Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Our Strength, Our Weakness

Setup for the Milgram Shock Experiment
Cooperation is both a blessing and a curse to humanity. The blessing side is easy to see if you look for it: solving diseases, overcoming different environments, compensating for lack of natural strength, etc.

Consider that, up until recently (from a species perspective), human beings lived in relatively small groups: an extended family or a tribe. Yet we are able to live together in communities that are vastly larger than this with relatively few problems.

The curse part is that, cooperation also allows us to mark lemming-like to our own destruction. Things like Iraq, Darfur, the Balkans, Hitler's Germany, etc. are all examples of how this ability can be exploited all too easily. I still remember a teacher of mine remarking that "the majority of the people in this room would make good Nazis." At the time, he was talking about the Milgram shock experiment.

Basically, the experiment tried to coerce a person into shocking another person, apparently to death. The compliance rate in the original experiment was over 60%, and this was all on the word of some geek in a lab-coat. Now imagine the same scenario, only the consequence for disobedience is much higher: perhaps imprisonment, perhaps death. In that context, the atrocities that scar humanity's history become easier to believe.

Solomon Ash's conformity experiment is another example of how cooperation can backfire. The setup there was to see if a subject would give an answer they knew to be incorrect if everyone gave that answer. About 1/3 of the subjects did so.

Normally, obedience and conformity are very powerful advantages: if someone tells you that a building is on fire and to leave, it's usually for a good reason…like the building being on fire. If a bunch of people interpret events differently from you, most of the time it is because you were wrong.

There is no moral to this article - the balance between blind obedience and just being an jerk is not always clear. The goal of this post is to highlight a strength...and a weakness.

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1 comment:

Canuckistani said...

Everyday people make choices for good or ill. Sadly, when a group is put in the same position, the mob mentality can take over and the outcome is often negative. Similarly, when an individual in a group is forced to make choice, he/she is reluctant to go against the group, even if it's bad. Fear of group rejection often trumps doing the right thing. Strange. I wonder if this comes from some innate survival mechanism in us left over from the caveman days, i.e. fear of death if shunned or separated from the group so important for survival in harsh conditions.