The Psychology of Tyranny
October 19, 2005 11:59 AM   Subscribe

The Psychology of Tyranny - A 1971 Stanford University experiment seemed to prove that power corrupts, and absolute power corrects absolutely - and perhaps recent world and national events would bear that out. But is it really power that's the problem? A recent study [more from researchers, here] from the Universities of St Andrews and Exeter suggests that it isn't power - but the failure of those who are anti-tyranny to themselves exercise appropriate power and to work together - that is more to blame for tyranny's results. If true, what needs to change to push back against tyranny in the world today? [first post, btw]
posted by muckalucka (22 comments total)
We just do what we're told to do.
posted by Rothko at 12:10 PM on October 19, 2005

Tyranny can work both ways. Perhaps part of the dynamic of tyranny could include the impotence of those who might wish to oppose it, especially where there is a risk to the individual, even if might ensure the survival of the whole.

Think of what would have happened had every concentration camp member simultaneously rushed their guards. Many would have died in the attempt, but eventually they would have won,b but it is much, much easier said than done, especially when so much of that system was devoted to preemptively quelling even such thoughts - and how that sort of power can itself quell such serious contemplation of rebellion.

Neat post! I'm not done reading everything...
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:22 PM on October 19, 2005

Meh, that Commondreams article reads like a re-hash of the "no plane flew into the Pentagon" crap. Can you point me to a trustworthy source on the "stolen" elections? I'm willing to entertain the notion, but not on the basis of a bunch of random stitched together anecdotes.

Also, I object to the equation of "anti-tyranny" with "Democrat." Come on.
posted by footnote at 12:30 PM on October 19, 2005

......what about... "secret power"corrupts secretly.antidote..:
posted by hortense at 12:34 PM on October 19, 2005

Wow, this is the most elaborate example of blaming the victim I have ever seen. So it's not natural for people to descend into brutality because in the presence of an appropriately well-organized anti-tyrannical group this descent can be avoided. And these strong anti-tyrannical groups are supposed to emerge from where, exactly?
posted by localroger at 12:39 PM on October 19, 2005

/long post - but lotsa questions

The particulars on the election, the GOP, and the vote count business aside (I agree with some points, disagree with others - certainly a very debatable topic) - I believe in general it's because people don't take or want responsibility; which is married to power.

One can blame the media, the victim mentality or whatever, but this is a trait that has been there for quite a while.

When you do get someone who is willing to grasp the sword, they get the choice by other sword bearers - join or die. (Silver or lead is an apt choice example).
Personally I just split from the whole program (neither).

Many people tho will just sit there until someone with 'authority' does come along.
Just a recently my wife and I went out to dinner and traffic in the parking lot was all backed up and locked. So I went out and started directing traffic. I told a few people to move this way or that. One guy in a pickup truck asked me who was. (Very common question in Chicago - along with - who knows you?)

The question is - who do I have to be to have this authority?
I'm just a guy who wants to get home, fixing the problem. I'd have been more than happy to let him do it. But for the most part before I got there, people were just blowing their horns.

Do I then have 'authority'? Should people have challenged my authority to tell them what to do? Once I got people moving - more people seemed willing to listen to me. Is that a good thing?

If the guy in the truck opposed me, is he morally right? Is he opposing tyrrany? Obviously were I making the problem worse overall I should be disregarded, but my choices in moving cars were relative to unlocking the logjam, not being fair. So some people had to sit there longer than if I had gotten involved. Should they have opposed me?

I suspect the reason we often follow orders is because we're not certain that whoever is in charge is really screwing the pooch overall even if it is against our personal best interest.

And really, look at what happens to those who do oppose tyrrany.
"Oh he was so brave and wonderful and let's have a holiday in his name" That's great, but he was spat on and reviled in his lifetime and ultimately assassinated/executed/etc (Pick anyone from Jesus to MLK)

And then some of those who did stand up are co-opted ("Villiens ye are and Villiens ye shall remain")

And they're subject to the same foibles as the rest of us and the tyrants. Perhaps they're overzealous. Perhaps they pull the revolution off but become tyrants themselves.

Really, it's an extraordinarially risky business. Probably why it takes so long or takes such major changes to remove the shackles.

