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Exploring the Good Kind of Disobedience

Torture, Milgram and the Hoffman Report

Image by Särmä metsätunnelmissa/Flickr/Creative Commons license
Source: Image by Särmä metsätunnelmissa/Flickr/Creative Commons license

As children and then adolescents we have to decide what rules to obey and what authority figures to follow. As conscientious parents we teach our kids to obey authority. And then in a professional life of many years, proud of the profession that touches and upholds us, we read the Hoffman report (this recent independent report of the American Psychological Association (APA) has gotten much attention for the role psychologists took in the torture scandals of the Iraq War), or the commentaries, and we wonder what obedience-to-authority algorithm was at play that could lead to such darkness.

We may try to distance ourselves from this torture scandal and leave it to others to think about, but if you read the posts in Psychology Today by some important thinkers, like Wes Boyd (How Psychologists and the APA Colluded in Torture) and Mark Borg, et al (The Meaning of the APA's Dealing With the Torture Scandal When professional stewards act-out unbearable systemic insecurities) it is clear that we better come to grips with this chapter of the profession of psychology.

There is another thinker, Ira Chaleff, who sits in the middle of this obedience algorithm, and he has much to share on this topic. He has been looking for a long time at the question of following well and the right types of obedience and disobedience. His latest book is called Intelligent Disobedience and I recommend it to all of us interested in the implications of Hoffman and to everyone not in psychology interested in human courage in the face of collective evil.

The title comes from the training of trusted guide dogs who are taught when disobedience is appropriate and life-saving. It is such the perfect metaphor.

Chaleff’s thinking goes back in time into the psychology of obedience to authority with rather famous twentieth century examples. The book mentions Nuremburg of course, the super symbol of dark obedience. And it goes in depth into the famous Milgram experiments and their implications. Phil Zimbardo, former president of the APA and a chief architect of the famous Stanford prison experiment, writes the foreword to the book. That perhaps the most famous of APA’s former presidents, Zimbardo himself, writes the foreword to the book, is not to be lost as a signal of how on target Chaleff is. Zimbardo writes: “In our private and public institutions, we see perennial catastrophic results of this failure among adults who should know better, but conform, comply, and obey anyone who conveys a sense of authority.”

Chaleff is practical in his approach as well as historically illustrative and analytical. He provides steps and rules, like the following small sample, to give the potential disobeyer a sense of how to walk through an intelligent disobedience check list, like a pilot ready to fly a plane.

6. Ask tough, relevant questions about the orders you are receiving. Maybe you misinterpreted what you were being asked to do. Maybe you didn’t. You have a right and an obligation to clarify the order.

7. Do not be assuaged by responses that are not answers, by attempts to rationalize the order, to shame you as being the only one questioning the order, or by promises of future correction of violations that are being ordered now.

8. Engage the authorities giving the order; help them see how it is not in their true interest to proceed in that direction; offer reasonable alternatives.

And Chaleff warns us that “the danger lies in teaching obedience too well.”

Whistleblowers are one well-known form of intelligent disobedience. Whistle blowers have what Chaleff calls “refusal skills”—the ability to resist pressure. Civil disobedience when done well is intelligent and can be on the grandest of Gandhi-esque scales. If your boss looks the other way regularly so employees can cheat on travel expenses, small scale intelligent disobedience saves a little piece of your day-to-day integrity.

As an executive coach and teacher of coaching at Columbia University, I am particularly tuned into day-to-day work environments. Early on in his book, Chaleff reminds us of why this topic needs to be broadly addressed, not just by psychologists, but leaders everywhere.

“…if you are an executive, manager, supervisor, officer, minister, teacher, or anyone with others in your care, and you want to create an environment in which individuals hold themselves personally accountable for doing the right thing, you need to understand the underlying, shaping forces working against this in order to transform those forces.”

There are many other occasions for disobedience, when not doing what you are told is the more moral, more effective, more human course. We all need to practice intelligent disobedience at the right time in a technocratic society when rules, often stupid and damaging rules, abound. Many of us have had the thought that some of our fruitful developmental experiences came our way when we disobeyed the authority figures around us—“put down that guitar, don’t date that type of girl,” and so on. Not all of them of course, as we also on occasion paid a heavy price for disobedient moves. But some of our moves in the opposite direction of obeying were truly the “right” things to do.

We should not be surprised, now half a century later, post-Milgram and the Stanford prison studies, about the discouraging aspects of how easily social conditions change our moral stances and our dispositions. What we thought were solid convictions—like to do no harm— may be closer to thin veneers that can be altered too easily. Psychologists are human and the dark side is never too far away.

Chaleff is realistic that intelligent disobedience is not an easy skill to master. When training the guide dogs, the sequence is first to obey, and then learn when to disobey. As the woman who introduced the concept to Chaleff described, “learning not to obey is a higher order of skill.” Maybe that is why we too often fail at it. Still Chaleff pursues not just understanding the dynamics of obedience but exploring the relatively simple training needed to prepare people to intelligently disobey when appropriate.

He is not as interested in the basic Milgram experiment, which virtually everyone is familiar with, but gives more attention to the variations on the basic design that Milgram did to determine what lowers inappropriate obedience. That’s where the potential lies for social designs that lower the incidence of destructive obedience.

Zimbardo includes a strong note of hope in his comments, as does Chaleff in this sober but ultimately positive treatment of the question. Zimbardo’s final thoughts: “(Chaleff’s) book has given me new hope for the prospect of humanity finally learning… overdue lessons.” Chaleff reminds us that we have already institutionalized intelligent disobedience: “Paradoxically, the culture itself can build into its values and practices the preservation of the individual’s freedom against the forces of conformity and obedience it generates… a founding American ideal other cultures admire.”

In the fog of war, our psychology profession fell short of its ideals and the APA and Hoffman are right in reminding us to recommit to them.

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