Thursday, April 17, 2008

Skepticism vs. Trust: The Debate Continues

An interesting, albeit too brief, article in the March 30th issue of the New York Times Magazine by David Berreby, author of the forthcoming Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind, casts new light on what we thought we knew about obedience:

The psychologists Bert Hodges and Anne Geyer recently took a new look at a well-known experiment devised by [Solomon] Asch in the 1950s. Asch’s subjects were asked to look at a line printed on a white card and then tell which of three similar lines was the same length. The answer was obvious, but the catch was that each volunteer was sitting in a small group whose other members were actually in on the experiment. Asch found that when those other people all agreed on the wrong answer, many of the subjects went along with the group, against the evidence of their own senses.

But the question (Which of these lines matches the one on the card?) was not posed just once. Each subject saw 18 sets of lines, and the group answer was wrong for 12 of them. Examining all the data, Hodges and Geyer found that many people were varying their answers, sometimes agreeing with the group, more often sticking up for their own view. (The average participant gave in to the group three times out of 12.)

This means that the subjects in the most famous “people are sheep” experiment were not sheep at all — they were human beings who largely stuck to their guns, but now and then went along with the group. Why? Because in getting along with other people, most decent people know, as Hodges and Geyer put it, the “importance of cooperation, tact and social solidarity in situations that are tense or difficult.”

In a similar spirit, others have taken a new look at the famous experiments on “obedience to authority” conducted by Asch’s student Stanley Milgram. Milgram’s subjects, assuming they were part of a memory test, were asked to administer what they thought were increasingly strong electric shocks to another person (who was, in reality, another experimenter pretending to be pained). Encouraged only by an occasional “Please go on” and the like, every one went well beyond “Very Strong Shock,” and the majority went to the 450-volt end of the scale, which was two notches above the one labeled “Danger: Severe Shock.”

Horrifying, in most retellings. But, as the University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein has argued, Milgram’s “subjects were not simply obeying a leader, but responding to someone whose credentials and good faith they thought they could trust.” Without that kind of trust society would fall apart tomorrow, because most of what we know about the world comes to us from other people. Milgram’s experiment, then, doesn’t prove that people are inclined to obey any nut job in a white coat. It shows instead that in difficult situations, when they wrestle with the line between trust and skepticism, trust often wins. Much of the time, that’s a good thing.

What's left is here.


Anonymous said...

Interesting article, thanks John. Derren Brown in his recent book also discusses the Miligram experiment, as you'll know because you reviewed it here, didn't you? He says most people assume that the people experimented on were traumatised by the experience, but they were not, merely interested in what was going on, how it "worked". In other words, just normal human beings, making choices, agonising over them, thinking them over, etc.

Same with human nature arguments, i would speculate. Leftists think that if it can be shown that there is a genetic basis for violence, this will lead people to say, Oh, that's all right then, I'll be violent. In fact, they'd most likely react just like us and other normal human being: just be interested in what it told them about themselves and how they live their lives, what choices they make, how and when and why they might have been violent or how they reacted to violence, etc.

Ramble over!

John said...

Indeed. Experimenters tend to underestimate the subjectivity of their subjects!

Ah yes, Derren Brown. Just wonderful.

Carlton B Morgan said...

In the Miligram experiment, no one was being hurt, and therefore the people were right to trust authority. Am I right?

(Certainly, if ever you are in a discussion group, and Miligram comes up, you can have a right daft laugh introducing this notion into the equasion. I know, because I've done it)

John said...

Oh. I thought the lesson was, "You should ONLY trust and obey your betters."

Jim said...

This post and the next reminded me of Simon Schaffer's observation that the business of science is the manufacture, organization and distribution of, not skepticism, but trust.

I heard him say this in the first episode of a radio series, How to think about Science, on the CBC's Ideas program.

Podcasts are online at iTunes and the CBC:

John said...

Cheers, Jim. I'll check his stuff out.