How Nice People Get Corrupted

Why is it that normal and nice people like you and I (we are normal and nice, aren't we?) can agree to do things which we might otherwise not do if not brought under the influences of other individuals and groups. As social beings we are vulnerable to social influences. Our attitudes and beliefs are both personal and social realities. I myself have lived my life according to a set ethical standard but I do remember doing some dumb things because the 'situation' left me no other choice (or I did not want to suffer the consequences of disagreement).

Last week we discussed how attitudes/beliefs and behavior do not always match. We also discussed how people can be made to deviate from their attitudes through gradual and incremental increases in influence from others.

Today, we are going to study some of the key experiments that have shed light on how people can be made to conform in even very unlikely circumstances.

Remember from last week's lecture that gradually introducing suggestions for novel behavior can predispose the other to accept the suggestions. The reasons for this is our innate need to 1) avoid dissonance (shall we break the harmony and tell the other that we will not cooperate?) 2) feel that we are a member of the group (I am part of this group and this is how 'we' think and how 'we' feel connected to one another). We also may become vulnerable to suggestions (and coercion) because we are not decided on a given issue and find ourselves going along with whatever the majority vote is. Passivity can lead us to give up control over our own minds and attitudes/beliefs, causing us eventually to agree to behavior which is far removed from our innate sentiments. Many people who harbor racist feelings are usually conforming to established group sentiments and ideologies. If we put the racist face to face with the person he/she mistrusts and dislikes, the proximity of the contact may cause him to see the other as a real person and to relate to his actual qualities rather than to his pre-imagined identity. The TV comedy series Archie Bunker illustrates this well...Archie is a racist yet he can be friendly with the neighbor who owns a dry cleaner and with whom he maintains a competitively friendly association...beneath their constant taunting of each other lies sentiments of friendship. Yet, Archie continues to make racists comments when referring to people he does not personally know. And he remains uncomfortable about forming egalitarian relations with people of other ethnic groups and races. We could say that he has a 'mind-set' that favors an us versus them paradigm of social relations.

What is disturbing is that people can be made to do extremely cruel things if the conditions are rights. In the text you will notice an experiment described under the name of the MILGRAM'S OBEDIENCE EXPERIMENT. Note that the experimenter achieves compliance from the subject through a series of well-planned instructions. The shocks that the subject is asked to administer to the second subject (who is an actor) are increased gradually. The person administering the shocks is given time to become habituated and desensitized to what he is doing. The refusal rate would be much higher if the actor were asked to immediately administer the strongest shock. Even so it is amazing that the subjects agree to administer the maximum shock even when they hear the agonized cries of the person supposedly receiving the shocks (an actor pretending to receive actual shock) (Please read the text for the complete description of the experiment).

Milgram sought to answer the question: What breeds obedience? What conditions favor obedience of orders that are not socially constructive?

1. Emotional distance of the victim....it is easier to administer cruelty to someone whom we do not know and who is distant. The compliance rate in Milgram's experiment decreases as the person receiving the shock is brought into face to face contact with the person administering the shock. Making the victim 'faceless" helps decrease sentiments of personal responsibility. Question: Could this process be at work with managers forced to lay people off? Do they have trouble sleeping at nights? Are they desensitized or are they repressing their sentiments in the interests of their own welfare and their own need to be accepted as 'responsible' workers?

2. Closeness and Legitimacy of the Authority...the closer and more legitimate the person requesting the action, the more chances there are of compliance. A doctor instructing a nurse to administer the wrong medication may succeed in having his/her orders carried out purely because the nurse recognizes him as the 'authority.' Some funny examples are in the text. A leader can give an order and it will have more of a chance of being obeyed than if a subordinate had suddenly jumped in, replaced the leader and given the same order. The degree of compliance is related to the degree of the authority's recognized legitimacy. That is why a dictator can start off securing the trust of the people, establish himself as a legitimate leader, and then slowly take his followers to places and acts which they would have never agreed to had he declared his intentions at the onset. The foot in the door phenomenon applies very much in the influencing of individuals and masses (See Module 9). Imagine a religious cult such as the one a few years ago that chose mass suicide for its members. Had the intention of suicide been announced when the members joined, few would have done so. The suicide was preceded by group harmonization, then the sowing of paranoid sentiments ('they want to destroy us') and then finally the suggestion that they should preserve their 'independence' by committing mass suicide. Many of the people who joined the cult were not 'insane' nor 'suicidal.' Gradual indoctrination was what permitted the cult leader to convince his followers to adopt his own paranoid delusions.

Usually in pogroms and genocide the people forced to carry out the killings are trained to do so in stages. First they watch interrogations, and then others doing the killing and are finally asked to do the killing themselves. The first step is to present the victims as an enemy, as people very different (and therefore distant) from ourselves. In the Iranian revolution of 1978(9?) soldiers refused to fire into the revolutionary crowd because they recognized their own relatives....the revolution might have been bloodier had there been more anonymity between the soldiers of the king and the members of the crowd. Had the king ensured that the soldiers stationed in a given city were residents of another city there might have been more violence. In the genocide in Rwanda, for a full year there was planning of the extermination of the Tutsi tribe. While Tutsi and Hutu neighbors lived in the same towns in mixed neighborhoods, when the genocide started, neighbors turned against one another....radio programs encouraged this spread of mistrust. For an interesting take on the genocide, see 'Kigali, Imana,' in Benet Davetian, THE SEVENTH CIRCLE (Ronsdale Press, 1996) (in the library).

Consider Nazi Germany. The genocide was carried out with total bureaucratic efficiency because those in the state were assigned the business of administering the act as if it were a routine office procedure. Efficiency and obedience rules the entire process. Many workers remained disconnected emotionally from what they were doing. The same individuals who exterminated thousands and millions had families of their own and were capable of great tenderness towards their own children and families. How could they feel so radically different when faced with their own families and with people considered 'undesirable.' By decreasing the emotional aspect of the act the Nazi leaders were able to convince the participants that they were being moral because they were doing their job (or following orders). At the trial of one of the most senior members of the Nazi regime, onlookers were horrified when he responded without emotion, 'I was following orders.'

What is being suggested is that social forces and the power of situations (the energy created by a sudden movement in the direction of cruelty or injustice) can contradict the inner sentiments of individuals yet mold their behavior towards acts that they normally would prefer not to participate in. Of course, some philosophers will argue that the tendency towards evil acts is in every person and can be released in the right circumstances; such philosophers would argue for a less forgiving explanation. Sociologists are reluctant to accept that evil paradigm of human nature. So we need to remember what we learned when we studied 'the fundamental attribution error'. It is an error to observe an act and then ascribe that act to the fundamental nature of the actor. In many situations, people are not what they act....the act is a 'second nature' brought by social forces and corruptive influences. In nearly every case, a slow period of buildup is necessary to decrease noncompliance and resistance. As actors become habituated to increasing increments of cruelty, they become partially unaware of the severity of what they are doing.

ZIMBARDO PRISON EXPERIMENT: Note in this experiment (described in the text) that those who played the roles of prisoners complained that their friends who had taken on the role of 'prison guards' mistreated them. They accused the 'guards' of being truly cruel. The guards protested that they were only playing a role. The fundamental attribution error theory would suggest that the guards were playing a role and that the role was triggering emotions of brutality (perhaps learned from media, etc). What do you think? What made some choose to be guards and others to be prisoners? See the VIDEO for this module (shown in class).