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Jul 03 2014

It turns out nice people are Nazis!

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.

31 comments

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  1. 1
    Shatterface

    This wouldn’t surprise me at all; people who rate themselves highly on ‘agreeableness’ tend to score high on the Asch conformity test.

  2. 2
    Al Dente

    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.

    But at least we don’t zap other people with electricity too often.

  3. 3
    RJW

    However carefully the experiment was designed, it’s still an experiment, a controlled and contrived situation.
    I can think of some rude, grumpy asshole outsiders who were very bad news indeed, they usually gave the orders.

  4. 4
    timothycarter

    How about this interpretation: Contrarian, disagreeable people are not less likely to do evil things than nice people. They are however, less likely to do evil things *because someone else told them to do it.* So if an agreeable person does something evil, it may be more because they are week or shallow than because they are evil. But if a disagreeable person does something evil, it is all them.

  5. 5
    Markovitch

    Doesn’t the “agreeableness” trait only become a problem when being told to do hurtful things?

  6. 6
    A. Noyd

    Well, and agreeable and friendly to whom. Most people are nice to people in group X, indifferent to people in group Y and horrid to people in group Z. Who is in each group depends on the individual, of course.

  7. 7
    WithinThisMind

    Nice people are more likely to go along with it because they follow instructions and if you resist authority and status quo you are being ‘uncivil’. Nice people pride themselves on their civility, so they’ll do what they are told and won’t make waves.

    Contrarian assholes go along with it because they are assholes and hey, as long as it’s not them getting shocked why should they care. I mean, if the person in the chair didn’t want to get shocked on some level, they wouldn’t be in the chair, right?

    Ethical people, on the other hand, know that there is a time for civility and a time for controversy and are capable of being whichever is called for in pursuit of doing the right thing.

  8. 8
    WithinThisMind

    Also, unfriendly doesn’t necessarily mean ‘contrarian asshole’. Sometimes it just means ‘I don’t see this group of people as worthy of my friendship’.

  9. 9
    Silentbob

    Interesting.

    Do you think it’s possible two different things are being conflated?
    Perhaps on the one hand you have the degree to which subjects care about the welfare of others, and on the other the degree to which they care about being accepted, loved, admired, etc.

    I can see “agreeable” people tending to be those that avoid confrontation and disharmony because they want to be liked. And I can see the “disagreeable” tending to be those that not only don’t care what others think of them, but don’t give a shit about others at all.

    I think probably those who have been the notable pioneers of human rights – Thomas Paine, Susan B Anthony, MLK, etc. – would be people who score high on the “caring for others” index, but low on the “needing the goodwill of others” index.

  10. 10
    Shatterface

    How about this interpretation: Contrarian, disagreeable people are not less likely to do evil things than nice people. They are however, less likely to do evil things *because someone else told them to do it.* So if an agreeable person does something evil, it may be more because they are evil. But if a disagreeable person does something evil, it is all them.

    Or an alternative hypothesis:

    (a) There are people who think the world exists in black and white, and that agreeable people always do good, or at least have an excuse, while disagreeable people always do bad, and have never have an excuse; and
    (b) That they, personally, are agreeable, and always do good, or at least have an excuse, even if they have never had their agreeableness assessed in any objective manner.

    You don’t need to go to the extremes of the Millgram experiment; I’ve worked in bureaucracies dealing with ex-offenders long enough to recognise there are people who regard themselves as ‘agreeable’ who will consistently impose higher sanctions on people because they think they are doing good while those who are often ‘disagreeable’ will be more lenient.

    Agreeableness and disagreeableness are often the result of conformity to institutional values, not the cause.

  11. 11
    Shatterface

    I think probably those who have been the notable pioneers of human rights – Thomas Paine, Susan B Anthony, MLK, etc. – would be people who score high on the “caring for others” index, but low on the “needing the goodwill of others” index

    From what I’ve read, Kant and Bentham were arseholes.

