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Obediency and group mentality

Allison Z's picture

The issue of personality and morals is an interesting one, and one that causes a great deal of confusion. In general, people’s character traits remain fairly consistent. However how are we then to reconcile this with the fact that when in a group or under the orders of an authority figure, people behave very different than they do otherwise? “Group mentality” is an issue that has plagued people for ages, as it questions how much control people really have over their actions. Studies such as the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram experiment study how randomly selected people react in different social situations, and the results are frightening. The Stanford Prison Experiment showed people adapting to their roles as either prisoner or guard alarmingly quickly with brutal results, and the Milgram experiment showed that people are willing to kill if ordered to by someone else. Recent studies suggest that computer models can predict mob behavior, using a mathematical equation. This forces one to question to what extent actions are determined by free will and personality, and to what extent by surroundings and basic human nature.

Studies consistently show that if given the means and permission to do so, people can quickly become surprisingly sadistic. One study that shows this, as well as the influence of surroundings and peers, is the Stanford Prison Experiment. There were 24 participants in the study, but because of the guards’ shifts they were always outnumbered by the prisoners. The prisoners were treated as such, forced to wear smocks with their numbers on them, and made basically powerless by those people hired as “guards”. While these people all knew they were participating in an experiment, the situation quickly escalated into realistic situations and cruelty. After only a day the prisoners rebelled, and this caused the guards to become stricter and harsher. One guard suggested using psychological methods to control the prisoners (who outnumbered the guards), and the situation quickly escalated to routine humiliation. Prisoners had to earn the right to food and bathroom privileges, and they were split up into groups that were treated better or worse at random, creating discord among the prisoners. Slowly both the prisoners and guards began acting more and more like their roles dictated. The guards came up with new and inventive ways to humiliate their prisoners and keep them in line, and the prisoners became “zombie like,” and referred to themselves as their numbers. (1)

It is difficult to reconcile this experiment to common sense, as it seems unlikely that within the course of only 6 days people could convert so thoroughly to their roles. In his book The Lucifer Effect, (2) Zimbardo connects the lessons he learned from the Stanford Prison Experiment to real life situations such as the torture that occurred in Abu Ghraib. On this subject he also says: “The Pentagon and the military say that the Abu Ghraib scandal is the result of a few bad apples in an otherwise good barrel… It's not the bad apples, it's the bad barrels that corrupt good people.” (3) He posits then that it is not the people committing these atrocities that are to blame, but the social structure (or government) that creates situations in which people commit them. The idea he suggests here, that virtually anybody can be driven to torture and torment given the right situation, is a frightening one.

Another frightening example of this change in personality based on societal role is the Millgram experiment. For his experiment, the experimenter had a confederate (a person involved in the study but pretending to be a volunteer) and an actual volunteer where one (the volunteer) was picked to be the “teacher” and one (the confederate) the “learner.” The confederate always mentioned that he had a heart condition as well. They were then separated and put into 2 rooms, where the subject could hear but not see the confederate. The “teacher” was given a voltage generator, and was told to ask the learner a series of questions. He was also instructed to administer a shock to the other participant when the learner got the questions wrong. The voltage was upped each time, and the learner began to make distressed sounds, before ceasing all sound entirely. The teacher would be told, to varying levels of intensity, that he had to continue the experiment. 65% of the participants continued to shock the presumably passed out learner until allowed to stop, and while they questioned the head of the experiment and were very uncomfortable continuing, they nevertheless did. (4) While some may question the people used in the study, not only did it consist of a diverse group of subjects, but it has been replicated all over the world, with the same results.(5)

The ramifications for this experiment are huge, as they suggest that a solid majority of people are subject to the power of authority. As Milgram states: “A commonly offered explanation is that those who shocked the victim at the most severe level were monsters, the sadistic fringe of society. But if one considers that almost two-thirds of the participants fall into the category of "obedient" subjects, and that they represented ordinary people drawn from working, managerial, and professional classes, the argument becomes very shaky.” (6) Here Milgram states the most disturbing but interesting things about these experiments. One cannot simply confine these actions to those of evil, but rather aspects of humanity. Whatever ultimately causes a person to act the way they do, basic universal brain programming unquestionably plays a part.

Both the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment look at the behavioral psychology of human beings. To what extent are people in control of their own actions, and to what extent are their behaviors written into their subconscious? The atrocities committed in places such as Abu Ghraib are not isolated, and in fact people posit that they are not even the result of bad people. Rather they are the result of human nature, and the way people’s very brains are structured. While I do believe that it takes certain personalities to react to the above situations the way these people did, there is a universality that suggests that one cannot simply judge these actions and say “not me.” Rather they must confront the fact that there is something biological about the brain that causes it to listen to authority and conform to stereotyped roles. It is an unsettling thought but an important one, for it is only when we can understand this that we can truly begin fixing the problems it causes. This does not make torture or murder acceptable, but it does suggest that we must look farther than just the actions, and perhaps work to combat the problems as they arise from biology, rather than just society.





