#19 Why Our Brains Bend To The Will Of Authority And Groupthink
In this episode we discuss how human beings are susceptible to blind obedience to authority and groupthink.
Many people believe they are independent thinkers, ‘islands’ doing their own thing, yet research suggests we are all highly malleable, and that we tend to shape ourselves (and allow ourselves to be shaped) to fit in with the group.
We very easily cave to authority, and often in extreme and (in hindsight) ridiculous ways. We assume we have total autonomy, but in the face of authority, we often just do what we’re told.
We discuss some extreme examples from real life of people blindly obeying authority in very harmful ways, including the disturbing case of the McDonald’s employee who was strip-searched and ultimately raped by a man who was just following orders, and the Milgram experiment, in which people administered fatal electric shocks to innocent people simply because an authority figure told them to!
We discuss Milgram’s two behaviour states in social situations – the Autonomous State, in which people direct their own actions and take responsibility, and the Agentic State, in which people allow others to direct their actions, and they pass on responsibility to the order-giver.
In order to enter Agentic State two things must be in place: the person giving the orders must be perceived to be a qualified and legitimate authority, and the person receiving the orders must believe the authority figure has full responsibility, so if something goes wrong it is not their fault. The Agentic State could be why normal folk can end up doing terrible things – Nazi concentration camps.
Authority figures can come in many forms. Within different groups there are different authority figures. It can be fashion, ‘cool kids’, gang leaders, cops, or any other number of situational authority figures.
A bully or boss in one situation can be a weakling in another situation. This can be how bullies are formed. Most bullies are weak and afraid on the inside. People desire to feel powerful, and when people are made to feel small and not listened to, they often resort to violence and bullying. It’s not real strength to be a bully.
It’s truly scary how much we are prone to conform and to obey authority, but awareness of this tendency is a great first step towards being more discerning about who we obey and who we allow authority over us.
Next we go into Groupthink. We discuss the Asch experiments on line length, that shows how easily led we tend to be. We will agree that black is white, and white is black, if everybody else says it is, despite the objective evidence in front of us. Our brains literally perceive outside things differently depending on what other people say about them.
It is crucially important to not go along with groupthink, and to not blindly follow the herd! Instead, trust your own eyes, ears and perceptions of reality. Sometimes it can be difficult but it is well and truly worth it!
This is The Gentlemen’s Game.