  12. 12
    Seth

    It’s not true, in general, that ‘nice people are Nazis’. But the converse was true; i.e., the average Nazi was a ‘nice’ and ‘good’ and ‘decent’ person, as measured by the standards of their peers. Upwards of five hundred thousand people (only half of them Germans) were involved in the Holocaust (which rendered extinct approximately twelve million people, about half of them Jewish); by far, the vast majority of these people were ‘just doing their jobs’, being nice and agreeable, attempting to make the world a better place. That was their intent (and the stated intent of every single National Socialist). That is one major reason why intent weighs very little next to consequence; sure, there’s a difference between first-degree murder and manslaughter, but that difference is much smaller than the difference between a convicted criminal and an unconvicted civilian.

    Ophelia, I think your objection boils down to wariness of making a converse error; it may well be true that most moral actors are disagreeable people, but that does not logically entail that most disagreeable people are moral actors. This is basic logic, but it is beyond most people, especially those who get their news from their networks of friends and colleagues rather than checking the source material. In short, the results of this experiment may well be sound, but your own concerns are still valid–just because someone’s asocial (or mildly anti-social), it doesn’t necessarily entail that they will effect moral outcomes, even if most of those who do effect moral outcomes turn out to be asocial.

    As a generally-irascible anti-authoritarian, I like to put myself in the latter camp…but such requires (at least) honest self-reflection, a working moral theory, and the ability to change one’s mind (and subsequent behaviour). Most people who subscribe to the rule ‘if people are mad, you’re doing something right!’ generally fail on these and other essential criteria, and so they generally fail to be moral actors. They do not negate the results of the experiment, but they do limit its scope, and we would be well to keep in mind the laws of logic before drawing erroneous conclusions from its results.

  13. 13
    palmettobug

    Yeah, I have little confidence in that study and its applicability to the real world. I agree with Seth @ 10, in that contrarian, anti-authoritarian tendencies can be a good thing, if tempered by ethics, honest self-reflection, and the other things mentioned. I would add that empathy is a crucial component for good contrarian behavior, and that reactionary contrarian behavior (tea party, etc) is often the worst. But we need thinking, caring, critical contrarians in order to make progress.

  14. 14
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    @ ^ palmettobug : Think we need thinking, caring, critical people – contrarians & conformists and all inbetween – in order to make progress actually.

    Also suspect there are situations where people will conform and then others where they won’t for almost all individuals so a matter of degrees and position on a spectrum not usually an absolute either /or thing.

    I’m not sure that describing anyone as “nazi’ even if they do follow some orders is really called for here.

    Nazi, after all, is a term meaning a nazi party member or at least a devout believer party in that particular hateful extreme anti-semitic and racist ideology.

    I think its better to treat that term (& a few others) with care and only use when clearly appropriate.

    (Minor nit pick in an otherwise interesting albeit somewhat depressing if not that new news post here, sorry Ophelia Benson.)

  15. 15
    Brucc

    The press report quoted here purports to divide the population into exactly two categories. But let’s remember that this is not a normal distribution of the population. Instead it is a somewhat self-selected subset, based for example on only those people able and willing to be available for a multi-month interview process. I’m sure we all know lots of people who wouldn’t have the time or patience to qualify to remain in such a study group so long. That’s just one example. How many other filtering criteria are involved?

    Also, other studies have shown that 15-30% of Americans fit into an authoritarian-supporting personality. Probably many of them seem nice, but also many non-authoritarians seem nice too. But which of these four groups makes it through the interview filtering process most often? Without detailed answers to these questions, this purported research would not deserve to withstand peer review. The burden is on the claimants to provide valid warrants to support their assertions in each of the possible scenarios where they make their claims. Even if they analyzed things properly, it is evident that they failed to convey answers to these obvious questions in their publicity materials.

  16. 16
    Arnie

    Ophelia’s source is

    Psychologists Have Uncovered a Troubling Feature of People Who Seem Too Nice by Eileen Shim (Mic.com)

  17. 17
    Pen

    I think this study could benefit from some cross-cultural testing. Social and/or interpersonal compliance is one of those traits that’s very variable. When I’ve hung around the US, I’ve met a lot of people who are systematically contrary for laughs and arseholes. They break social boundaries indiscriminately, without thinking about whether they really need breaking or whether they do, in fact, benefit other people. They think it makes them special, cleverer, more skeptical.

