as it has gone overboard with the narcissism blame game and taken some commenters with it.

Can you even clearly define what a narcissist is?

How about this: provide some type of proof for these theories and maybe more people will start to listen. There were a few points TLP has nailed but now every theory and intellectual impulse is explained by "narcissism".

To think that all kinds of complex human behavior can be explained away with a single, vague term is ridiculous.

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Posting a comment to let ot... (Below threshold)

May 18, 2010 3:28 PM | Posted, in reply to DCP's comment, by Aron: | Reply

Posting a comment to let other anonymous readers know you're no longer going to pay attention to the blog? Sounds like an open and closed case of narcissism to me!

But really, without that first sentence your post is relevant and could further a discussion. Maybe Alone would respond that narcissism is only one of many factors in behavior, but that it is the factor he chooses to focus on because he thinks it touches all facets of life?

It seems hard not to think that people are entirely too wrapped up in the production that is their lives. That each person has to fit every event into a meta narrative of their life seems like it would have far reaching effects on their behavior. I'm not sure if narcissism is the source of all evils Alone paints, but it isn't so unreasonable as to not talk about it.

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The point is that if you re... (Below threshold)

May 18, 2010 3:34 PM | Posted, in reply to DCP's comment, by Matt: | Reply

The point is that if you refuse to participate in the experiment, that implies that you think it's wrong. But if you feel that strongly about it, it's pretty strange to refuse to participate but do nothing else. If you're really motivated by morality, you are reacting to the guy being tortured, and not the fact that you are torturing him. If they have a guy waiting on deck to take over, your refusal to participate solves nothing. In that case, the only action consistent with refusal to participate is taking further action to make sure the guy doesn't get tortured by anyone -- including going nuts with a fluorescent light bulb if necessary.

Refusing to participate but doing nothing else, on the other hand, suggests that your focus is on what you do, not what happens. This is narcissistic, because you care primarily about your own moral status, not about what actually happens.

The point of morality is not what kind of person you are, but on whether you make the world better or worse. If you make the world better, your moral stance is higher, sure, but that's a byproduct. Good ethics consists of trying to make things better whenever possible, without sparing a thought for if you personally are becoming a better person.

Agree or disagree, but I think that's where Alone got the narcissism angle from.

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Refusing to participate ... (Below threshold)

May 18, 2010 3:47 PM | Posted, in reply to Matt's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

Refusing to participate but doing nothing else, on the other hand, suggests that your focus is on what you do, not what happens. This is narcissistic, because you care primarily about your own moral status, not about what actually happens.

Regardless of what happens, it, too shall pass. I agree with you, but often times doing nothing is the most probable starting point. Just look at voting statistics in the States. Sometimes waiting on the world to change works. Sometimes.

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This blog is primarily abou... (Below threshold)

May 18, 2010 8:38 PM | Posted, in reply to DCP's comment, by popo: | Reply

This blog is primarily about narcissism. It has always been this way. I have read every article. Without checking any figures, I would guess that 20 out of the 60 or so would be on the subject.

If you don't like it, I suggest you keep reading.

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Holy shit, I was totally of... (Below threshold)

May 18, 2010 8:47 PM | Posted by Popo: | Reply

Holy shit, I was totally off the mark. TLP has written more than 350 articles. Can somebody give us an exact count? I've been following you so long that I've forgotten how long I was following you, Alone.

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Erm...I assume they attende... (Below threshold)

May 19, 2010 3:02 AM | Posted by Whatever: | Reply

Erm...I assume they attended school like everyone else. Why shouldn't they fall for it?!

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For sure, refusing to shock... (Below threshold)

May 19, 2010 3:39 AM | Posted by anonymous: | Reply

For sure, refusing to shock someone indicates an unhealthy love for oneself. No doubts whatsoever.

Of course, assuming to know what people are thinking, perfecrly fine.

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For what it's worth: the "v... (Below threshold)

May 19, 2010 5:46 AM | Posted by Eric: | Reply

For what it's worth: the "victim", ie the actor doing the audible suffering, was particularly bad. Especially when saying he couldn't take it anymore. Sounded so fake I would've punished him for it.

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You're right. On all count... (Below threshold)

May 19, 2010 12:44 PM | Posted, in reply to Yoda's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

You're right. On all counts. What you're describing is a survivalist reaction to any fucked up situation. Matt has the right idea about the end of Milgram experiments but the first one started with a man on a cross. Or it's at least the most historically well-known and culturally relevant.

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Now the game is ruined, and... (Below threshold)

May 20, 2010 10:06 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Now the game is ruined, and you go home with your depression treated, for nothing. GOD HOW I HATE YOU!

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I served on a university ac... (Below threshold)

May 20, 2010 8:01 PM | Posted by Foobs: | Reply

I served on a university academic honesty committee for almost a year before I resigned. I discovered that serving on the committee had put me in a mindset where I was following the university's rules and precidence, not because I believed in them, but because it was "fair" and "right" and "my duty".

In other words, the context of the situation led me to believe that a decision that I regarded, even as I made it, as wrong was right in that circumstance.

I don't know that it even owes that much to authority, at least not in my case. It is just that the specifics of the situation can make you do the opposite of what you know is right. I think the jury in the Genarlow Wilson case must have felt the same way. It is hard getting past "I'm supposed to do this" to "this is wrong". It took me 8 months and some ruined lives to figure that out, and I've paid for my sins.

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"Refusing to participate bu... (Below threshold)

May 25, 2010 2:10 PM | Posted by Gretchen: | Reply

"Refusing to participate but doing nothing else, on the other hand, suggests that your focus is on what you do, not what happens. This is narcissistic, because you care primarily about your own moral status, not about what actually happens."

Let's say your orders to shock the person are followed up with a threat on your life, or better yet, the life of a loved one.

Is this self-interest a psychological issue (narcissism) or purely instinctual or both? I would be willing to sacrifice my own life to save that of a family member but I would hesitate to sacrifice it for a stranger...I bring it up because it would seem self-preservation is rational and seen across species. Only when other more human emotions are introduced that the self-preservation instinct is foiled.

It doesn't seem possible that all perpetrators of mass murder - the underlings, not the leaders - actually agreed with what they were doing, or that they were all truly "evil" or sick fucks who got off on it. Some of them must have felt "THIS IS WRONG!!" and *wanted* to stop, but didn't in order to prevent their own death, or the death of their children/spouse/parents/etc.

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Apparently, you've not seen... (Below threshold)

June 20, 2010 4:38 PM | Posted, in reply to medsvstherapy's comment, by k: | Reply

Apparently, you've not seen Japnese game and/or comedy shows, which typically rely on (in descending order) humiliation, psychological/ physical harm, and T&A. BTW, the excerpts shown in the US are pretty lame.

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you go home with your de... (Below threshold)

July 15, 2010 4:53 PM | Posted by shady: | Reply

you go home with your depression treated, for nothing

Bwahahahahahaha!

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As long as we're redefining... (Below threshold)

July 27, 2010 4:53 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

As long as we're redefining torture through milgram experiments, how about "it's morally wrong to torture," regardless of where the feeling of the person is coming from in the first place. I was reading some douche's twitter account and thought to myself, "if you read it and think it's true, you might be racist."

You had a great post I can no longer find, perhaps it's a glitch.

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As long as we're redefining... (Below threshold)

July 27, 2010 5:17 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

As long as we're redefining torture through milgram experiments, how about "it's morally wrong to torture," regardless of where the feeling of the person is coming from in the first place. I was reading some douche's twitter account and thought to myself, "if you read it and think it's true, you might be racist."

You had a great post I can no longer find, perhaps it's a glitch.

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