Thursday, July 26, 2012

social identification, not obedience, motivates unspeakable acts

sciencedaily | What makes soldiers abuse prisoners? How could Nazi officials condemn thousands of Jews to gas chamber deaths? What's going on when underlings help cover up a financial swindle? For years, researchers have tried to identify the factors that drive people to commit cruel and brutal acts and perhaps no one has contributed more to this knowledge than psychological scientist Stanley Milgram.

Just over 50 years ago, Milgram embarked on what were to become some of the most famous studies in psychology. In these studies, which ostensibly examined the effects of punishment on learning, participants were assigned the role of "teacher" and were required to administer shocks to a "learner" that increased in intensity each time the learner gave an incorrect answer. As Milgram famously found, participants were willing to deliver supposedly lethal shocks to a stranger, just because they were asked to do so.

Researchers have offered many possible explanations for the participants' behavior and the take-home conclusion that seems to have emerged is that people cannot help but obey the orders of those in authority, even when those orders go to the extremes.

This obedience explanation, however, fails to account for a very important aspect of the studies: why, and under what conditions, people did not obey the experimenter.

In a new article published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, researchers Stephen Reicher of the University of St. Andrews and Alexander Haslam and Joanne Smith of the University of Exeter propose a new way of looking at Milgram's findings.

The researchers hypothesized that, rather than obedience to authority, the participants' behavior might be better explained by their patterns of social identification. They surmised that conditions that encouraged identification with the experimenter (and, by extension, the scientific community) led participants to follow the experimenters' orders, while conditions that encouraged identification with the learner (and the general community) led participants to defy the experimenters' orders.

As the researchers explain, this suggests that participants' willingness to engage in destructive behavior is "a reflection not of simple obedience, but of active identification with the experimenter and his mission."

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