    There’s another personality type that’s basically nice, but bullied, often by the type above. They have a hard time saying no and getting their boundaries respected. They’ve bought into an idea that contradicting people is rude and they like to masquerade as airheads (some of them have even said this to me). On an interpersonal level they are very compliant.

    The things is, both these personality types are responses to the culture they’re immersed in and so their existence and the result is culturally specific. You don’t really find either of these types to anything like the same extent in European cultures. And if you look at the question of compliance and conformity in, say, Germany, it’s mediated very differently. I know Germany less well than the US, but my impression is that social compliance is expected and policed very differently from in the US, by a different range of personality types.

  18. 18
    Dunc

    I think the thing to bear in mind is that contrarianism can go at least two different ways. You can reject the values of those around you because you reject the injustices you see in them, or you can reject them because you want to be even more unjust than is the norm. So, as Seth points out, it may be perfectly true that the most moral actors are contrarians, and also true that most contrarians are not amongst the most moral actors.

  19. 19
    dorkness

    @Silentbob, 7
    The way I’ve seen this described before (years back, not a new idea):
    If you are agreeable because you have a strong need to please others and to be popular, you are unlikely to stop being agreeable just because the community you are a part of goes Nazi or something.
    If you have no such need, you can be as contrarian as you like. Or not, as the case may be, but in the former case you cannot be expected to do things that would make you unpopular.

  20. 20
    dorkness

    @palmettobug, 11
    ‘reactionary contrarian’
    Conformity is contextual, a reactionary is usually very unoriginal, predictable and conformist within his own context.

  21. 21
    IncredulousMark

    Big Rude Jake had this figured out years ago: http://youtu.be/5yRMG-q0lu4

  22. 22
    anne mariehovgaard

    “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.”

    Perhaps not, but if you are the sort of person who tends to ask “Why?” a lot – question things when everyone else agrees it’s obviously true, not agree with the majority unless you actually think they’re right – and tell people you disagree, be honest about what you believe even if everyone around you believes differently, respond to fact-free claims with “citation needed”… people will definitely consider you an asshole no matter how moral and just you are. And that type of person is less likely to obey orders to torture people, probably not because they’re better people, but because they don’t follow orders. You will be seen as more agreeable if you just nod and smile and, well… agree.

  23. 23
    Brony

    I’m late and I see lots of good qualifying up above. Here are my own.

    It can be cut into pieces, but make sure the pieces are ordered right in terms of how they relate. I’m of the opinion that the diversity of types of people are more or less prone to some problems in some conditions as a consequence of how their minds and biases are shaped. It’s the optimist and pessimist problem. Which is better? Neither. They are differently advantaged and limited in terms of strategic thinking and both are valuable to society.

    Note: I’m going to be speaking in polarized terms about mindsets that are spectrums and context sensitive in reality.
    Agreeable, conscientious people will have a more group oriented bias which is fine if the group is a healthy one that interacts with each other and the world it depends on in non-destructive and mutually beneficial ways.But as any libertarian will point out the collective is often not perfect and needs some fixing (the L’s are themselves often unreasonable but the instinct to be wary and watchful of the quality of the group is a neutral thing). And a screwed up group acts that way because of of screwed up individuals so the the agreeable people will be less effective against them as well.
    Now while the contrary, ornery, disagreeable types will be less useful in a decent society. But in a screwed up society they will be the ones to notice flaws faster. They are already primed for it and just because they are more negative does not mean they are wrong. (Full disclosure: I’m likely on this end of the spectrum. No I’m not an L).
    No society is perfect and some people will be specialized in recognizing and communicating about problems and negative issues, and others will be specialized in looking at and using positives and working with people. But the fact that people that people with both positive and negative dispositions are differently moral in ways that reveal a more moral person with a negative disposition (under these conditions) is very interesting.

    Last the frame of the test is important. What people are willing to do under the tested authority condition. Don’t forget that what these people do independent of authority and during conditions like authority conflict are also part of what these people are as a group.