"We just do what we're told to do."
posted by Rothko at 12:10 PM PST on October 19 [!]

Please continue.

(I remember watching that film. Creepy)
posted by Smedleyman at 12:41 PM on October 19, 2005

"All that is needed for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
posted by mystyk at 12:44 PM on October 19, 2005

Das Experiment (IMDB)

Of course the study also inspired a band.
posted by shoepal at 12:46 PM on October 19, 2005

Due to various jobs I've held, I've had many occasions to watch folks NOT stand up to authority - even when they were right, even when they had backing to do so, even when to NOT do so was idiotic. At one time, I worked for an enforcement agency, and I went out of my way to tell people who'd been cited just exactly what their rights were under the law, where and how to complain if they felt the inspectors weren't correct, and so on. I even told a few that I felt our department had acted in error to cite them - and offered to say that in whatever manner assisted them. Not one person even tried. I found that so completely depressing that 3 years later I finally left the entire field.

Now, watching the Bush/et al goings-on, and seeing them so often unopposed (in word and/or deed) by those who actually might be able to do something (or muster others together to do something), I'm equally depressed. So far, though, I haven't figured out how to leave the entire globe...
posted by muckalucka at 12:59 PM on October 19, 2005

posted by C.Batt at 1:14 PM on October 19, 2005

A paper by the researchers.

Political analysts often talk about the importance of local centers of power, which can serve to balance the power of the state. For example, Tocqueville compares an aristocratic society to a mountainous terrain which is difficult to conquer, whereas a democratic (i.e. equal) society is more like a vast plain with a single center of power, namely the state:
... when men are all alike they are all weak, and the supreme power of the state is naturally much stronger among democratic nations than elsewhere. ...

A great aristocratic people cannot either conquer its neighbors or be conquered by them without great difficulty. It cannot conquer them because all its forces can never be collected and held together for a considerable period; it cannot be conquered because an enemy meets at every step small centers of resistance, by which invasion is arrested. War against an aristocracy may be compared to war in a mountainous country; the defeated party has constant opportunities of rallying its forces to make a stand in a new position.

Exactly the reverse occurs among democratic nations: they easily bring their whole disposable force into the field, and when the nation is wealthy and populous it soon becomes victorious; but if it is ever conquered and its territory invaded, it has few resources at command; and if the enemy takes the capital, the nation is lost. This may very well be explained: as each member of the community is individually isolated and extremely powerless, no one of the whole body can either defend himself or present a rallying point to others. Nothing is strong in a democratic country except the state; as the military strength of the state is destroyed by the destruction of the army, and its civil power paralyzed by the capture of the chief city, all that remains is only a multitude without strength or government, unable to resist the organized power by which it is assailed.
Another example, in the Long Telegram, George F. Kennan comments on the methods of Soviet rule under Stalin.
In foreign countries Communists will, as a rule, work toward destruction of all forms of personal independence, economic, political, or moral. Their system can handle only individuals who have been brought into complete dependence on higher power. Thus persons who are financially independent - such as individual businessmen, estate owners, successful farmers, artisans, and all those who exercise local leadership or have local prestige, such as popular local clergymen or political figures, are anathema. It is not by chance that the USSR local officials are kept constantly on move from one job to another.
posted by russilwvong at 1:58 PM on October 19, 2005

Meh, that Commondreams article reads like a re-hash of the "no plane flew into the Pentagon" crap. Can you point me to a trustworthy source on the "stolen" elections?

Meh sounds suspiciously like Baaaaa to me.

Trustworthy you want? Tall order - do you trust the New York Times? You should be willing to take a critical look at everything, not assume some "brands" are inherently trustable. Investigate, make up your own mind.

here are some sources which you should not "trust" but understand...

Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair

Mark Crispin Miller in Harper's

House Judiciary Committee Democratic Staff report, What Went Wrong in Ohio? (3Mb PDF file, executive summary here)

Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility

Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery

how about the Daily Show?
posted by dinsdale at 2:06 PM on October 19, 2005

You should be willing to take a critical look at everything, not assume some "brands" are inherently trustable. Investigate, make up your own mind.

