Wednesday, March 07, 2018

The Deference to Authority Studies

Psychological independence, or more specifically independent judgment, means that one’s self-esteem, integrity, and courage, should be sufficiently strong to resist outside pressures for conformity.

Independent judgment should be a fundamental aim of parenting and teaching, but, unfortunately, is not.

A number of well-known studies from the twentieth century, however, have examined, albeit superficially, the relationship between independence and conformity.

Solomon Asch in the 1950s explicitly approached the issue in terms of independence versus conformity, and even referred to Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People and Ibsen’s notion of a conforming “compact majority.” Ibsen’s protagonist, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, stood uncompromisingly to his judgment while one by one losing nearly all who were supposedly his friends. In fact, they were the compact majority.

Asch’s studies exposed a group of subjects to four straight lines on a card. The group’s assignment was to judge which of three lines was equal in length to the fourth; only one of the three was equal. All subjects but one were confederates of the researchers and were instructed to give identically incorrect answers. The test was to determine how independent the lone, unaware subject would be against the pressures of the group. A number of trials with variations was also conducted.

On average, two-thirds of all naïve subjects, in at least one of several trials, did not conform to the majority. Twenty-five percent did not conform at all in any trial.*

What does this prove? Not much. It does show the serious shortcomings, especially the contrived nature and shallowness, of the “experimental-positivistic-behavioristic” methodology, to borrow Abraham Maslow’s apt description of the epistemology used in psychology for the last one hundred years (Toward a Psychology of Being, pp. 7-8).

The studies only establish that some people are independent, at least in a perfunctory sense, and others are not, though, as Asch points out, there are “individual differences” in the behavior of all personalities. Follow-up interviews provided some, but not a lot of, insight into the thinking of test subjects.

Because of the absence of any further probing into the thinking, especially of the subjects’ “core” and “mid-level” evaluations, to use Edith Packer’s terms (Lectures on Psychology, chap. 2) for the fundamental thoughts or conclusions that determine our character, personality, and motivation, the concept of independence used in these studies must be described as existential, not psychological.

Existential independence is sound, not independent, judgment. It is sensible decision making that looks at externals, such as straight lines on a card. Without further in-depth inquiry, there is no way to determine whether or not independent judgment or psychological independence was exercised. (Sound or existential judgment usually refers to people who are responsible in an external or existential sort of way, that is, by paying their own bills when leaving home and not remaining dependent on their parents or anyone else to support them.)

Subsequent studies have shown results similar to those of Asch, namely that some people are independent, and others are not, and that the shallowness of the methods used provides no comprehensive understanding of the participants’ psychologies.

Stanley Milgram’s obedience-to-authority studies, under a pretext of being studies of learning, asked “teachers” to repeatedly increase the voltage of electrical shocks to a “learner” (who was a confederate of the researcher). The shocks were not real, but the teachers initiating them did not know it.

Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment divided students into “prisoners” and “guards” in a mock prison situation for several days. Realistic submissiveness and depression of the “prisoners” and aggression and sadism of the “guards” caused the intended two-week experiment to be shut down after six days.

These studies may be interesting to read, but they still only confirm the obvious, namely that some people are independent and others are not.  They provide existential—historical, not theoretical—data about how different people may behave in different situations, but that is all. Not everyone increased the voltages in Milgram’s studies, and not every prisoner in Zimbardo’s study was submissive or depressed, nor was every guard aggressive or sadistic.

Psychologies differ—and it matters. Psychologies were hardly examined. This reveals the fundamental flaw in logical positivism and its so-called scientific methodology, especially as it is applied in the human sciences.

Every subject in these studies is viewed not as an individual exhibiting universal traits or universal core and mid-level evaluations or various levels of self-esteem, but as a member—a single unit—of a statistical group that enables the researchers to calculate averages and percentages, and to compare the subjects to hundreds or thousands of others before “projection by successive approximation” can be made.

Viewing people as members of a statistical group in order to calculate averages and percentages and make projections strips them of their individuality and collectivizes them. At the same time, it abdicates the scientific search for universals, the search for answers to such questions as, “Why do some people go along with the group and others do not?”

These deference to authority studies were motivated in part by a desire to understand the Holocaust of World War II, to understand, for example, why some people would hide and protect an Anne Frank, others would tolerate the hiding but not do it themselves, and still others would inform on the protectors.**

A clue comes not from one-dimensionally descriptive surveys or ostensibly causal studies, but from the scientific observation of Victor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 36). As a concentration camp prisoner, Frankl observed with his eyes and through communication with his fellow inmates. Although he did not use the term, self-esteem was what enabled prisoners of “less hardy make-up . . . to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature.”

A “life of inner riches and spiritual freedom” is how Frankl put it.

Self-esteem, integrity, courage, and psychological independence are what give us that inner strength—to withstand evil or to go against a compact majority.


*S. E. Asch, “Effects of Group Pressure upon the Modification and Distortion of Judgments,” in Readings in Social Psychology (New York: Henry Holt, 1952), 2-11. Asch, “Studies of Independence and Conformity,” Psychological Monographs: General and Applied 70, no. 9 (1956), 1-70.

**Milgram, of course, refers to his studies as research on “obedience to authority,” but historian Christopher Browning says obedience means compliance with commands, whereas deference is the more correct term. Deference means submission to superior claims—of the researcher, in the case of Milgram’s studies, and others. The “deference to authority” studies are not Nazi-style situations of obedience backed up with a gun pointed at you. Consequently, agreeing with Browning, I have used “deference” in the title of this post. Christopher R. Browning, “Revisiting the Holocaust Perpetrators: Why Did They Kill?” (lecture, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, October 17, 2011). Why did the perpetrators kill? First, they dehumanized the victims, then they followed the crowd. Independence, if ever present, was jettisoned, though some in at least one battalion were allowed to opt out by their commanding officer. Others who had no choice would misfire, aiming above or to the side of the victims. Even in the Holocaust, some were independent, some were not.


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