Insights on the Mind: They Make Me Do It!
M. Bakri Musa
Asch experiments showed the powerful influence of social and peer pressures. In his experimental setting, the peer pressure came from fellow college students. Imagine if they had been not fellow students but authority figures with power over you. How would your decisions be influenced if not controlled by them?
For this we go to Milgram’s experiments in the 1960s, also at Yale, and Zimbardo’s at Stanford a decade later. Milgram's studies gave us insights into the dynamics of what makes otherwise ordinary human beings do terrible things on account of their blind obedience to authority. We saw that in Nazi Germany, where being a “good German” meant obeying your superiors to do terrible things.
Milgram had his subjects, also college students, randomly assigned to be “teachers” whose job was to administer increasingly painful electric shock upon a “learner,” who responded with an incorrect answer to a word-pairing test. Except that the learner was part of the experimenter’s team. For every wrong answer given by the learner, the teacher who was in a separate room but could hear the learner would give an electric shock to the learner, increasing the voltage with every wrong response. Except that the “shocks” were all pretend, and with the learner purposely giving the wrong answers! One of the learners, as planned, also told the teacher that he (learner) had a “heart” condition, just as a reminder.
In his first set of experiments, 26 of the 40 teachers (65 percent) administered the maximal potentially lethal dose of electric shock, despite the moaning and groaning as well as the desperate banging on the wall by those “suffering” learners who gave the wrong answers. Some of the teachers protested, nonetheless they continued administering the potentially lethal punishment.
Milgram’s experiments had been repeated in other settings and across cultures but the results remained consistent.
A decade later, the Stanford psychologist Phillip Zimbardo paid volunteer college students to take part in an experiment where they would be assigned randomly to be wardens or prisoners in a mock prison. He had the cooperation of the local police to make it realistic, as with arresting the students and booking them at the local police station. It did not take long for the wardens to take their “job” seriously, too seriously it turned out. The experiment had to be terminated prematurely as those wardens became in short order unduly sadistic, inflicting gratuitous punishment on their “prisoners”–their fellow students.
The insights from Zimbardo’s experiments shed light on the dynamics of the obscenities of Abu Ghraib prison scandal three decades later.
Returning to Milgram, imagine if the “experimenter” was not a mellow Yale professor but a top army general fully bedecked with medals and ribbons, or a charismatic leader with power over you, and the “learner” is not your fellow Yale undergraduate but a member of a minority with whom you have minimal sympathy or harbor prejudices of being “dumb and lazy.”
Or, imagine the Inspector-General of Police standing over you, a forensic pathologist or police investigator on government payroll, as you make your official report on former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar’s infamous bludgeoned black eye incident. With the “Kami menurut perentah” (I follow orders) and, “Saya di arahkan” (I am directed) ethos of the civil service, Anwar never had a chance.
As Milgram observed, “… [O]ften it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.”
One is tempted to agree with Milgram. However, it would be arrogant and wrong to assume that we could explain the full spectrum of the complexity of human behaviors based on the elegant studies of some imaginative scientists.
Consider Asch’s experiments; there were subjects who resisted the peer pressures; likewise with Milgram’s. Two British psychologists, Alexander Haslam and Stephen Reicher, repeated the Stanford Prison Experiment but with a twist. Their results were completely different and raised more questions.
The British experiment showed that it would take more than just putting someone in a subordinate position and then have an authority figure command him to commit evil deeds, or subject him to a group situation where “everyone is doing it.”
Milgram and Zimbardo focused only on those who continued with the experiments, not those who resisted and thus excluded from the studies and not factored in the conclusions.
With the British experiment the guards were not told how to behave; they were left to work out their problems. Further, those guards who had misgivings were retained in the study. It turned out those dissenters among the guards and prisoners did have a chastening effect on the rest, confirming Asch’s earlier observations.
The British study was more realistic and reflected the complexities of human behaviors. After all even during the Third Reich there were Germans who resisted the system. Yes, there were the eager participants but then they were the ones who already harbored resentment towards the Jews. Hitler merely provided the justifications and means for them to pursue their bigotry and hatred but with greater intensity and efficiency. Similarly with Abu Ghraib; there were ethical and honest American soldiers who blew the whistle.
The British study gives us hope. It is not that easy to turn humans into monsters except those who already so inclined. The challenge for leaders is not to provide them the opportunity and justification even if they were to be in the majority. That is a particular challenge in a democracy.
The greatest fear progressives have of America under President Trump is his seeming tolerance if not encouragement of those inclined towards bigotry and chauvinism. They could reaffirm the findings of Asch, Milgram, and Zimbardo on the effect of peer pressure. On the other hand, the outpouring of protests against Trump by ordinary Americans reflects the optimism demonstrated by Haslam and Reicher.
Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.