Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Power of Dissent

Almost everyone has experienced the intense pressure to conform to a group decision, social norms, or directions from the authorities, despite deep misgivings or doubts. All around us are examples of societal expectations that are completely irrational, unsustainable, or even blatantly immoral - but we must conform or be marked as an outsider, bizzare, unworthy.

Researchers have attempted to measure the intensity of group pressure. In a landmark study in 1951, Solomon Asch asked groups of five people which of three lines matched a fourth line. Four of the people were actors, and gave the same (seriously obvious) incorrect answer. Study results found that the fifth person, the subject of the study, also gave the same incorrect answer at least one time in 75% of the experiments in order to agree with the group.

Another study, by the same researcher, found that subjects gave wrong answers up to 97% of the time - when the group was unanimous in supporting the incorrect answer. But Asch also found a way to break the spell. When one of the four actors reported a different answer than the other three (even if it was not the correct answer, even if the actor appeared incompetent), the subject was able to break away from the group consensus in one out of three times and give the correct answer.

Along with pressure to conform to the group, Americans also feel incredibly compelled to obey authority. Stanley Milgram, at Yale University, performed a set of experiments in the 1960's after the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann. Milgram designed the experiments to test whether people would be willing to give painful electrical shocks, in increasing increments of voltage, up to 450-volt shocks to other people as a part of a "memory test".

Milgram found that 65% of subjects (26 of 40) administered the final 450-volt shock, despite the actor in the next room screaming, banging on the wall, pleading to be released, complaining of a serious heart condition, and eventually stopping responding completely (simulating heart attack, coma or death). Although many of the subjects asked permission to stop the shocks, and some began laughing hysterically, crying, or shaking, they continued when the "researcher" told them to. Only one person stopped before the 300-volt level. This experiment was repeated in 2009 and researchers found almost the exact same rate of compliance.

Milgram, in a Harper's article, concluded:

This is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people,
simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can
become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the
destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to
carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality,
relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority....

The essence of obedience is that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person's wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred, all of the essential features of obedience follow. The most far-reaching consequence is that the person feels responsible to the authority directing him but feels no responsibility for the content of the actions that the authority prescribes. Morality does not disappear -- it acquires a radically different focus: the subordinate person feels shame or pride depending on how adequately he has performed the actions called for by authority.

But again, Milgram found a way to either strengthen or break the leash of obedience. He later replicated the experiment, including accomplices who acted as assistant teachers to the subject. When accomplices administered the shocks without protest, compliance increased from 65% to 93%. When accomplices refused to administer the shocks, compliance decreased to an astonishing 10%.

What do these experiments mean for us? On the face of it, the results are depressing. 65% of people readily abdicate morality - to the extent of potentially killing a person who is guilty only of giving wrong answers - by submitting to the will of authority. But we can turn the lessons of the experiment around. 65% of people let go of their morals in order to obey authority, but only 10% do so if they have someone to provide the right example, who stand up for what is right. If we are willing to dissent, we can inspire others to stand with us.

The power of dissent is the power to break the spell. How many other people around you are living their lives in a trance, simply following what they believe is group consensus, simply obeying authority? How many are living their lives in a way that they know is unsustainable and unjust, but they don't have the strength or the knowledge to resist on their own? The Milgram and Asch experiments suggest that just one person can make a difference when many people have their doubts about what they are being told to do.

Powerful change can occur when just one person dares to disagree with authority, dares to go against the crowd, dares to say "No." Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Rachel Carson, Michael Pollan, Colin Campbell, and M. King Hubbert are all contemporary examples, but they draw on the historical precedent of such dissenters as Jesus Christ, Martin Luther, and Galileo. The form of their dissent varied. Not all of them led protests or died for their beliefs. Some simply published the truth. Some refused to step aside. They sparked movements, transformed religions and changed history. Their dissent inspired millions.

