Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Shocking Sheeping and the Sheep who Shock

We all like to believe we are not sheep. We like to believe we are not influenced to make purchases because ads make us want a product, we like to think we are independent thinkers and do as we believe is right and not just what others tell us to do. We like to believe that we will not jump off a bridge because our friends just did, that we will stand up for what we know is right at crucial times, and that we will never follow a leader into doing something against our own moral standards.

Are our beliefs little more than wishful thinking?

In a time when the world was still reeling and recovering from the treacherous and inhumane crimes committed during the Holocaust, many were left asking, "How were so many people able to commit such horrendous acts against another person, or stand by and watch them happen, doing nothing to stop it?"

In the early '60s, Stanely Milgram completed his obedience experiments, testing to see how far people would go when an authority figure told them to do something (in this case, applying shocks to an unseen person, with increasing voltage and consequently resulting pain). The person receiving the shock was an actor, not actually being harmed, but the participants did not know this and believed they were applying the shocks to the screaming man in the next room. What I found interesting about this study when I learned about it in a beginner psych course back in college, was how scarily unaware of responsibility that the participants felt for harming the man. Many, while agitated and increasingly uncomfortable at the pain they were causing this other person (who was doing nothing 'wrong' other than missing answers on a simple test), seemed to feel they had no choice in what they were doing. 'The man in the white lab coat is in charge, he told me to do this, so I will do it.' Below is a clip of footage from the original experiment:

Milgram was not alone in proving our sheeping tendencies. A recent BBC article cited 2 recent experiments that replicated Milgrams results. The majority of participants in both studies were willing to torture (apply electrical shocks), even after the previous shock had caused the person receiving the shocks to scream in pain. This fascinating behavior is scary, sad, maybe even a bit sadistic, but not surprising.

We look to those 'in charge' or who know more than us in certain situations, to tell us what to do. There is a new book out entitled 'Nudge', by Richard Thaler and Cass Sustein that talks a bit about the psychology at play in this experiment. This ability to 'nudge' people, as with most forces, can be used in positive or negative ways. On the Nudges website, the authors discuss the Milgram experiment and how the authority figures successfully 'nudged' the participants:

"The deliberative part of his decision - the reflective decision-making moment where he answers Shall I go on with the experiment? Shall I shock? - always applies to the next round of questioning on the test, not to incorrect answer he just heard. There appears to be no deliberation at the moment of the wrong answer. There is only an automatic decision to shock. It is as if he already made that decision in the previous round."
Looking at the man in the Milgram video, he clearly had thoughts about wanting to stop, asking the researcher to stop more than once. All the researcher had to do was encourage him to continue- to tell him to keep going. He never threatened harm (never once said 'keep going or you'll be shocked next'), never once threatened to take anything away or any other form of mild 'punishment'. He just made stopping not a choice verbally. The man had to physically stop applying the shocks and administering the test. Was he scared of confrontation? Unsure if his own thoughts were correct (ie this seems wrong, but the doctor is telling me to do it so I must be mistaken, everything must really be ok)?

What does this mean to you? How do you prevent yourself from falling victim to your own tendency to blindly listen to and follow authority figures in your own life?

  • Have a clear system of morals in your life. Contemplate what you consider right and wrong, good and bad, mean and nice.
  • Listen to your leaders- often they have more knowledge or expertise in certain areas, can teach you much, and may be good at managing or organizing people. But they may not have your best interests at heart, they may have different morals than you, be willing to do or ask you to do things that you normally would not do without the 'nudge'. Do not simply do what they say- think about it before you take action.
  • If someone (authority figure or not, in person or through a print or digital medium) is telling you to do something, ask 'why?' What do they want from me, what will they gain, what will I gain, what will the consequences be if I do it, what will the consequences be if I don't do it?
  • As simple as it may be, never forget the Golden Rule- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
As you move through your day and your life, listen, learn and be willing to speak up and take action whether you agree or disagree with the situation at hand!


Wind February 9, 2009 at 9:05 PM  

What a great article! Thanks! Here's to not being a sheep :)


Snitterdog February 11, 2009 at 12:44 AM  

I enjoy the concept of not wanting/needing to follow the herd...In some ways I probably am a sheep-- why do I care if I am getting wrinkles? GRRR!!! I should not care-- damn those facial cream commercials and the Hollywood machine! :D

qishi87 February 13, 2009 at 5:27 AM  

nice blog :)
and interesting no sheeping symbol

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