Tuesday, July 2, 2013

How Much Do We Conform and Comply?

Matt Kramer

Author: Matt Kramer
I've been studying social psychology and the power of social influence – how, as humans, we conform and comply as we live and work with and within various groups and organizations such as our family, our work environment, our spiritual or religious community, and the crowds in which we may occasionally find ourselves.

I wasn’t aware that there are numerous studies of how people will modify their beliefs and behaviors in order to fit in with the various groups in their environment. I had read a little bit about the experiments by Stanley Milgrim and Philip Zimbardo that revealed how role playing volunteer students in positions of power over other volunteer students fairly easily moved beyond positions of regard and respect for others as they acted out that power. In Milgrim’s work, as far as the students could tell, they were inflicting significant pain while in Zimbardo’s work, they began subjecting the powerless volunteers to humiliating behavior. In Zimbardo’s experiment, many of the powerless volunteers played their parts to the extent that they accepted and fulfilled their subservient roles. The intensity to which all players fulfilled their roles caused Zimbardo to end the experiment after six days.

The insights of these studies begin to explain how entire populations can be motivated to carry out the extreme examples of inhumane behavior as it shows up in war, racism and other tragic behaviors. Not every predatory leader is a sociopath or abusive personality but so far I am standing with my belief that these kinds of personalities either created or modified the conditions in which our worst behaviors are played out. From my perspective, no war was ever started or even desired by a population; a few “leaders” took careful steps to move their constituents from complacency to leaving their homes to travel to some other place and attack another group of people.

I've learned that one of the tools to help accomplish this is called the foot-in-the-door phenomenon. It basically says that if you can get someone to agree to a small request first, later it will be easier to get them to agree to a larger request. You can see this technique in play in the way the Bush Administration moved Congress and the nation into war with Iraq.

Another tool takes advantage of our innate nature as social people: the need to conform as described above. When our actions are out of line with our attitudes, we experience tension. When the actions are engaged as a way to conform to the community, one way to resolve that tension is to adjust your attitude. This can be seen as idealistic young teachers or hospital staff become apathetic and disenchanted with their work as they conform to their older co-workers who conformed themselves earlier in their career.

A couple of years ago, I read “The Book Thief” about a  young girl growing up in Nazi Germany in the mid 1930’s. A powerful theme in the book described how those who, in spite of not buying into Hitler’s vision, had conformed to the Nazi model of governance in which the population lived in an atmosphere of fear and paranoia; their compliance allowed no opportunity for resistance to Hitler’s path to war.

The formulas to ensure conformity and compliance are frighteningly easy to employ – one more element that helps to support and sustain a culture of predatory leadership.

Now consider how this impacts our roles as teachers. How is the current culture of corporate invasion  affecting the teachers; trickling down to the students. Is our own behavior contributing to the sustaining of such predatory leadership? If not, then how are we changing it? 

1 comment:

  1. One way people can change their own or others' thinking --positively or negatively -- is through stories. A recent piece by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen explores this. I've linked to it on the website I host, http://teachersspeakup.com . This is what Cesar Chavez did to inspire his movement. Along with the resistance that BAT promotes, I propose that one important step for us as teachers is to simply tell the stories of our powerful work in classrooms. Many members of the public and decision-makers don't really know what we do. I hope Badass teachers will write such stories & get them into local news media -- and then tell us about it at teachersspeakup.com .