So who will you be? Will you be the person who dares to give a different answer? The person who refuses to proceed with the shocks? Or will you conform to the group and submit to authority, even though you suspect they are sickeningly, maddeningly, heart-breakingly wrong?


Chile said...

I heard about these studies in a book on why it's hard to stick to a healthful diet amongst all the unhealthy food around us. Interestingly, the gentleman in Milgram's study who refused to continue the shocking exercise was a minister. He had "practice" grappling with moral decisions on a regular basis.

We need to practice making the right decision in any circumstance, whether the majority or an authority insist we are wrong. That is, as you indicate, the best way to set an example and help others feel comfortable in making the right decision, too.

Briel said...

This is also a fairly popular idea in the field of foreign policy where it goes by the name of "group think." It's a well-studied phenomenon because policy tends to be written by small groups of individuals and small groups fall victim to this easily. Group think is thought to have exacerbated the consequences and length of the Vietnam war...

One of the more insidious causes of group think is the human instinct to attempt to avoid conflict. Which could explain why I go silent in groups which are talking about 11% market gains/year instead of piping up with my doomer philosophy.

Tara said...

Thanks for this. I'm often the lone dissenter (and the "weirdo") in many situations, but a reminder never hurts. Unfortunately, like Briel, I tend to avoid conflict too. (Although I find that as I age, I'm starting to look for it more and avoid it less!)

Chile said...

The book I mentioned ("The Pleasure Trap") also discusses our tendency to not want to rock the boat. Humans evolved in tribes and staying in the tribe was important for survival. Going against the group feels threatening to self as well as to others.

Wendy said...

This is a very tough topic, and I think it's one of those circumstances where we just don't know what we'd do until we're there. All of us would like to say, "Oh, not me! If I'd lived in Nazi Germany ...", but few of us can really appreciate the immense pressure to conform. I mean, the consequences of dissention in a military state are pretty dire. Look at Afghanistan under the Taliban. Who was strong enough to stand up and say, "I won't wear the veil"?

As much as I like to think I'm made of stronger stuff, I think I'd probably, outwardly, conform, but in private, I'd be "Reading Lolita..." :).

Peak Oil Hausfrau said...

Wendy - Yes, that's true...it's much harder to dissent in cases where there is a direct threat to your personal welfare or life. Of course, then the stakes are higher too.

One interesting thing about these studies is how much conformity there was even when there was no threat or reward involved (other than the reward of having pleased the group/authority figure).

I just want to emphasize how important and powerful it is to take a stand sometimes and say no to the dominant paradigm/group/authority. Sometimes there are plenty of other people out there just waiting for someone else to be the first to disagree.

But like you say, sometimes the threat outweighs what we believe.

Chile - Thanks for the info. One great thing about the tribe model was their egalitarianism - usually, at least. They evolved very effective ways of conflict resolution that put ours to shame.

Briel - I have skimmed some interesting case studies on group think in the Cuban Missile Crisis. I think it's important for groups to encourage the devil's advocate sometimes...

Wendy said...

Oh, I completely agree with you. I think my comment was more just me talking out loud :). I just read The Kite Runner, and I guess that's what I was thinking about.

But also, I guess, my point was that I like to think I "travel to the beat of a different drum." My entire adult life has been about doing things slightly different than what everyone else was doing, because that's just how it always worked out, and even now, I'm "homesteading" in the suburbs ;). I also homeschool, and we homebirthed, and I work from home. I'm not the "average" suburbanite ;).

But no one really cares if I homeschool or chose to homebirth after a c-section or decide to be self-employed. If *they* made those things more difficult, I might not be strong enough to do them. That's where I was going, I guess.

I think this is a very important post, though, because we do need to think about our values, and what's important enough to us that we're willing to stand up.

Theresa said...

Studies on resilience show that just one supportive person can help someone else overcome a lot of hardships and obstacles too - the power of one other person is really quite amazing. You never know who you might be that 'one' to :)