- Sophia Ashraf
Social Psychology Assignment
At times people and groups resort to negative, cruel and even murderous behaviour. Drawing upon contemporary or historical examples analyse whether this behaviour is influenced more by social pressure/structure or by something more personally sinister or selfish.
Social psychologists have devoted extensive interest in studying the attitudes, feelings and behaviours of human beings. They have come up with numerous explanations for both helpful and aggressive human behaviours. Philosophers explain these differences in terms of human nature. For instance, Rousseau believes humans are innately peaceful creatures. Therefore, anti-social behaviours are a consequence of wider societal and structural factors. In contrast, Thomas Hobbes believes humans are born evil and are predisposed to criminality. Overall, history is filled with numerous examples of altruistic behaviours. One such example is of Oskar Schindler, who risked his life and saved over 4,000 Jews during the Holocaust. Equally, history has also witnessed inhumane atrocities which include the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam in the 1960’s and the Rwanda and Bosnia genocides of the 1990’s (Hogg & Cooper, 2007; Hogg & Vaughan, 2014).
Social psychologists have offered numerous explanations that influence the behaviours, attitudes and perceptions of people, in performing horrendous crimes against humanity. These include: social pressures like conformity and obedience, and also individual personality traits such as possessing an evil, sadistic and psychopathic character. In this essay, I will use examples of historical and contemporary atrocities, social psychological studies and theoretical concepts to explain the reasons behind why certain individuals and groups commit negative, cruel and murderous behaviours. In doing so, I will analyse whether this behaviour is influenced more by social pressure/structure or by something more personally sinister or selfish (ibid).
Social psychologists identify obedience as a major social influence on human behaviour. This is because it involves obeying the orders of other living beings. Psychologists have found obedience to have both a positive and negative impact on human behaviour. For example, it prevents chaos in everyday life as people are socialised to obey laws such as traffic lights, and do so even without the presence of an authority figure. Alternatively, obedience has also proven destructive as many people have blindly obeyed the orders of an authority figure without thinking of the consequences of their actions. Social psychologist Stanley Milgram (1963, 1974) was highly interested in the effects of obedience on human behaviour, and in particular whether an individual would follow the commands of an authority figure if it involved harming another living being (Aronson et al, 2013; Hogg & Vaughan, 2014).
In 1963, Milgram carried out a famous ground-breaking experiment on obedience to authority at Yale University. He recruited around forty participants from the community via an advertisement, to participate in a study that tested the effects of punishment on learning. The experiment consisted of three roles which include an experimenter who was a man dressed in a white lab coat, a teacher whose role was always played by the participants, and a learner named Mr Wallace who was actually a confederate of the researcher. All participants were provided with a shock generating machine which had thirty levers in total and ranged from 15 to 450 volts. Participants were also given a sample shock of 45 volts before the experiment commenced. As part of the study, Mr Wallace had to learn a set of pair associates, whereas the teacher was required to administer electric shocks progressively to the learner each time they gave an incorrect answer (ibid).
During the experiment, the learner made some correct and incorrect responses. Whenever the learner received a shock for an incorrect response, he would cry and scream in pain and often demanded to be released from the experiment. Consequently, this made participants feel agitated and want to withdraw from the research. In response, the experimenter would reply with a series of direct coercive statements such as ‘the experiment requires that you continue’, and ‘you have no other choice, you must go on’. (Hogg & Vaughan, 2014: 242). Milgram’s initial assumption was that his participants would refuse to follow orders that involved harming another individual. However, he was extremely shocked when his results revealed that 65% of his participants continued administering electric shocks till the very end. This study illustrates the devastating impact of obedience, a social pressure which induces ordinary people to perform damaging acts against innocent victims (Hogg & Vaughan, 2014; Helm & Morelli, 1979).
Milgram’s experiment has received considerable support from numerous researchers such as Hofling et al, 1966 who found that nurses also obeyed doctor’s orders to administer what they knew were harmfully incorrect doses of drugs to their patients. Milgram’s study has also received substantial criticism for its ethical concerns. Firstly unknown to the participants, the learner was actually a confederate who did not receive any electric shocks throughout the study. Secondly, Milgram’s participants were not provided with a fully informed consent and right to withdraw. This is because the experimenter verbally prodded them to continue during the experiment. His participants were also deceived about the true aims of the study, as Milgram was actually investigating the effects of obedience to authority on human behaviour. Milgram’s findings also lack generalisation to the wider population. This is because the study involved male participants and was conducted in a laboratory setting which does not reflect real life situations (ibid).
Many historical and contemporary crimes have been committed in the name of obedience to authority. These include historic atrocities witnessed during World War II and the Nazi era, and also contemporary atrocities such as those which have been witnessed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. In all of these horrific events, the perpetrators have claimed to be following orders. For instance, the Nazi official Adolf Eichmann who was held responsible for the death of six million Jews claimed he was following and implementing Hitler’s orders. Eichmann’s trial was covered by the journalist Hannah Arendt (1963) in her book ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil’. Like Milgram, Arendt was also interested in what made Eichmann and other war criminals commit such devastating crimes against humanity (Aronson et al, 2013; Hogg & Vaughan, 2014).
Within her book, Arendt reveals a shocking finding and asserts that ‘these ‘monsters’ may not have been monsters at all. They were often mild-mannered, softly spoken, courteous people who repeatedly and politely explained that they did what they did not because they hated Jews (or Muslims etc.) but because- they were simply obeying orders’ (Hogg & Vaughan, 2014: 240). Here, Arendt illustrates the importance of structural explanations, in particular obedience which a form of social influence that predisposes war time criminals to commit negative, cruel and murderous behaviours. Nevertheless, this structural explanation has been criticised for ignoring the very fact that an individual’s pathological personality and a group’s cultural norms, may also make them more vulnerable to anti-social and murderous behaviours (Aronson et al, 2013; Hogg & Vaughan, 2014).
