A new research has challenged a dominant viewpoint that has prevailed within and beyond the academic world for nearly half a century. The viewpoint suggests that people engage in barbaric acts because they have little insight into what they are doing and conform slavishly to the will of authority.
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' behaviour 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 study, 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' behaviour 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 explained, 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".
The results of the study confirmed the researchers' hypotheses.
According to the researchers, these new findings suggest that we need to rethink obedience as the standard explanation for why people engage in cruel and brutal behavior.
These new findings suggested that social identification provides participants with a moral compass and motivates them to act as followers. This follower ship, as the researchers pointed out, is not thoughtless - "it is the endeavour of committed subjects."
Looking at the findings this way has several advantages, Reicher, Haslam, and Smith argue. First, it mirrors recent historical assessments suggesting that functionaries in brutalizing regimes - like the Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann - do much more than merely follow orders.
And it simultaneously accounts for why participants are more likely to follow orders under certain conditions than others.
The latest study is detailed in a new article published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.