I’m a fervent fan of psychology’s so-called “Obedience Studies.” You know the ones – Stanley Milgram instructing experimental subjects to supposedly deliver 450 mind-shredding volts of electricity to hapless word-pair learners – more than sixty percent of the participants repeatedly complied. Or Solomon Asch getting line-viewing students to crumble like dough boys in the face of peer pressure so as to not believe what they’re seeing. How about Phil Zimbardo inducing goody-goody, upper middle class undergrads at Stanford to become abusive perps in the famous “prison experiment,” which he had to abruptly stop before it even got going?
But my favorite obedience experiment is Ron Jones answering his Cubberly Palo Alto High School students’ questions about how good German people could stand by and do nothing to stop Hitler’s atrocities. To find out, Jones invited the students to join his exclusive, special national organization, The Third Wave, promoting “Strength Through Discipline.” In doing so, Jones tricked his students into a first-hand discovery of the best answer possible to the question of “how could they?” Those students received an unforgettable answer: those Good Germans of course … are us! And of course, as Jones himself probably would have predicted, the cave-to-pressure Palo Alto School Board fired him for his efforts.
I like to think my extensive knowledge of these kinds of shenanigans, not to mention my subscription to Fraud Magazine, makes me immune to such manipulation. But my growing knowledge of how our brains work however, convinces me that I am not immune in the least. Individually, few of us are.
When my own daughter was growing up, I would periodically encourage her to be less obedient. I would offer to increase her allowance to deliberately get words wrong on a spelling test. I would occasionally get her to play hooky from school to go to a movie matinée, and I would often ask her questions intended to make her question both my and her mother’s authority. I was apparently pretty successful in helping her grow a brain with a very “flexible” attitude towards authority: she’s 27 and a union organizer of disadvantaged minorities, and she doesn’t take much guff from people, including shop stewards, me or her mother. She’s more than willing to call a spade a spade and speak out against the injustices in the world. I’m proud of her that way.
Obedience as Brain Inhibitor
I’m pretty convinced that not questioning authority works against optimal neurological development. Obedient people often end up as victims of Robert Sapolsky’s four neurodegeneration factors. Obedience is different than being respectful, of course. When we’re adamantly required to be obedient, we lose a lot of personal control. Think Paul Newman as Cool Hand Luke. Outside agents controlled his behavior. It is just the opposite of an internal locus of control, which seems to work better for brain development and for questioning or resisting authority in all its various guises.
Oppressive or obedient cultures or circumstances often produce conditions that backfire on both the oppressors and the oppressed, resulting in little predictability. Luke is frequently at the effect of an unpredictable warden, one who has him dig holes for the hell of it, only to fill them in once they’re dug, while the menacing man in the mirrored glasses constantly hovers about as an additional neural inhibitor. How often do we as parents operate as wardens and prison guards for our own kids? How well does that work for us?
How does Luke deal with little personal control and the allostatic emotional load of unpredictability? Not very well. He overeats – 50 hardboiled eggs in an hour – gets into fights, and gets thrown in the “Hot Box.” Poor stress management techniques if you want to survive in the real world, never mind a prison in the muggy middle of an oppressive Florida summer. And while Luke had lots of allies egging him on (so to speak), they wouldn’t exactly qualify as effective social support. Luke recognizes they are essentially “feeding off” him, and their “failure to communicate” ultimately plays a powerful supporting role in Luke’s demise.
Modeling Disobedience Civilly
So how do we combat Sapolsky’s four neurodegenerators and still raise kids who can get along in the world? One way is to mirror and model less obedience and more questioning of authority in our own roles as parents. I’m constantly urging parents not to take my or any expert’s word for anything, but rather, take the things I say with a grain of salt. Find allies to help continually ask and answer the Two Perilous Questions, and assess what’s real and true and works in your own life. Doing that as a parent will very likely not go unnoticed by our kids. And they’ll have an authoritative model to draw on when life, as it inevitably will, tries to get them to conform and obey.