To explain a perpetrators negative human behaviour, Milgram makes reference to the terms the agentic state which denotes absolute obedience. He claims that within the agentic state people see themselves as mere instruments obeying the commands of an authority figure. As a result, individuals experience a diffusion of responsibility for their actions. This is because they transfer personal responsibility onto the authority figure. For this reason, Milgram believes that the agentic state can be used to explain the behaviour of perpetrators, who claim they are not liable for their actions as they were simply following orders. Moreover, even the threat of punishment for disobedience can force many people and groups to perform criminal behaviours against their own wish. However, it must be noted that not everyone obeys the commands of an authority figure, and many people do display resistance to commands that go against their own beliefs (ibid).
Social psychologists have also identified conformity as another major social influence on human behaviour. It is defined as a process in which the individual changes their attitudes and behaviours in accordance with the group’s views. Psychologists have identified two types of conformity. These are informational and normative social influence. Firstly, informational influence is a type of conformity where the individual relies on information, knowledge and opinions of others as evidence about reality. Secondly, normative social influence is a type of conformity which is heavily based on others expectations. Here, the individual conforms because they feel a need to gain acceptance and social approval from their group. They also want to avoid feeling socially ostracised. In support of conformity pressures Mark Twain asserts, ‘we are discreet sheep; we wait to see how the drove is going and then go with the drove’ (cited in Kassin et al, 2008: 221). This quote shows how suggestible and compliant people can be as a result of numerous group pressures (Aronson et al, 2013; Kassin et al, 2008).
The famous psychologist Philip Zimbardo was highly interested in understanding the downside of conformity, and coined the concept ‘The Lucifer Effect’ to describe how good people turn evil. In 1971, he conducted a famous study named the Stanford Prison Experiment, where paid volunteers were randomly assigned to the role of either a prisoner or a guard. The prisoners were arrested from their house, and were taken to a prison which consisted of bare necessities. Their possessions were removed from them and they were provided with a uniform and a unique ID number. Alternatively, the guards were also given a uniform to wear, along with items such as clubs and whistles which were symbolic of their authority. All prisoners were required to follow a set of fixed rules; otherwise they risked receiving severe punishment (Baron and Branscombe, 2012: Meyers, 2008; Zimbardo, 2007).
Within the experiment, Zimbardo played the role of a prison warden who was interested in observing the reactions of his participants. He also wanted to know whether his participants would conform to the norms and requirements of their roles and whether they would behave like genuine prisoners and guards. Zimbardo found that the prisoners were rebellious at first but, then later became passive whereas, the guards grew more and more brutal and sadistic in their character. This was seen in the manner in which they harassed and dehumanised prisoners. Zimbardo found that these changes in behaviour were so disturbing that it became necessary to end the study after six days, when initial plans called for it to last two weeks. According to the individualistic explanation of crime and deviance, such inhumane behaviours may be attributed to individual factors such as a genetic predisposition to criminality (ibid).
In opposition to the individualistic explanation, Zimbardo (2007) adopts a structural perspective to explain his findings. He argues that a person inclination to conform to the norms of their social roles such as that of a soldier or prison guard can have harmful consequences, as they may make decent people perform indecent behaviours against members of their own species. A real life parallel to the Stanford Prison experiment is the disturbing events of the Abu Ghraib prison which started in Iraq in 2003. In this horrific event, American soldiers physically abused Iraqi prisoners as they perceived them to be less than human. According to the individualistic explanation, these horrific atrocities are attributed to individual deficiencies and limitations. For instance, people who are labelled psychopaths, sadists, and evil creatures are more vulnerable to behave inhumanely with innocent people than psychologically normal people (Aronson et al, 2013: Baron and Branscombe, 2012; Keller, 2006).
In relation to the Nazi Holocaust, the historian Daniel Goldhagen argues that ‘many German citizens were willing anti-Semitic participants in the Holocaust, not mere ordinary people forced to follow orders’ (Kassin et al, 2008: 243). Therefore, it may well be argued that the Germans had a character defect and were prejudiced and pathologically frustrated individuals. These factors influenced them to behave with cruelty towards others. On the other hand, developmental psychologists argue that anti-social and aggressive personality disorders can also predispose individuals to resort to criminal behaviours. For example,
Adorno et al, 1950 adopts a psychodynamic framework and argues that early childhood rearing practices that are harsh and authoritarian produce individuals who are obsessed by authority and are more likely to be hostile and aggressive towards other people. This provides support for the claim that personality factors cause individuals to behave in a negative and cruel manner towards others (Aronson et al, 2013; Hogg & Cooper, 2007; Kassin et al, 2008).
In conclusion, social influence has proved to be a fundamental area of inquiry for social psychologists who attempt to explain the numerous influences on human behaviour. Psychologists argue that people and groups are subject to powerful and complex social pressures. These may originate from people, groups and institutions. Social psychologists explain violent and anti-social human behaviours as being either attributed to the individual, situation or system. Social psychologists have identified conformity and obedience to play an important role in influencing human behaviour. They have also identified individual factors such as a genetic predisposition to crime and also personality attributes such as a possessing a selfish, sinister and authoritarian personality to predispose people to behave criminally. There are also other factors that may shape. These include prejudice, discrimination and a radical ideology which may predispose people and groups to behave inhumanely with others. Overall, research on crime and deviance have revealed that it is highly complex to determine whether negative, cruel and murderous human behaviours are due to social/structural pressures or individual factors or a combination of both.
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