1. The Stanford Prison Experiment: Official Site

2. The Lucifer Effect

3. You Can’t be a Sweet Cucumber in a Vinegar Barrel

4. Milgram’s Experiment on Obedience to Authority


6. Stanley Milgram Obedience to Authority


Justina F's picture

Group Mentality

I have lots of issues surrounding the idea of group mentality. I watched a group of twenty people refuse to help the BLIND WOMAN GET FOOD for reasons I cannot understand. (For the record, I did help the blind woman after everyone else had left, using silence as a method of control.) I also watched an entire group completely ignore a suggestion of carpooling (0nce again using silence as a control method.) How on earth can people simply turn off their consciences collectively like that. (For the record, I was the one who suggested the carpool idea and I watched everyone refuse to help the blind woman. I was stunned at the apparent heartlessness of those around me.) The day the blind woman asked for help was the day I wanted a few minutes to myself to simply cry and make myself ok after a very stressful day. I reluctantly walked the blind woman to her destination at the expense of my emotional release.) Why on earth would a group as a whole refuse aid to someone obviously in need? Why on earth would a group AS A WHOLE refuse to help someone? Why on earth would a group refuse to help ITSELF? I am going to read all I can about group mentality and how to hang on to vital pieces of myself in the face of such obvious disapproval....

Anonymous's picture

myspace and facebook

Even though I think myspace and facebook are good ideas. I also think that people are not ready for them. As a general rule people are evil, and just waiting for the right climate to unleash that evil. I have seen countless teens and adults use cyber bully techniques in both facebook and myspace. Also I noticed that whenever some person or group of persons gets power they want to keep that power. Like an addiction it gets worse and worse, and you need more and more to get your fix. It is really not funny but our leagal system is a harsh reminder of our money minded thinking. We let the rich go and make the poor to be examples. It is totally backwards but we go with the group. That is why I hold so much faith in the bible. It is the oldest and best phycological thriller of all. It talks about people being evil and the roots of the evils. Mankind has the power to reach the stars but our youth is far more interested in a cruel popularity contest.

Anonymous's picture

group mentality

i noticed this happening in my english class, when a young man had his turn to do his presentation, once one person started to disagree about his interest in dangerous sports, the magority of the class all started to argue with him, and although argueing is on our topic list, this was definatley group mentality, it got to the stage where they started patting eack other on the back, metorphoricly speaking, any way it showed me who the weak ones were, i wont be trusting them.

michael .age 15's picture

Group mentality

ibelieve group mentality is a result of ages in different societies ,just as a belief is passed downn to a newer generation so is the urge to follow those who around youu even if they are wrong .it is what makes us human.

Anonymous's picture

Group Mentality

I agree that the way one acts is based on their enviornment; however, could it be that the force that pushes most of the world's population to do questionable things is simply the will to do something out of the ordinary, or based on the media involvment in their lives?
The human being thrives to do things that are diffrent from their daily routines. When one can do something, like torchering another person, with no rammifications and, in fact, support from well educated individuals such as scientists, is it crazy to think that some would jump at the chance? Could this be compared to a man walking down a road that sees another man drop a $20 dollar bill, and thinks, "Should I return it, or should I go to a reasturant and spend it?" Or, should it be compared to a man in the same situation who is being encouraged to take the money by 12 scientists?

Paul Grobstein's picture

group mentality and piano keys

Interesting idea.  "the will to do something out of the ordinary" reminds me of "the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key! .... Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground, 1864.  Maybe people behave in destructive ways when they don't have constructive ways to express their refusal to be piano keys?

Anonymous's picture

group mentality, piano keys, and animal behavior

Hmmm, I have never read any of Fyodor Dostoevsky's work, but it seems to make sense. The idea of humanity wanting to be represented in every way a man can is quite interesting. That makes me wonder, is group mentality shown in the actions of animals as well as humans? If not, maybe animals are missing something that is needed to be controlled by group mentality. If only we could find this missing link and find the real cause of group mentality. However, the cause may be that animals do not have a large enough social structure to make them contort to group mentality. On the other hand, maybe animals are controlled by group mentality as well. What do you think?

Paul Grobstein's picture

group mentality and group stories

My guess is that "group mentality" plays a role in the behavior of many animals just as it does, to varying degrees in different socio-cultural contexts, in humans.  I've been thinking a lot recently about what I call "group stories," shared understandings among group of humans, about not only their problems but also their virtues and about how to make them a more productive part of human experience.  For more along these lines see The Brain and Open-Ended Transactional Inquiry: A Story of Three Loops and of Conflict (and Lesson Critique), and the Taoist Story Teller and Culture.  For some earlier thoughts about group or "tribal" stories, see the day after and wishes/thoughts/stories/needs for change.   The upshot is I don't think we are inevitably "controlled by group mentality" (or anything else) but we do need to be aware of the influence of group stories on our behavior (like we need to be aware of other influences) so as to avoid being controlled by them. 

Paul Grobstein's picture

Evil, conformity, or ... ?

The Milgram observations, and others like them, certainly should cause people to wonder about not only other people but themselves, about everybody's propensity to "evil" behavior. On the other hand, what exactly the observations mean is (appropriately) continuing to be explored (cf The Case for Fitting In). Maybe the question isn't actually an inbuilt "evil" in "universal brain programming" but rather simply an ongoing interplay of influences on behavior, some internal and some social? The latter doesn't challenge "free will" in any absolute sense but only suggests it is a more significant influence on behavior in some circumstances than in others. One might "choose" to follow a leader or not, with or without "free will".