I don't investigate; that's what I pay for a newspaper for. And the breathless hyperbole of Commondreams makes me believe that their investigations aren't worth much.
posted by footnote at 2:47 PM on October 19, 2005

what needs to change to push back against tyranny in the world today?

Saul Alinsky.

A recent study ... suggests that it isn't power - but the failure of those who are anti-tyranny to themselves exercise appropriate power and to work together - that is more to blame for tyranny's results.

That's a severely dysfunctional reading of the results.

"The problems arose when people were reluctant to exercise their power and couldn’t make their democratic system work. That was when even those most committed to democracy began to be drawn to authoritarian solutions." -- a restatement of Burke's all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men
do nothing

In a sense, yes, there's truth to putting it this we. We always get the government we deserve, because we have always had the power to change it.

Morally, however, this does not absolve those in power for choosing tyranny.

Blame, then, is surely the wrong word to use, unless we're chastising rape victims for wearing short skirts, again.

A salient feature of tyrannical and totalitarian governments has always been gradual elimination of centers of power which are not connected to the hierarchy. Sometimes, a weak tyranny can only succeed by allying itself with one of these power structures -- religion, commerce, military. Thenceforth they will absorb and reshape that unit's own hierarchy. In a wider sense, they will develop a homing instinct towards other power structures, find them, and destroy them as best they can. The free press will be closed down. The internet will be blocked or monitored. Travel will be restricted. Dissidents will be jailed or killed. The purpose is to break down the possibility of populist organization. Under the determined attack by a state apparatus, few independent social movements could succeed.

It's an unfortunate truth that even successful ground-up revolutions only achieve their goals when they are backed by extant power structures. In Ukraine, the Orange Revolution only worked because a key security organization switched sides. Our own revolution might not have been possible without the timely assistance of pre-revolutionary France.
posted by dhartung at 2:54 PM on October 19, 2005

dhartung, you seem to have missed some of the results and conclusions.

Blame, then, is surely the wrong word to use, unless we're chastising rape victims for wearing short skirts, again.

Rape victims aren't what's being discussed - though that's certainly a good vault towards derailing the real point:
failing to act. In this event, it has more to do with those who witness the "rape" - and yet still do not act. And in that case, it IS about blame, because it's about shirking personal responsibility.
posted by muckalucka at 3:30 PM on October 19, 2005

what needs to change to push back against tyranny in the world today?

Well, the first thing we need to do is make sure we're totally disarmed, just like the Warsaw Ghetto was.

No, wait a minute...
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:28 PM on October 19, 2005

Oops. Here's that link.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:31 PM on October 19, 2005

Interesting first post Muckalucka. I've long been fascinated by the Stanford Prison Experiment. Not sure I agree entirely with the St. Andrews group's conclusions, although I am most likely missing some nuances. The breakdown or failure of groups that would be opposed to the tyrannical party may be essential. However, this presumes the potential tyrant does not already possess sufficient power. If the opposing groups have the power to stop the tyrant, but use it ineffectively, that failure could be said to enable a particular tyrant, but does it say anything about human nature?

I feel the more pertinent role is played by the guard or officer acting on behalf of the tyrant, finding some rationale to set aside his or her own moral code. I suspect the Stanford experiment would have gone radically different if, right at the beginning, just one guard had the conviction to tell the others "Hey, Good people don't treat others like this." Set a different behavioral example, and the others might realize how badly they are breaking their own codes. Timing would have been important, because once a behavior is accepted, its tough to change. Schools should make Milgram or Zimbardo style exercises part of a citizenship curriculum.

I have often wondered, what I would have done if I were in Abu Ghraib. I like to think that, had I been stationed on that night shift, I would have had the courage to step between Spc Graner and one of his victims, but if I am honest with myself, I don't know.
posted by MetalDog at 4:50 PM on October 19, 2005

"corrects absolutely?"

Dude, that's funny.
posted by mwhybark at 4:51 PM on October 19, 2005

"what needs to change to push back against tyranny in the world today?"- Well, for one thing the US left needs to become re-engaged with the democratic process at a grassroots level.

I like Metaldog's suggestion too - I'd advocate teaching people about what is known of human instinctual inclinations - good and bad.

