Opinion: Voters choose, not obey

Thursday February 12 2015, 3:30pm

Now that a week’s navel gazing verging on lint picking in the Liberal Party is at least temporarily over, maybe we should have a closer look, not at leadership, but at followership.

Professor Kathryn Millard of Macquarie University is about to put out a documentary called The Shock Room.

She has reviewed two psychological studies which have become imbedded in the collective subconscious – the 1961-63 Obedience to Authority study by Stanley Milgram and the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment by Phillip Zimbardo.

Both experiments purport to show that humans will tend obey authority and that they will put aside their compassionate instincts and inflict pain upon fellow humans if people in authority demand it.

Milgram wanted to understand the Holocaust. He asked: Are we programmed to follow orders? And if we are, how might we change that?

He enlisted 1,000 New Haven, Connecticut, residents for a study about “learning and memory”. In the experiments, they were urged to inflict what were purported to be potentially lethal electric shocks on another human being.

He concluded that most of us will obey orders issued by an authority figure.

But Millard says, “A growing body of recent work by psychologists and other researchers suggests otherwise. The archival evidence suggests otherwise.”

More importantly, Millard went back to Milgram’s own data and drew a different conclusion.

She says, “Although he ran more than 25 versions of his experiment, Milgram filmed only one of them.”

The edited film version had two-thirds of participants doing what they were told when asked to inflict a possibly fatal electrical dose to a patient with a heart condition. They actually flicked the switch which inflicted the pain and watched the patient squirm.

But data from all 25 versions and the unedited film version show a different story. When faced with the prospect of inflicting pain, possibly fatal pain, 65 per cent of participants disobeyed. Most of them were edited out so that Milgram could publish the conclusions upon which he had based his facts.

Similarly, the Stanford prison experiment purported to prove that people would ultimately morph and conform into their assigned role as submissive prisoner or brutal guard. Again Millard says people are not dumb automatons who will respond blindly to the dictates of those in authority.

Both experimenters made films of their work and perhaps that is why the experiments became part of the collective subconscious – we do love a drama.

The past week’s events show we do, indeed, love a drama. We have seen the dramatic rise and fall of Campbell Newman. We have seen the plotters circle Tony Caesar.

But what of followership? Migram wanted to understand how was it possible that a cultured society sank so low in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. His answer was that humans will obey the authority figure.

He warped his data to prove the point.

But maybe he had it partly right. Humans might well respond to the authority figure in times of extreme economic and social turmoil, but that should not be mistaken for a general proposition of the human condition.

Milgram’s documentary portrayed pseudonymous Fred Prozi, an obedient subject, as typical. He wavered and agonized a bit before obediently pushing the lever to inflict pain. He also had the defiant Subject 2514, a balding man in business attire, who resisted the Experimenter’s demands. But Subject 2514 was described as part of a very small aberrant minority. Subject 2514 was told by the Experimenter to push the lever.

“You have no choice. You must go on,” said the Experimenter. 

 “Oh, I have plenty of choices,” said 2514, folding his arms.

Millard now reveals Subject 2514 was, in fact, not a minority, but part of a two-thirds majority.

And events in Queensland last Saturday say the same thing.

It would be entertaining if it were not so sad. Could it be that for the past 50 years all of those advisers with politics/history/sociology/psychology/economics degrees with the Obedience to the Authority study as part of their collective subconscious have been telling their political masters the wrong thing? 

We know they have been telling their political masters to portray themselves as “strong” leaders. Gosh, how many times have we heard “strong” from Campbell Newman, Tony Abbott and others. Did they do so imagining that the Obedience to Authority study would kick in and the voters would follow?

Now it seems the Obedience to Authority theory is bunk. Voters do not want to give potentially fatal electric shocks to the indefensible – pension cuts, higher student fees, high medical costs and so on. Voters are more like Subject 2514 – “I have plenty of choices.”

Subject 2514 clearly exercised one of those choices in Queensland last Saturday.

Modern politicians should leave the disproved “strong leader” routine for the 1930s – especially now that the psychological theory behind it has been debunked.

“Strong” leaders have been complaining over the past few years about “volatile” electors and a “volatile” electorate. But surely it is the other way around. The consistent electorate is sick of “volatile”, “strong”, “inconsistent” leaders.

In the early 1960s, Milgram asked the right question: why do people obey or follow? He just got the wrong answer (or got the right answer but did not like it so manipulated his own answer in its place), as Millard has shown.

So, in a week of navel gazing and lint picking over leadership, maybe those seeking leadership should ask the question: what, who and why do people follow.

And in doing that they should always remember Subject 2514’s response: “I have plenty of choices.”