Friday, 6 July 2012



An interesting piece from the Association for Psychological Science a reinterpretation of Milgram’s famous experiment on the power of authority figures.
I posted on Milgram last year.

Not Obedience But Followership

Despite the rich array of explanations in the literature, the dominant view remains that the destructiveness of Milgram’s participants is a product of blind obedience to authority. However, we suggest that it can instead be understood as an act of engaged followership that flows from social identification with those in positions of leadership—leadership that is a source of “shared comprehension, consonance and synchronization”

Slightly high-flown language, but an interesting viewpoint I’d say. What the writer seems to be getting at are the positive social gains from being a follower – from followership as the writer puts it. To me, followership does a pretty good job as the word I was looking for in my recent post. bad-faith-not-quite.

This moves us away from a dominant viewpoint that has prevailed within and beyond the academic world for nearly half a century—a viewpoint suggesting that people engage in barbaric acts because they have little insight into what they are doing and conform slavishly to the will of those in authority.

Unfortunately I don’t think this claim works. There is surely no need to see Milgram’s subjects as having little insight into what they are doing. In fact it obviously isn’t likely to be true. Spoils the argument in my view, but no matter. The piece finishes with:-

Against this, and together with a growing body of historical and social psychological evidence, the present data move us toward the conclusion that agents of brutality act as they do under the influence of a leadership with which they are socially identified. To the extent that this identity is salient (and competing identities are not), this provides them with their moral compass. It also motivates them to act as followers, willing to do what it takes to work toward the collective goals that the leader sets out. Followership of this form is not thoughtless. It is the conscious endeavor of committed subjects.”

It’s not that we didn’t know this, but sometimes there are gains to be had from casting even simple ideas into other words. Not always, but I like the idea of followership. Not a common word, nothing like as common as leadership, but maybe it should be, especially in view of the obvious dichotomy.

Again, it’s not a new dichotomy, it's a viewpoint I've held for years, but not in these words. Words can help or hinder and I think leadership/followership helps. It brings out the symbiotic benefits and damage the dichotomy can lead to. And I use the word lead deliberately here, because it isn't often clear who, if anyone, leads the dichotomy.

So the idea suits my personal biases and what more can a chap ask?

Leadership isn't so much about leading as providing a social framework for followership. Followership isn't so much about following as providing a social framework for leadership. Science, as the article suggests, was presented to Milgram subjects as a shared social enterprise for which their followership was both required and willingly given.

In Milgram’s research, participants act as they do to the extent that they believe in, and hence are committed to, the scientific enterprise that the experimenter is leading more than they are committed to the well-being of ordinary members of the community as represented by the learner. Note, too, that Milgram went to great lengths to engender and promote this identification by emphasizing the scientific credentials and importance of the research (not least through careful design of apparatus and procedures).

So maybe we should see lay supporters of climate propaganda simply as willing supporters of the scientific enterprise. The propagandist climate leadership (some of them) are applauded by a naive followership who provide social approval for increasingly foolish claims.

Critics find it difficult to make much of an impact on such an incestuous dichotomy, because generally they provide neither an alternative leadership nor followership.


Anonymous said...

Possibly tells us more about the relationship between Yale students and lab-rats. No matter, if you think about Nazi Germany which of us would refuse to slam the gas-chamber door? The choice being them or me and my family? There is the nub.

Now move on to the corporate world. If you are young and ambitious and want to move up the incentive is to look sharp. You soon learn what works in selling and in filling out expenses, if you don't you get sidelined. Later on darker skills are needed to keep up with alimony, private school fees and that little French property. This is not identifying with the boss, this is plain survival. Hence bankers and dodgy journalists.

Now take the recent M6-Electrofag incident, looks like ridiculous overeaction. But look at the incentives driving the officer in charge - if you say 'sod it, it's only an Electrofag' you are liable to get carpeted, so call out the cavalry and make a meal of it, no-one dare criticise you. Incentives and Best Practice manuals, the road to hell is paved with them.

A K Haart said...

Roger - I agree, it is survival and that's why it won't go away. It leads to all kinds of problems as you say, but it also provides the only real social glue we seem to have come up with.

Those of us who try to stand outside can only do so to a limited degree and even then it may be personally damaging.

Mark Wadsworth said...

The whole of society, i.e. the nation-state is based on the idea of 'followership'. Now, it happens that nation-states are a good way of organising things, or at least, better than all the alternatives, being either anarchy, permanent warfare or empires, but it just shows how flimsy the whole thing is.

A K Haart said...

Mark - it is flimsy, and easy to abuse, yet we can't do without it.

James Higham said...

People will always follow the one who appears to have the answers.

A K Haart said...

James - yes they will, and this feeds on itself because we tend to trust consensus.