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Why people participate in atrocities: mere obedience, or something more?

July 29, 2012
Courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

What makes sol­diers abuse pris­on­ers? How could Na­zi of­fi­cials con­demn thou­sands of Jews to gas cham­ber deaths? What’s go­ing on when un­der­lings help cov­er up a fi­nan­cial swin­dle?

A prevailing view, that most partici­pants in such crimes are just fol­low­ing orders, may let peo­ple off the hook a little too eas­ily, new re­search sug­gests.

Just over 50 years ago, the psy­chol­o­gist Stan­ley Mil­gram em­barked on what re­main the most fa­mous stud­ies touch­ing on the sub­ject. Par­ti­ci­pants were as­signed the role of “teacher” and were told to give shocks to some­one de­scribed as a “learn­er.” The shocks be­came stronger with each wrong an­swer from the “learn­er.” As Mil­gram fa­mously found, par­ti­ci­pants were will­ing to de­liv­er what they thought were le­thal shocks to a stranger—just be­cause ex­pe­ri­menters told them to.

Sci­en­tists have con­clud­ed based on such work that many peo­ple can’t help but obey the or­ders of those in au­thor­ity, even when those or­ders are crim­i­nal.

But not all re­search­ers agree this is the whole ex­plana­t­ion. Some sug­gest there is a more ac­tive par­ticipa­t­ion be­yond mere obe­di­ence. In an un­usu­al new stu­dy, re­search­ers Ste­phen Re­icher of the Uni­vers­ity of St. An­drews in the U.K. and col­leagues pro­pose a new way of look­ing at Mil­gram’s find­ings.

Rath­er than obe­di­ence to au­thor­ity, they pro­pose, pat­terns of so­cial iden­ti­fica­t­ion might ex­plain the ob­served be­hav­iors. Thus con­di­tions that en­cour­age iden­ti­fica­t­ion with the ex­pe­ri­menter (and, by ex­ten­sion, the sci­en­tif­ic com­mun­ity) might lead par­ti­ci­pants to fol­low the ex­pe­ri­menters’ or­ders, while con­di­tions that en­cour­aged iden­ti­fica­t­ion with the learn­er (and the gen­er­al com­mun­ity) would lead par­ti­ci­pants to de­fy the un­just or­ders.

Will­ing­ness to en­gage in de­struc­tive be­hav­ior may be “a re­flec­tion not of sim­ple obe­di­ence, but of ac­tive iden­ti­fica­t­ion with the ex­pe­ri­menter and his mis­sion,” the re­search­ers wrote in the stu­dy, pub­lished in the jour­nal Per­spec­tives on Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

Rath­er than rep­li­cate the Mil­gram stud­ies in some ver­sion—some­thing that could raise eth­i­cal com­plica­t­ions—Re­icher and col­leagues opted for an­oth­er ex­pe­ri­men­tal strat­e­gy. They took ad­vant­age of the fact that many vari­ants of the Mil­gram stud­ies have already been carr­ied out since the ori­ginal work. They re-analyzed these vari­ants, checking for wheth­er par­ti­ci­pants be­haved dif­fer­ently de­pend­ing on wheth­er the study con­text en­cour­aged iden­ti­fica­t­ion with the ex­pe­ri­menters, or with the wid­er com­mun­ity. 

Re­icher and col­leagues did re­cruit hu­man parti­ci­pants, but not to press sinis­ter red but­tons. The par­ti­ci­pants were meant to serve as hope­fully im­par­tial as­ses­sors of the previous studies. Two groups were re­cruited. An “ex­pert group” in­clud­ed 32 ac­a­dem­ic so­cial psy­chol­o­gists from two Brit­ish uni­vers­i­ties and on Aus­tral­ian uni­vers­ity. The “non­ex­pert” group in­clud­ed 96 first-year psy­chol­o­gy stu­dents who had not yet learn­ed about the Mil­gram stud­ies.

All par­ti­ci­pants were read a short de­scrip­tion of Mil­gram’s orig­i­nal study and they were then giv­en de­tails about 15 vari­ants. For each var­i­ant, they were asked to in­di­cate the ex­tent to which that var­i­ant would lead par­ti­ci­pants to iden­ti­fy with the ex­pe­ri­menter and the sci­en­tif­ic com­mun­ity and the ex­tent to which it would lead them to iden­ti­fy with the learn­er and the gen­er­al com­mun­ity.

