The age of extreme opinions

The age of extreme opinions December 24, 2014

Connor Wood

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It’s almost Christmas. As a present, accept several shiny new entries for your “questionable writing about science” folder. (Everyone has one of those, right?) Recently, a group of French researchers published an ingenious experiment that tested whether certain types of people would be more likely to obey instructions to harm others. As it turned out, people with two personality traits – agreeableness and conscientiousness – were more willing to obey violent orders. This interesting finding should give us all pause. Of course, this being the Internet, excitable science bloggers weren’t content to leave it at that. Instead, they spun it into yet another reason to celebrate the cyber age’s favorite hero: the hyper-individualistic, anti-authoritarian übermensch.

For the study, the research team, led by Laurent Bègue of the University of Grenoble-Alpes, recapitulated the infamous 1960s Milgram experiments. You probably know about these: Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram and his lab techs ordered research participants to give volunteers dangerous electric “shocks.” The shocks were fake – and so were the cries of pain coming from the “volunteers” who were concealed from view. Despite believing that they were causing intense pain to fellow humans, a staggering number of participants – around 65 percent – obeyed the researchers’ orders until they reached supposedly lethal levels of voltage.

Creepy, no? For more than fifty years, the Milgram experiment has stood as the paradigmatic warning against the frightening human tendency to obey authority, even at the expense of others. Think Nazi prison guards, or adolescent in-crowd pressure: some people will bashfully submit to authority no matter the consequences. And the consequences can be dire indeed.

Now, in the twenty-first century, Bègue and colleagues wanted to see whether people’s personality traits would predict whether they were among the obeyers. They rehashed the original experimental setup, but couched it as a television game show pilot. A confederate was designated as the “contestant,” who would be answering quiz questions. The research participants themselves were designated the “questioners,” and their jobs were to ask the quiz questions and to administer electric shocks when the contestants gave the wrong answer. The voltages of the shocks increased as the contestant gave more incorrect answers.

Eight months later, the researchers called the subjects and asked a variety of personality questions. They then ran statistical analyses on subjects’ personality profiles and their behavior in the Milgram experiment.

As the researchers had hypothesized, agreeableness and conscientiousness – two of the “Big Five” personality traits –  predicted willingness to shock the contestants on command. This isn’t surprising, since conscientiousness and agreeableness are related to social conformity and the desire to get along with others. In the authors’ words:

People with agreeable dispositions avoid violating norms or upsetting others, and they easily comply with social expectations.…(and) conscientiousness predicts obedience to others’ demands.

So: people who comply with expectations and obey demands are…well, more likely to comply and obey. (This finding brought to you by the Department of Redundancy Department!*) In general,  people who are more socially compliant obey authority more readily – including when that authority orders them to do things that aren’t very nice.

But what about the other side of the personality spectrum – the people who aren’t compliant, agreeable, or conscientious? Bègue et al.’s work suggests that such folks will be less likely to obey a harmful order. This borders on being self-evident, of course, given that noncompliant and disagreeable people are less likely to obey any orders, period. After all, these are the sorts of people who have “Question Authority” bumperstickers on their cars. They aren’t keen on having others tell them what to do.

Despite the circular reasoning, though, it’s good when people refuse evil orders. It’s good to have that disagreeable, anti-authoritarian friend when the Man has got you down (seriously). In fact, Bègue and colleagues suggest that any society probably needs some disagreeable and noncompliant people:

some behaviors that may disrupt social functioning, such as political activism, may express and even strengthen individual dispositions that are both useful and essential to the whole society, at least in some critical moments.

However, they’re also careful to point out that agreeableness and conscientiousness are desirable for interpersonal and family relationships. These traits facilitate the day-in, day-out habits that make relationships work – looking for common ground in arguments, or washing dishes before they pile up in the sink.

So it looks like this is another case of the age-old truism that every gift is two-sided.† Personality traits that are desirable in one context are can be harmful in another – and vice-versa. Right?

Not in cyberspace. Here are some of science blog headlines covering the French research: “Beware of the Nice Ones: Those ‘Nice’ People May Actually Be the Most Dangerous.” “Are Polite People More Violent and Destructive?” “Psychologists Have Uncovered a Troubling Feature of People Who Seem Nice All the Time.

Each of these is a near-screed against conformists, squares, Republicans, and other undesirables. From Bègue’s careful research, science writers drew the hyperbolic conclusion that we ought to be suspicious of agreeable, conscientious people. The morally admirable folks are the ones who buck all authority, who refuse orders and don’t worry whether other people like them. One pop-science writer, Eileen Shim, gleefully summed up the lot: “nice people just want to appease authorities, while rebels stick to their guns.”

Yes, that is clearly it. Agreeable and conscientious people are sheeple who follow lunatic orders. This leads inexorably to Auschwitz. Meanwhile, the disagreeable sorts are actually noble provocateurs, sticking it to the man by being their nonconformist individualistic selves, like all those people in Converse advertisements.

