Just by reading this blog, you are disobeying the norm, the consensus. Congratulations! How did you come to this junction in your life? What made you decide to buck the trend and go out and assess the facts yourself and make a decision accordingly?
I have often wondered about the make-up of people who have disobeyed the “consensus” when it comes to, among other things, Anthropogenic Global Warming hysteria, being of a medical-scientific bent (with the emphasis on “bent”), I can’t help but ruminate accordingly.
One of the things about science and the process of scientific discovery, is that often the most interesting thing is not the discovery that is made or the question that is answered, but the inverse question that comes out of the process. For instance, experimental research into transplanting dopaminergic tissue into the basal ganglia of patient’s with Parkinson’s disease (aka “cracking open people’s heads and doing things”), seemed to be working quite well, until they realised that the placebo group who merely had their skulls opened but no tissue transplanted improved, too. The scientific conclusion from this was that ergo the intervention didn’t work. However, in my mind the inverse question, given the positive result experienced by the patients, of “should we be considering drilling holes in people’s heads (aka “cracking open people’s heads and NOT doing anything) as a treatment for Parkinsons?” is probably more fascinating.
In the 1960’s a psychologist named Stanley Milgram conducted seminal research into the process of obedience to authority. The “Milgram Experiment” is now famous, and is pretty much impossible to reproduce in this day and age due to the fun-police who sit on research ethics committees. (When you hear about his experiment you will probably see why they won’t let anyone do it again.) Participants were recruited and paid to help with research into what they were told was the effects of punishment on learning, in reality, Milgram was researching submission to authority, as his experiments took place during the Eichmann trials and he wanted to research what has come to be known as the “Nuremberg defence” or “I was just doing what I was ordered.”
This is what Milgram did:
Volunteers were recruited to take part in a study of memory and learning, upon arriving they were taken into the lab two at a time and randomised into “teachers” or “learners”. The learners were all hired to act the role, and the randomisation was fake. The learner was strapped into a chair with an electrode attached to his wrist and tied down, and told that he will be asked to reads lists of word pairs, and if he gets it wrong, the teacher will administer increasing intensities of electric shocks. The teacher was then seated in front of an impressive looking device that would supposedly administer the shocks, with rows of switches labelled Slight Shock, Moderate Shock, Strong Shock, Very Strong Shock, Intense Shock, Extreme Intensity Shock, Danger: Severe Shock. (Two switches after this last designation were simply marked XXX.) The teacher is then given a sample shock of 45 volts to reinforce belief that the machine is real. When the experiment starts, the learner has been instructed to act out a series of responses at difference voltages (although no real shocks were delivered to the actors), ranging from expressing pain, to screaming, to begging to be let go and then to silence. During the experiment, an instructor (Milgram) stayed with the teacher and guided them to deliver an increasing intensity of shocks and instructed them that they must continue should they question their role.
When Milgram designed the study, he canvassed experts and students alike as to what they thought the number of people who would proceed to a “painful” or “dangerous” level under orders would be. Almost universally, people predicted that only a small percentage of people would knowingly harm the subject, and only a lunatic fringe would continue to what they perceived to be a dangerous level. In reality, around 65% of people, male and female alike, did as they were told and dialled all the way under the direction of the authority figure overseeing the experiment. This is not to say that people liked doing it, everyone questioned the examiner and asked to stop at some stage, but after being directed to continue, they complied.
To my mind, it is the inverse question that has always fascinated: The focus was on the psychology of obedience, but what of the minority of people who disobeyed and refused to continue? What were they like?
The only subject who calmly refused to continue before the 300 volt threshold was reached was a woman who was a German immigrant and had been through World War 2. She just said it wasn’t right to hurt someone, took responsibility for the fact that if the subject was hurt it would be her fault and she wouldn’t do it, and that was it. Milgram himself mentioned that
“The woman’s straightforward, courteous behavior in the experiment, lack of tension, and total control of her own action seem to make disobedience a simple and rational deed.”
Another man actually correctly guessed that it was a set-up and correctly guessed the true nature of the experiment, and even guessed it was to investigate how the Nazis coerced people into doing things they knew were wrong. He wrote about it later, and felt it was his previous life experience that had led him to notice that things weren’t adding up and to question authority.
Another guy who reportedly stopped was an electrical engineer, who knew what electric shocks felt like and so refused to keep going, even though the authority figure said it wasn’t dangerous.
So, analysing the minority of people who refused, they were people whose life experience either gave them insight or expertise that others didn’t have, or a few people who also refused because they believed they were answerable to a higher moral authority. In all of the people who refused, there was the common trait of feeling responsible for their own actions. The majority of people who kept going rationalised that either they weren’t responsible because they were following orders, and had become an agent of another person, or blamed themselves for hurting the subject, but in situations of stress conformed to the societal or behavioural model being presented to them by an authority because they did not themselves possess the ability or expertise to make a decision for themselves. This latter group, after learning of the true nature of the experiment were the type of people who would be less likely to be coerced into that type of situation again.
The conclusions of this experiment were very interesting, and have ramifications for what is going on in the world today. In one of Milgram’s own articles on the experiments for Harpers magazine (which I have quoted from elsewhere in this article), he discovered that:
Conflicting authority severely paralyzes actions — When two experimenters of equal status, both seated at the command desk, gave incompatible orders, no shocks were delivered past the point of their disagreement.
The rebellious action of others severely undermines authority — In one variation, three teachers (two actors and a real subject) administered a test and shocks. When the two actors disobeyed the experimenter and refused to go beyond a certain shock level, thirty-six of forty subjects joined their disobedient peers and refused as well.
He then concluded with this:
The problem of obedience is not wholly psychological. The form and shape of society and the way it is developing have much to do with it. There was a time, perhaps, when people were able to give a fully human response to any situation because they were fully absorbed in it as human beings. But as soon as there was a division of labour things changed. Beyond a certain point, the breaking up of society into people carrying out narrow and very special jobs takes away from the human quality of work and life. A person does not get to see the whole situation but only a small part of it, and is thus unable to act without some kind of overall direction. He yields to authority but in doing so is alienated from his own actions.
Which seems to be rather prescient and pertinent to the world today. It is also reassuring, in the sense that merely being present with a dissenting view can have important and far reaching ramifications in giving permission for others who are following the “consensus” to choose a different path.