Groupthinking, Obedience – oh, and Phil Zimbardo!

Last blog post I narrated the story of a brave WWII Nazi soldier who put his own morals and appreciation for the life of innocent human beings caught in the midst of political conflict well in front of his own life. In a single, swift act of defiance against his commanding officer, Schultz not only inspired humankind, but he also single-handedly defeated concepts of social psychology that seem to rule over the majority of humankind with an iron fist. 

Gestalt psychologist Solomon Asch published a series of studies in the 1950s which are now collectively known as the Asch Paradigm. Essentially, Asch’s experiments consisted of putting a group of five or six people together, in which only one was a test subject. The group would be asked questions involving comparing the length of a given line to the length of three other lines, and deciding which one was closest to the original. The first few questions, the group answers conspicuously correctly, and the test subject of course agrees with the answers himself. However, when the group offers a visibly incorrect answer, the test subject, despite knowing the rest of the peoples’ answer is incorrect, decides to answer the same way, simply because the rest of the people wholly agree that it’s the right answer, even when it’s visibly not. Suppose I asked you this – “what color is the sky?”, or maybe “what color is this pencil?” “what instrument am I holding?” “what color is the lamp?” and suppose that by the fifth or sixth question, a group of fifteen answers incorrectly, with each of the members issuing the same incorrect answer on purpose, even when the correct answer is obvious Would you be the lone wolf to say the correct answer, or would you simply go with the general consensus of the group and issue the same answer as everyone else. This, my friends, is conformity, and Asch’s experiment – simple and thus easy to propose and explain – dealt with this on a smaller scale. The test subject knew what the right answer was – it was obvious! What made him issue the incorrect answer was that everyone else was issuing that answer. Essentially, he conformed to the actions of others, because he did not want to be the one to stand out. Not only that, but with a group of five or six people issuing the same answer, the collective logic of that group completely dwarfs our own logic. In essence, we become part of the common brain serving the entire group. Majority rules, but a common question is; how can this occur in a real-life situation? In perhaps one of the most frightening ways possible, actually. 
On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger was due for its tenth mission. 47 seconds after blastoff, the Challenger exploded into the fiery mess you see in the picture above. The seven-member crew died almost immediately as the crew compartment had been disconnected from the orbiter by the combustion of the external fuel tank and had crashed into the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. What, or who was at fault here? The NASA members in charge of the project, whom had disregarded notices from engineers who had  mentioned a critical flaw in the construction of the ship. One member said it was all right, and the approval quickly spread as it gained second motions from everyone in the group managing the flight. More specifically, “… a conflict between engineering data and management judgments, and a NASA management structure that permitted internal flight safety problems to bypass key Shuttle managers.” No one was thinking for themselves at that point – they had adopted a new mindset that listened to the group, not to the members. The same forces at work in Asch’s innocent conformity testing were responsible for the death of seven astronauts, and a nationwide disaster.
Schultz didn’t conform. He could’ve easily cracked under the pressure of the stares of his brothers in arms as they motioned for him to get back into formation. Schultz continued past that, and also past the concept of obedience