  24. 24
    johnthedrunkard

    I think Ophelia is comparing apples and oranges.

    There certainly is a substantial sub-culture of assholes who present themselves as Contrarian Individualists. Its the fucking Randroids (not to be too repetitive here).

    A snide, rigid, self righteous, commitment to a hidden agenda is NOT ‘contrarian’ or ‘individualistic.’ If you don’t know the person you’re dealing with is a Fascist, a Stalinist, a Thatcher/Reagan ‘invisible hander,’ etc. etc. You can be fooled by their pretense of ‘independent individualism.’ They are cookie-cutter clones.

  25. 25
    Ophelia Benson

    Well, yes and no. I’m not talking solely about Randroids or the like. It’s broader than that. I don’t call myself a “contrarian” for instance, because if you call yourself one…well ew, that’s all. If you call yourself one you probably aren’t one, or you’re one for the wrong reasons, or you’re one but you’re too pleased with yourself about it. Something like that.

    Or maybe that’s more about an aversion to people who bestow flattering labels on themselves, and in fact an aversion to people who are always commenting on themselves at all.

  26. 26
    MrFancyPants

    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.

    This is my experience as well. I’ve known several people who use this as an excuse to be obnoxious, as if proclaiming “I just say it like I see it” gives them some sort of free pass to an asshole. Ricky Gervais springs to mind.

  27. 27
    maudell

    I’m highly skeptical of the experimental design of this study. Admittedly, I only read the abstract. However:

    1- The reason why the Milgram experiments were not replicated is that it is considered unethical by today’s standards (also, Milgram’s methodology would not be accepted as scientific today). But pretty much everyone has heard of the experiment.

    2- Even though the subjects likely did not know what the study was about, it’s unlikely that they thought they were inflicting pain on someone for real. That’s a serious problem of lack of realism. Nazis knew they were harming people for real. Whether the subjects of this study thought they were part of an experiment or part of a reality show, most would assume it isn’t for real. If this is the same reality show experiment that was done a couple years ago, most participants asserted that they didn’t believe it was for real (for what it’s worth). The ‘agreeable’ kind didn’t want to interrupt the show.

    3- The sample: 31 women and 35 men participating in a reality show. Not very representative nor random. I can’t really see how you can infer tendencies in the general population from this kind of sample.

    Every model has flaws, it’s easy to discard the validity of pretty much anything. I’m just uncomfortable with many of the studies so loved by the media. I haven’t read this one, so I might be mistaken. I just can’t see how they could have avoided seriously violating pretty much every assumption required for this type of experiment to be valid (but maybe they have).

  28. 28
    anne mariehovgaard

    maudell, you’re wrong. The reason why this experiment is considered unethical is because the participants DID think it was real. This was really traumatic for many of them, and had lasting effects. No the experimental group was not very large, but… reality show??? Where did you get that from? It was presented as an experiment on learning, with thr actors as subjects.

  29. 29
    Ophelia Benson

    anne marie – I was about to make a similar reply to maudell yesterday but I re-read the comment to make sure, and decided that maudell meant the new study in item #2, not the Milgram study, so I didn’t reply after all. I’m not sure, but I think that’s what maudell meant.

  30. 30
    demonhellfish

    At the personal level of looking at people I know, I’d noticed something somewhat like the proposed link. Of the people I know with politics that are progressive and civil libertarian, those with the strongest such politics are the ones who don’t like people very much.

    I don’t think that’s quite the same as being “disagreeable”; it’s just the opposite of being a “people person”, not actually enjoying being around others.

    My own pet theory has been that if you learn to treat the people around you decently by *liking* them, then it doesn’t translate to people who are too far away from you to like, but if you learn to treat people around you decently by constructing some intellectual justification for living with their unpleasantness, then it generalizes to other people that you have no reason to enjoy being around.

  31. 31
    Ophelia Benson

    Wow, that’s an interesting theory.

  1. 32
    Guest post: Wariness of making a converse error » Butterflies and Wheels

    […] a comment by Seth on It turns out nice people are […]

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