Sep 5, 2012

Milgram's Obedience to Authority revisited

Milgram's experiments have been criticised for their methods but no alternative explanations had been offered, until now. A new study recently published in Psychological Science suggests that social identification processes motivate individuals to abuse others in the way examined in Milgram's experiments.

Identifying with the victim or the subjects in the experiment leads to seemingly blind following of orders. Milgram's "guards", it turns out, were not just following orders; the structure of the experiment, or the "situation", led them to identify with the experimenter which made it easier for them to administer shocks to the "prisoners" (experiment subjects).

There's two things at play here: a) social identification might explain why people follow orders but not necessarily why people commit atrocities. There are two steps from identification --> following orders --> committing crimes, atrocities, abuse. This study addressed the first step but not the second one. That means that in situations that are not structured similarly to Milgram's experiments, e.g. in situations without a clear, uncontested hierarchy of rule-givers and rule-followers, identification alone might or might not lead to abuse. It also means that this study has not disproved Milgram's explanation as obedience to authority still occurred except that its antecedent was social identification. To prove Milgram's explanation wrong one would need to show that abuses were committed even without obedience to authority.

Absent a rigid social hierarchy, rule-followers can:  a) identify with the victim more readily since no status relations prevail that encourage identification with one's higher-ups (experimenters, bosses, etc), and b) challenge the rules or orders or try to change the game, the situation or the social framework itself and assume a role of whistle-blower, activist, aid to the victim.

The most interesting, and unintended, take-away from this study is what seems to emerge as a deadly recipe for social organization:
rigid social hierarchy + identification with those in higher-status roles = unquestioning committing of abuse, ranging from corporate crimes to genocide.

A follow-up study of the social identification explanation can be done by asking why subjects in "strong" situations that seemingly necessitate identifying with rule-givers choose instead alternative targets of identification (e.g., identify with the victim rather than the rule-giver). What makes people disidentify with rule-givers? Does the situation have to be flexible/"weak" and the game easily change-able? Do the rule-givers need to be given equal status as the rule followers to prevent blind obedience to the rules? Does pre-existing identification with other targets interact with one's identification choices during the experiment? Studies on whistle-blowing have addressed some of these questions, but the deeper one probes into the motives and structure of this phenomenon the more variables seem to be at play.

It will be interesting to see where this line of research takes us as more studies examine the destructive effects of unquestioning social identification and rigid hierarchies. Notice how crimes ranging from the corporate (Enron, various ponzi schemes) to the social (child abuse at Penn State and the Catholic Church) to the genocidal (murders by Nazi Germany) were committed and enabled in the context of  rigid social hierarchies, while status concerns were the prevailing norms that helped sustain and expand the crimes. Perhaps minimizing uncritical identification with  higher-ups, or better yet, eradicating the concept of higher-ups, along with creating what W.Michel called "weak situations" that help undermine rigid hierarchies can prevent such crimes in the future.