As ex­pected, iden­ti­fica­t­ion with the ex­pe­ri­menter was found to be a very strong pre­dic­tor of the lev­el of obe­di­ence dis­played, the study found, while iden­ti­fica­t­ion with the learn­er was a strong pre­dic­tor of dis­obe­di­ence. The new re­search “moves us away from a dom­i­nant view­point that has pre­vailed with­in and be­yond the ac­a­dem­ic world for nearly half a cen­tu­ry – a view­point sug­gesting that peo­ple en­gage in bar­bar­ic acts be­cause they have lit­tle in­sight in­to what they are do­ing and con­form slav­ishly to the will of au­thor­ity,” the re­search­ers wrote.

Look­ing at the find­ings this way has sev­er­al ad­van­tages, they ar­gue. First, it mir­rors re­cent his­tor­i­cal as­sess­ments sug­gesting func­tion­ar­ies in bru­talizing regimes – like the Na­zi bu­reau­crat Ad­olf Eich­mann – do much more than fol­low or­ders. And it ac­counts for why par­ti­ci­pants are more likely to fol­low or­ders un­der cer­tain con­di­tions than oth­ers, they said.

The find­ings, they added, sug­gest so­cial iden­ti­fica­t­ion gives par­ti­ci­pants a mor­al com­pass and mo­ti­vates them to act as fol­lowers. This fol­lowership, the au­thors re­mark, is not thought­less: “it is the en­deav­or of com­mitted sub­jects.”


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What makes soldiers abuse prisoners? How could Nazi officials condemn thousands of Jews to gas chamber deaths? What’s going on when underlings help cover up a financial swindle? For years, researchers have tried to identify the factors that drive people to commit cruel and brutal acts. Just over 50 years ago, the psychologist Stanley Milgram embarked on what remain the most famous studies on the subject. Participants were assigned the role of “teacher” and were told to give shocks to someone described as a “learner.” The shocks became stronger with each wrong answer from the “learner.” As Milgram famously found, participants were willing to deliver what they thought were lethal shocks to a stranger—just because experimenters told them to. Scientists have concluded based on such studies has been that many people can’t help but obey the orders of those in authority, even when those orders are criminal. But not all researchers agrees that this is the whole explanation. Some suggest there is a more active participation beyond mere obedience. In an unusual new study, researchers Stephen Reicher of the University of St. Andrews in the U.K. and colleagues propose a new way of looking at Milgram’s findings. They hypothesized that, rather than obedience to authority, patterns of social identification might explain the observed behaviors. Thus conditions that encourage identification with the experimenter (and, by extension, the scientific community) might lead participants to follow the experimenters’ orders, while conditions that encouraged identification with the learner (and the general community) would lead participants to defy the unjust orders. Willingness to engage in destructive behavior may be “a reflection not of simple obedience, but of active identification with the experimenter and his mission,” the researchers wrote in the study, published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. Rather than replicate the Milgram studies in some version—something that could raise ethical complications—Reicher and colleagues opted for another experimental strategy. They re-analyzed variants of the Milgram studies done in the past. They checked for whether participants behaved differently depending on whether the specific study context encouraged identification with the experimenters, or with the wider community. Reicher and colleagues did, however, recruit volunteers in order to serve as hopefully impartial judges of that study context. They recruited two different groups of participants. The expert group included 32 academic social psychologists from two British universities and on Australian university. The nonexpert group included 96 first-year psychology students who had not yet learned about the Milgram studies. All participants were read a short description of Milgram’s original study and they were then given details about 15 variants. For each variant, they were asked to indicate the extent to which that variant would lead participants to identify with the experimenter and the scientific community and the extent to which it would lead them to identify with the learner and the general community. As expected, identification with the experimenter was a very strong positive predictor of the level of obedience displayed, the study found, while identification with the learner was a strong negative predictor of obedience. The new research “moves us away from a dominant viewpoint that has prevailed within and beyond the academic world for nearly half a century – a viewpoint suggesting that people engage in barbaric acts because they have little insight into what they are doing and conform slavishly to the will of authority,” the researchers wrote. Looking at the findings this way has several advantages, they argue. First, it mirrors recent historical assessments suggesting functionaries in brutalizing regimes – like the Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann – do much more than follow orders. And it accounts for why participants are more likely to follow orders under certain conditions than others, they said. The findings, they added, suggest social identification gives participants a moral compass and motivates them to act as followers. This followership, the authors remark, is not thoughtless: “it is the endeavor of committed subjects.”