I've done a number of posts on this theme and have little time at the moment to dig them up, but look up this book :

"Becoming Evil"

"In his new book Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing (Oxford University Press), social psychologist and Whitworth psychology professor James Waller draws from seven years of research to mount an original argument for understanding why political, social and religious groups wanting to commit mass murder are never hindered by a lack of willing executioners.

Philip Zimbardo, president of the American Psychological Association and professor of psychology at Stanford University, asserts that "government leaders and the public would be well served to learn some of the many valuable lessons effectively presented throughout James Waller's original perspective on the psychological processes involved in the transformation of ordinary people into perpetrators of evil deeds."

Written for both scholars and laypeople and drawing on eyewitness accounts from perpetrators, victims and bystanders, Waller's Becoming Evil refutes many of the standard explanations for antisocial behavior and presents four ingredients that lead ordinary people to commit acts of extraordinary evil. Waller contends that being aware of our own capacity for inhumane cruelty, and knowing how to cultivate the moral sensibilities that curb that capacity, are the best safeguards we can have against future genocide and mass killing.

"To offer a psychological explanation for the atrocities committed by perpetrators is not to forgive, justify or condone their behavior," Waller states in his preface. "Instead, the explanation simply allows us to understand the conditions under which many of us could be transformed into killing machines. When we understand the ordinariness of extraordinary evil, we will be less surprised by evil, less likely to be unwitting contributors to evil, and perhaps better equipped to forestall evil." "

Chris Hedges' "War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning" is relevant here as well.
posted by troutfishing at 5:10 PM on October 19, 2005

muckalucka, and I mean this sincerely, if you wish to communicate the results of a study, don't mess it up by linking to random shit in the post, and don't try to frame it yourself (leading questions are problematic in posts anyway).

This is one of the papers' conclusions:

More specifically, our analysis suggests that tyranny is not the inherent consequence of groups and power but rather of the failure of groups and powerlessness. It is when people fail to achieve a common social identity that they feel weak, helpless, humiliated, and resentful of others. It is when people cannot work together to create their own social order that they begin to find something attractive in extreme forms of order imposed by others. We therefore suggest that rather than striving to make people fearful of groups and power (fears that led to the dysfunctionality of the Guards in our study), we should encourage them to work together to develop collective systems that allow them to use power responsibly

To me, the word "failure" here is used more in the sense of broken rather than mistaken. The lesson you're drawing is about "those who are anti-tyranny" (an odd way to put it), when the lesson is really about "people".

I would say that the Stanford/Zimbrardo study has been used in an Objectivist sense to say that collective action is bad, thus individual action is good. This study says instead that collective action can be functional or dysfunctional.
posted by dhartung at 7:26 PM on October 19, 2005

"And in that case, it IS about blame, because it's about shirking personal responsibility."
posted by muckalucka at 3:30 PM PST on October 19 [!]

So to further use the 'rape' metaphor, your talking Kitty Geovese.

I don't know. I don't believe there are such clear cut cases in the instance of revolution or resistance.
The major concern is the degree of force used.

In the case of Kitty, I would likely have left her attackers' heads on fenceposts as a warning to others.
Hyperbole aside, at the very least a righteous beating. I wouldn't be too concerned about killing them (by some accounts there were 3 to 5, fair enough).

Resistance (on the larger scale) is more like surgery than straightforward violence.
There is no clear cut rape occuring. Even - I'll say 'often' - when groups are crying 'rape.'
(There are countless examples of groups portraying themselves as victims to power).

Deciphering what the problem is can be problematic.
In addition there is the dependence we have on aspects of power.

If it is 'rape' it's more akin to child sexual assault by a parent. How then, as an outsider does one proceed? Even cops have problems with that. You can't just blow one of the parents away.
Indeed, what if you're wrong? You investigate, initially it seems like the dad, you take the kids away. Ultimately a DNA test reveals it's one of the uncles.
Whoops. Now you've done the damage of taking the kids away from someone they depended on. You made the situation worse.

There are many anaolgies here to politics and it was more than once in our history that innocent men were tarred and feathered in the name of liberty.
Or worse, in the name of the ascendancy of some other power group.
(Gaze into the abyss n' all that)
posted by Smedleyman at 10:57 AM on October 20, 2005

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