Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Little More on Conformity vs. Resistance

Last week I talked a little about how easily we are influenced by our situations, and I wanted to say just a little more about it this week in response to some email questions I got (send questions any time! I love them!). The topic of obedience, conformity, and resistance has been the subject of numerous books, essays, experiments, and articles, so I'm just summarizing a few bits and pieces:

That shock experiment I referred to last week is almost 50 years old! The question is--has our society progressed at all? We're a lot more nonconformist these days, right? We understand the value of human life. We know our rights. We'd tell that experimenter where to shove that shock box.

Well, this experiment has been replicated as recently as 2006 (modified to meet modern ethical requirements). And guess what?

The results were the same. Most of the participants in the study shocked the "learner" until the highest voltage possible, no matter the participants' gender, ethnicity, age, and education. They all showed similar rates of obedience to instructions to shock the learner.

So--was there anything that made a difference? Yes. People who felt more empathy for the learner's pain showed higher rates of refusal. There's also some indication that people who seek more control over situations will resist. But the replications of that old study aren't the only indication that ordinary people sometimes behave in evil ways:

Abu Ghraib is a tragic, real-life example.
 Here are some conditions that make it more likely that people will conform--even when the outcome is evil behavior:
  1. When children are taught to obey all authority (and not specifically instructed that it's OK to disobey unjust authority)
  2. When human diversity is not respected (easier to abuse someone you think of as less than human)
  3. When people feel anonymous and not personally responsible for their actions
  4. When it's not acceptable to admit mistakes
  5. When we sacrifice personal freedom for promised security
  6. When we tolerate bullying and teasing
More on both conformity and resistance here.

I think Schindler's List is a great movie that shows both the power of resistance and of conformity. If you're in the mood for a documentary, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib examines how American soldiers became cruel torturers. Writers are supposed to be astute studies of human behavior--so we need to understand both internal, personal characteristics AS WELL AS how our immediate situation influences us. I'll bet you folks can come up with other suggestions from books, movies, and real life--please share them!


  1. Have you read "Matched" yet? Don't read it for the romance. Read it for the society. I didn't really buy the romance at all, but all the side stuff, the mandatory pills, the way the government manipulated people, the way the people let it happen for their own good, how people were controlled once they rebelled -- *that* is what I found fascinating.

  2. This is a great post. Definitely something to keep in mind when thinking about society, religions, etc. Thank you!

  3. very interesting! and sad!
    the only other one i can think of off the top of my head is The Hunger Games

  4. Savior is a great movie (about Bosnia) that explores some of the darker sides of humanity as well as resilience. But for YA reads: The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier is all about the idea of "Do I dare disturb the universe?" and trying to take a small stand in a big world.