Scientists Discover "Repertoire of Resistance"
Sheep Are Made, Not Born
In the 1980s, kids were encouraged to "Just Say No" to peer pressure. New research from the University of Wisconsin suggests that the willingness to say, "No" - and mean it! - is, indeed, what separates those who successfully resist immoral directives from those who grudgingly submit.
In the 1960s, a psychologist named Stanley Milgram conducted a very famous series of experiments, studying the willingness of regular people to obey authority, even when told to do terrible things. For context, remember that World War II ended in 1945, and only gradually had the degree of the German public's widespread complicity in the Nazi horror become fully known. Milgram and his colleagues hoped that Americans would be much less likely to accede to unethical commands than Germans had been.
Unfortunately, his research proved otherwise.
The Obedience Experiments were disguised as research into teaching and memory. A "teacher" (the real test subject) was supposed to help a "learner" in another room memorize a long list of words, using a control panel to administer an electric shock whenever the "learner" made a mistake. When instructed to administer increasingly powerful shocks to the "learner," (actually an actor only pretending to be shocked), a full 66% of test subjects continued to obey orders to the point of administering a lethal charge. Although all the test subjects displayed reluctance and concern (particularly once the actor started screaming in agony and begging to be released), only a minority were willing to actually refuse to continue the experiment.
Milgram described his results this way: "Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation."
For decades, Milgram's research has cast a dark shadow over the field of social psychology. Are most people actually that weak-willed? And if so, is there anything we can do about it? UWM graduate student Matthew Hollander attempts to answer these questions in a new analysis of Milgram's experiments entitled, The Repertoire of Resistance: Noncompliance with Directives in Milgram's "Obedience" Experiments.
After an exhaustive analysis of the original material recorded during Milgram's experiments, Hollander has concluded that, "resistance is not simply a typologically recurrent but also a sequentially organized phenomenon." In other words, not only are the TECHNIQUES people use to try to resist authority largely the same, but the ORDER in which they use those techniques is almost always the same as well.
Hollander has identified six techniques, or "forms of resistance" used by Milgram's test subjects.
- performing silence and hesitation
- imprecating [vocal noises like swearing and groaning]
- Addressing the learner [the actor pretending to be in pain]
- prompting the experimenter and
- trying to stop the experiment and accounting for such attempts.
According to Hollander's research, while virtually all of the test subjects utilized at least a few of these forms of resistance, it is the sixth and final form of resistance: the "stop try" that ultimately separated the "disobedient" subjects from the "obedient" ones. Hollander writes, "whereas fully 98% of disobedient participants offer at least one stop try, only 19% of the obedient ones do so ... [and] very few (4/64 = 6%) of the obedient-outcome participants venture more than one try."
These stop-tries often took the form of statements such as, "I don't think I want to be a part of this anymore," or "I'm not going on." Milgram's experiment was structured such that four stop-tries were required to halt the scenario and classify the subject as "disobedient." Not only were the disobedient participants more willing to say, "No," in the first place, they were willing to say it as many times as necessary to resolve the situation.
When asked about the real-world implications of his research, Hollander replied that, "What separates the two groups appears to be less facts about their social backgrounds such as gender, socioeconomic status, or education, than a skill set for effectively coping with immoral directives from an authority figure. And I don't see why such a skill set, once clearly identified, shouldn't be widely teachable for purposes of empowerment of victims or potential victims of toxic authority/subordinate relationships."
But isn't this kind of resistance exactly the opposite of the unquestioning obedience required by government, industry and military organizations? Hollander chooses to be optimistic: "I would characterize contemporary bureaucratic structures not as relying on unquestioning obedience but as relatively open to workable ideas that could help to minimize abusive authority/subordinate relationships."
According to Hollander, the keys to "successful resistance in the Milgram scenario" are:
- Diversity of practices (rather than relying on a single strategy, be able to use several: e.g. treat the person being harmed as having the say-so about whether the situation should continue; use the Golden Rule to ask how I or we would like it if we were placed in the victim's shoes.
- Starting early (rather than waiting for the problematic situation to become entrenched, blow the whistle as soon as you feel sure that something wrong is happening).
- Sustaining resistance (rather than backing down when your resistance is countered by the authority figure, sustain it by e.g. trying a different resistance strategy.
It is worthwhile noting that the Milgram studies did not incorporate the concept of vested self-interest, beyond the small payment that test subjects were promised for their participation. This is very different from the real world, in which people allow terrible things to occur because their careers or social standing might be negatively affected by exposure. Consider the Penn State or Catholic Church child abuse coverups, for example; otherwise good people stood by and allowed children to be raped, because exposing the rapists might hurt the system on which the bystanders' jobs depended.
While Hollander points out that, "there do appear to be many real-world situations that are 'Milgramesque,'" he acknowledges that "the lack of 'self-interest' is an important difference between the Milgram situation and many real-world situations. Although Milgram and his supporters have argued for the broad or even universal generalizability of his findings (e.g., to the Holocaust), I side more with those who take a more cautious approach to generalizability."
Despite this limitation (which is intrinsic to the original experiments), Hollander's research clearly holds great potential for practical applications. Instead of telling kids - and adults - to "Just say no," we could start teaching them specifically HOW to say it, and how to KEEP saying it until the authority figure backs off.
Whether any institution would be willing to sponsor or promote such research is, of course, quite a different question. While Hollander is confident that existing power structures understand the need for internal checks and balances, history suggests that "disobedience" is a virtue only appreciated in hindsight.