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People Do Not Conform Blindly, They Believe They are Right: Study

Update Date: Nov 21, 2012 08:45 AM EST

Time and again, it has been seen that even mentally sound, decent people can engage in acts of extreme cruelty when instructed to do so by others.

There have been social psychological studies conducted and published in the 1960s and 70s on the subject.

Recently, professors Alex Haslam and Stephen Reicher revisited the study findings and concluded that awful acts involve not just obedience, but enthusiasm too. The conclusions drawn by them as a result of the analysis of previous studies conducted decades ago challenged the notion that human beings are 'programmed' for conformity.

There were two landmark empirical research programs conducted by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo in the 1960s and early 1970s. While Milgram's 'Obedience to Authority' research is widely believed to show that people blindly conform to the instructions of an authoritative figure, Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) shows that people will take on abusive roles without questioning them.

However, the current study by professor Haslam, from the University of Queensland, argues that dictatorship is not a result of blind conformity to rules and roles, but is a result of a person identifying with authorities who represent vicious acts as virtuous.

"Decent people participate in horrific acts not because they become passive, mindless functionaries who do not know what they are doing, but rather because they come to believe-typically under the influence of those in authority-that what they are doing is right," Haslam explained.

Professor Reicher, from the University of St. Andrews, adds that it is not that people did not understand what they were doing was wrong, but rather because they believed it to be right.

The conclusions of the study are drawn partly considering professors Haslam and Reicher's own prison experiment conducted in 2002.

There were three conclusions of the study:

First- participants did not conform automatically to the roles assigned to them

Second- they only acted in terms of group membership to the extent that they identified with the group

Third- group identity did not mean that people simply accepted their assigned position - it also empowered them to resist it, the report said.

While the findings of the classic studies by Zimbardo and Milgram remain highly influential, Haslam argues that under close observational studies, these conclusions do not hold up well.

The essay was published Nov. 20 in the open access journal PLoS Biology.

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