Just following orders. The Milgram experiment. You know the drill.
Can it be cut up into smaller pieces? Of course it can.
A new Milgram-like experiment published this month in the Journal of Personality has taken this idea to the next step by trying to understand which kinds of people are more or less willing to obey these kinds of orders. What researchers discovered was surprising: Those who are described as “agreeable, conscientious personalities” are more likely to follow orders and deliver electric shocks that they believe can harm innocent people, while “more contrarian, less agreeable personalities” are more likely to refuse to hurt others.
Ok wait. Slow down. Let’s not be in a hurry. Part of me is very apt to believe that, and not just because I’m possibly the least agreeable person on the planet, but really more because I do think a more adversarial attitude toward the given, the status quo, the conventional wisdom, the mainstream, does make people less likely to follow orders unthinkingly. Therefore I need to pause before thinking “well of course,” because it’s too…well, easy.
I’ve learned to be more suspicious than I used to be of people who fancy themselves more contrarian and less agreeable than others, because I’ve encountered so many people who fit that description who turn out to be dedicated, disciplined, hard-working assholes.
So, having said that, let’s proceed with caution.
For an eight-month period, the researchers interviewed the study participants to gauge their social personality, as well as their personal history and political leanings. When they matched this data to the participants’ behavior during the experiment, a distinct pattern emerged: People who were normally friendly followed orders because they didn’t want to upset others, while those who were described as unfriendly stuck up for themselves.
“The irony is that a personality disposition normally seen as antisocial — disagreeableness — may actually be linked to ‘pro-social’ behavior,'” writes Psychology Today’s Kenneth Worthy. “This connection seems to arise from a willingness to sacrifice one’s popularity a bit to act in a moral and just way toward other people, animals or the environment at large. Popularity, in the end, may be more a sign of social graces and perhaps a desire to fit in than any kind of moral superiority.”
No, I’m still suspicious, because again that sounds so self-flattering. “I’d better be a rude grumpy asshole, because that makes me more likely to act in a moral and just way toward other people, animals or the environment at large.” That hasn’t always been my experience, I have to say.