In 1963, American psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted what would become one of the most controversial and equally classic studies of psychology, as did Asch’s conformity experiments. Milgram wanted to see how people would react when an authority figure told them to do things that went against their personal conscience. He got an actor, various test subjects, and an ominous machine that was supposedly designed to deliver electrostatic shocks, gradually increasing by volts, to a person wearing the respective electrodes on the receiving end. The test subjects saw the actor – whom they were told was a “student”- being outfitted with those electrodes, after which they were escorted to another room with the ominous machine in the corner. They were told that they were teachers that would ask the student questions, and for every wrong answer or lack of an answer, they were to deliver increasingly strong electrostatic shocks – up to 450 volts! What they didn’t know was that the shocks weren’t really being delivered; the screams of pain were fake (hence the actor). Milgram thought that only sadists would go up to 450 volts, but it turned out that a whopping approx. two-thirds of the test subjects did as they told and continued all the way to 450 volts! 
Milgram’s controversial experiment proved that (for the most part) people, when faced with an authority figure, will do whatever the figure orders them to do, even if it goes against their own morals. The two-thirds of people who went all the way up to 450 volts weren’t sadists! They were honest, moral people that were sweating and undergoing extreme frustration as they were told to continue with the experiment despite the dangerous nature of the shocks. This experiment proved that obedience is a human condition, that regardless of what they’re being asked to do, authority figures can make people do things they otherwise wouldn’t! And we see this happening in situations ranging from innocent to grim. In kindergarten, first grade, second grade, we’re presented to a staple of an authority figure – a teacher! We don’t have to listen to them – they’re not our parents, are they? Nope, they’re something worse – an authority figure. The human race is ultimately submissive, thus – students do what the teacher tells them to do without questioning it (until maybe high school). It’s a natural phenomenon. My sister is currently in first grade, and I’m sure that when in school, she sometimes will want to come home and color, or watch Arthur on TV, or play dress up games on the computer. Why doesn’t she get up, go out the door, and call for Mom? Well, besides the fact that she probably wouldn’t have the courage to do that regardless; the other reason why is because Mrs. Martin is there. She’s the teacher, and if she doesn’t let you do something, you don’t do it. Is she not doing it because she needs to stay in school and get an education? Because she wants to stay at school with her friends? No! It’s because the teacher will be angry and punish her. 
That’s a terrible example, isn’t it? Well it’s late (12:30 AM actually) … can you blame me? But despite the surrounding factors, I think it represents best the influence of an authority figure. Hell, when I was in first grade, I was undeniably fearful of my teacher – not to the point where I would scream at the sight of her; instead in the sense that I would never think to do something she told me was wrong. Lawrence Kohlberg calls this the pre-conventional moral reasoning level, one that is ruled by the concepts of punishment and reward.

I’d like to end on a note about Philip Zimbardo. Another American social psychologist, he conducted another controversial experiment in the 1970s, known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. In the basement of Stanford University, Zimbardo constructed a prison using miscellaneous materials scattered around the basement. He then selected college students that wanted to participate in what was described as a two-week summer experiment, which fit perfectly with many of the students’ schedules. Zimbardo, through this experiment, wanted to see the power of roleplay – could the human mind be volatile enough to fool itself into thinking it’s someone else? Some of the students would pretend to be prisoners, whilst others would be guards. The first day of the experiment, the students selected as prisoners were arrested from their homes, blindfolded, and taken to the makeshift prison, where the pretend guards would demean them by putting hair nets on them, strip searching them, make them wear a plain white outfit with no pants – essentially, they emulated a prison environment.

How did it go? Way too well. the guards became convinced that they had a power over the prisoners, that they they were wardens themselves. The prisoners had forgotten that this was a two-week college experiment, and had become convinced that they were true prisoners. Zimbardo himself, upon learning that the prisoners were supposedly planning an escape, began to think like a prison superintendent, weighing option against option on what would be the best way to avoid the situation. There’s more details that I’m missing here, but Zimbardo’s experiment only further strengthens the idea that the mind is as powerful as we tihnk it to be. We can become completely absorbed in someone else, we can be fooled into thinking we are something completely different than we really are. I find that amazing, that our mind is such a grandiose weapon, really, when put to use this way. Zimbardo’s experiment is one whose outcome is difficult to replicate in a real-life situation; in other words, I can’t think of a real-life example. But just the fact that it happened in Zimbardo’s study is amazing enough.

The mind is as fragile as it is strong.  It’s equally susceptible to obedience, groupthink, Zimbardo’s roleplay as it is to creating a person such as Joseph Schultz, and his post-conventional level of moral reasoning. If there’s one thing I’ve learned through my psychology course, it’s that the mind is the greatest tool us human beings have.

It’s no wonder that scientists, doctors, chemists, psychologists say that the mind is a work of art. There’s no doubt about it – it’s the best painting in the world.


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