Sunday, 22 May 2016

Obedience, control and human intelligence

The assumption that each average, adult person is capable of reason and come to a conclusion based upon the available facts underlies most of modern human societies. Based upon it, concepts such as democracy and representative forms thereof were formulated, in which a group of adults make decisions for the - presumed - benefit of the entire society.

The tragedy thereby is that decades of studies have found little evidence to support this theorem of human intelligence and associated reasoning capacity. It was especially after the horrors of the second World War that people began to question how millions of people could so have lost their sense of humanity, succumbing to the betrayal and extermination of their fellow men.

During the 1920s and 1930s Europe was beset by nationalism [1], which is the belief shared among a group of individuals that their geographic location (nation) and the culture and individuals they associate with said location is more important than any other. Mild signs of nationalism include the displaying of a national flag and the performing of a national anthem. Extreme forms involve the deportation of 'unwanted groups' as well as other forms of cultural and racial purity efforts.

When the question is thereby raised whether or not nationalism is a rational thing, the answer is an unquestionable negative. While nationalism can offer people a feeling of belonging, ultimately nationalism is nothing but an expression of irrational blind faith, as demonstrated over the course of recent history in nations such as Germany, Russia, China, Cambodia North-Korea, the USA, Japan and others.

Thus the question comes back to why individuals are so eager to follow orders, that the orders of a handful of leaders can be amplified into such a devastating impact. The basic conclusion to be drawn just upon the evidence provided by history would lead one to conclude that seemingly human intelligence is vastly overrated, yet can it truly be that so many people are seemingly devoid of reason?

Many people are already familiar with the theory of group behaviour, in which the behaviour of a single human individual changes significantly when placed in a group relative to when that same person is not in a group. Observed changes here include increased risk-taking, increased aggression and less consideration for social rules and laws.

Such a breakdown of rules has been most famously observed in the context of a control and obedience experiment, called the Stanford Prison Experiment [2]. During this planned two-week experiment in 1971, 12 of the 24 participating students were assigned the role of prisoner, while the other 12 were to act as prison guards.

Long before the sixth day of the experiment it was becoming awfully clear that things were out of control, with systematic psychological and other abuse by the guards towards their prisoners. Afterwards comparisons were drawn with the 1961 Milgram experiment [3], which involved volunteers being told to apply electrical shocks to a test subject, with which they generally complied.

The Milgram experiment (in full: Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures) was set up to answer the question whether the Nazi war criminals and their accomplices who were on trial at that time were truly all just following orders. The idea being that if regular people could be asked to do something terrible to another person, and they complied, it'd change the way we would have to look at those who participated in war crimes, including the Holocaust.

The Milgram experiment and its subsequent derived experiments all showed one inescapable conclusion: that in the face of an authority, on average the majority (60+%) of those who participated were willing to apply the possibly fatal 450 volt shock to the (anonymous) test subject when coerced by the researcher leading the test. Also telling was that of those who refused to apply the final shock, none of them demanded that the experiment be stopped or insisted on checking on the health of the test subject.

A related experiment, the 1966 Hofling hospital experiment [4], showed that the vast majority of the nurses involved (21 of 22) in this study blindly followed orders by whom they presumed to be a doctor. These orders involved the administering of an overdose (twice the listed maximum dose) to a patient, which could conceivably lead to injuries or even death to said patient.

Beyond these well-documented experiments, there is also the Third Wave experiment [5], involving a US history teacher setting up a movement among students reminiscent of the Hitler Jugend during Nazi Germany. His goal was to demonstrate to this students how Germany's population could have gone along with Hitler's plans. After five days of the experiment running out of control, the teacher finally explained this experiment on fascism to the students, which ended the movement.

There are recent studies which indicate that belonging to a religious group can reduce one's tendency towards altruism [6]. Hereby should be noted that religion is highly reminiscent of nationalism, in the sense of putting one's own culture and related above that of others. As has been amply demonstrated over the years, nationalism reduces feelings of altruism towards those who are not part of one's own group.

This, together with the studies on obedience of an authority, make it tragically clear just how humanity can find itself repeating the same mistakes over and over again. With little capacity to question orders, while others revel in the control they have been given over others, the possibility that a disaster instrumented by a small number of people will be prevent is practically zero.

The pessimistic sceptic might hereby note that it must be solely due to a lack of homicidal authority figures that humanity hasn't managed to wipe itself off the face of this Earth. So far.



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