Yes, I am being snarky. Why do these bloggers make me so irritable?

– WARNING: Jeremiad Commences Below –

Because we live in a postmodern echo chamber in which the dependable responsibility that makes human life possible is the butt of every smug joke. This is an age in which reflexive anti-authoritarianism is no longer cute or helpful.

Think of culture like a car, driving down a highway. One side of the road is conformism, tradition, self-discipline, collectivism, rule and order. The other is the side of exploration, novelty, individualism, mistrust of authority, and departure from tradition. In order to drive in a straight line, you have to constantly adjust your steering wheel left and right. These subtle micro-adjustments (hopefully) cancel out, keeping you moving steadily forwards.

We are not doing that. Since the 1950s, our culture has been lurching like a crazed baboon from one side of the highway to the other, crossing entire lanes and swerving into oncoming traffic. Instead of gently balancing these two vital tendencies, we are jerking the car wildly. The individualistic, anti-authoritarian rebellion of the 1960s was an unprecedented lurch to the left. The Reaganite 1980s were a massive overcorrection back to the right. And so forth.

The rise of the Internet has magnified this extremism to Biblical proportions. It has unleashed an unprecedented tsunami of raw individualism across culture’s shores. Suddenly, all the anti-authoritarian, disagreeable nonconformists who had been lurking harmlessly in their bedrooms have a platform. The general tenor of Internet culture has quickly coalesced around a variety of social attitudes common to nonconformists: atheism, social egalitarianism, libertarian principles, baffled mistrust of tradition and authority.

This has happened partly because the disembodied nature of Internet communication strongly facilitates atomism and individualism. Across history, advances in written communication have sparked increases in individualism, or what sociologist Adam Seligman calls “sincerity:” the assumption that only our inner beliefs matter, that external social standards are irrelevant to one’s inner world. The Protestant reformation is a perfect example; inspired by the new printing press, Protestants decided that church authority and rituals were unnecessary, that every believer was her own priest and was subject only to her own, internal faith.

The blog posts about Bègue’s research are rife with a secular version of this attitude. The poor agreeable schmucks who obey an external authority are pitied. The noble, rebellious individualists who look to themselves for instruction are lauded as the self-evidently better people.

Now, let’s be clear – in the context of the Milgram paradigm, the bold nonconformists are actually more likely to make the morally right decision. But this doesn’t mean, as Eileen Shim believes, that there is something inherently untrustworthy and dangerous about compliant, agreeable people. The absence of these traits correlates with psychoticism and anti-sociality. Conscientiousness and agreeableness are what make social life possible. People who are more conscientious and agreeable are less likely to attempt suicide, have higher self-esteem, and have fewer road rage problems. Conscientious people also get better grades, while agreeable people have better marriages.

Of course, the individualist personality is vital, too. Across cultures, conscientious and agreeable people are much more likely to be religious and conservative. Although this means that religious and conservative people are the ones who invest in the social institutions that keep culture going, it also means they’re more likely to also follow the herd when it goes bad places. In Bègue et al.’s paper, political leftists were among the least likely to shock others. Female political activists also refused the harmful orders. And recent research has found that, disgracefully, religious Americans are more likely to support torture than the nonreligious.

What’s more, agreeable, conscientious people probably aren’t as creative. As I’ve written before (controversially), the religiously faithful are often less artistically fertile, in large part because in most cultures religiousness is a proxy for conventionality. This means that people with what psychologist Hans Eysenck called “psychotic” personality traits – a lack of conscientiousness or desire to get along with others – are often highly creative.

In an ideal world, these personality types would balance one another. Conscientious, agreeable people would appreciate the valuable insights and unexpected moral instincts of outsiders and iconoclasts. Individualistic rebels would understand that conscientious, agreeable types are the ones who keep culture alive, who ensure society hums along so that we, the most social mammals the world has ever seen, can keep exploring.

But right now, the pendulum has swung too far. All we get are reminders of the awfulness of rule-following and the nobility of individualism and rebellion. Example? When research on religion goes viral, it’s always the stuff that gleefully highlights some weakness or flaw: that religious people are less analytical thinkers, or that they’re dumber. The hundreds of papers each year shedding light on more positive facets of religion – such as that people who partake in difficult rituals together are more generous – sink like a stone.

The only stories we want to read are reflexively hostile toward tradition, convention, and religion. Clearly, rebellion and irreligion are essential ingredients for any culture, because they help put the brakes on injustice and bad ideas. But in the age of the Internet, this basic truth has been inflated into a wholesale celebration of vapid iconoclasm. As someone who has experienced the very worst results of throwing away all the careful restraints of tradition, I think this is utter madness. I would like it to stop now. I want us, as a culture, to stop lurching all over the road, and to start correcting left and right more carefully and appropriately – to realize that we need both sides of this car.


* Have you ever listened to the Firesign Theatre? If you haven’t, you should.

† The word “Gift” means “poison” in German, nicely illustrating exactly this paradox.

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