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Saturday
Nov102012

Huemer on the psychology of authority

Fresh out of the printing press is Michael Huemer's new book The Problem of Political Authority - An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey. I have yet to read the whole book, so I will comment only on the very interesting chapter on "the psychology of authority". In this chapter, Huemer cites a number of studies and well-documented psychological phenomena on the basis of which he argues that "human beings come equipped with strong and pervasive pro-authority biases that operate even when an authority is illegitimate or issues illegitimate and indefensible commands". At the end of the chapter, he sums up:

 

... individuals confronted with the demands of authority figures are liable to feel an almost unconditional compulsion to obey, and this may prompt them to look for explanations for why the authority is legitimate and why they are morally required to obey. People often defer instinctively to those who wield power, and there are even cases [of the so-called "Stockholm Syndrome"] in which people emotionally bond with others (such as kidnappers) who hold great but completely unjustified power over them, adopting the perspectives and goals of those who hold the power. Once a pattern of obedience has started, the need to minimize cognitive dissonance favors continued obedience and the adoption of beliefs that rationalize the authority's commands and one's own obedience to them. Due to a general status quo bias, once a practice or institution becomes established in some society, that practice is likely to be viewed by the members of that society, almost automatically, as normal, right, and good. 

 

He points out that none of this by itself shows that existing political institutions are illegitimate, but it does strongly suggest that such institutions would be widely accepted as legitimate even if they were not. At the very least, this should teach us that the brute fact that most people do perceive political institutions as legitimate cannot straightforwardly be taken as evidence that these institutions are legitimate. Insofar as the widespread pro-authority beliefs and attitudes stem from non-rational sources, we ought to place little or no trust in such beliefs and attitudes as guides to truth or reasonableness. 

 

Huemer bolsters his case by citing not only psychological studies like the famous Milgram experiments and the Stanford Prison experiment, but also historical cases in which fully normal people have committed horrible atrocities that - were it not for their respect for authority - they would not have committed: 

 

The Nazis, the American soldiers at My Lai, and Milgram's subjects were clearly under no [moral] obligation of obedience - quite the contrary - and the orders they were given were clearly illegitimate. From outside these situations, we can see that. Yet when actually confronted by the demands of the authority figures, the individuals in these situations felt the need to obey. This tendency is very widespread among human beings. 

 

The widespread acceptance of political authority has been cited as evidence of the existence of (legitimate) political authority, but the psychological and historical evidence seems to undermine this appeal. Even if all governments were illegitimate, and "no one was obligated to obey their commands (except where the commands line up with preexisting moral requirements)", "it is quite likely that we would still by and large feel bound to obey our governments. That is likely, because even people who are subjected to the clearest examples of illegitimate power still typically feel bound to obey". And this is so even in cases where the authority figure in question was choses arbitrarily (as in the Stanford prison experiment where the roles of 'guard' and 'prisoner' was assigned by a lottery and the participants all knew this)! Because of this, the mere fact that we very often feel bound to obey authority figures cannot plausibly be taken as a reason to think that governments are legitimate and that we are obligated to obey our governments.  

 

Huemer further suggests that theories of authority devised by political philosophers can "plausibly be viewed as attempts to rationalize common intuitions about the need for obedience, where these intuitions are the product of systematic biases". When we feel a requirement to obey (whether this requirement is legitimate or not),

 

... it is likely that this would lead us to think and say that we are obliged to obey and then - in the case of the more philosophically minded among us - to devise theories to explain why we have this obligation. Thus, the widespread belief in political authority does not provide strong evidence for the reality of political authority, since that belief can be explained as the product of systematic bias. 

 

This seems to be an instance of the more general phenomenon described by (among others) Michael Shermer in The Believing Brain (we form our beliefs first, for various non-rational reasons, and then we attempt to rationalize the beliefs we already hold); and Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind (intuition comes first, strategic reasoning comes second). Our minds manifest a host of cognitive biases that continually confirm our beliefs as "true". Many philosophical doctrines can be seen as elaborate and sophisticated systematizations and rationalizations of intuitions that themselves lack rational basis (I suspect that Huemer in not as willing as I am to apply this insight to his theory of "Ethical intuitionism"). 

 

Now, I'm sure the above sketch of Huemer's argument from psychology will leave many people unconvinced. Is it plausible that the widespread belief in the legitimacy of political authority is a result of bias and illusion? Is it really plausible to claim that vast majorities of ordinary citizens of modern, western, democratic states suffer from something like the Stockholm syndrome? Let's briefly look more closely on a few of the components of the argument in turn.   

 

Cognitive dissonance

"Cognitive dissonance" is used in modern psychology to describe the feeling of uneasiness when holding two or more conflicting cognitions (ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously. In a state of cognitive dissonance, people may sometimes feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment. What the political scientist James L. Payne (in his book Six Political Illusionscalls "the voluntary illusion" ("the impulse to want to believe that government action is not based on the use of force") is a good example. Payne invites his readers to ask friends and neighbours if government is based on force. Many people will flatly say "No", others will exhibit evasion, confusion, or even embarrassment, and yet others will say that government's use of force - armies, police, prisons, etc. - is not "really" force. Payne exemplifies with his friend Nancy. When asked "Is government based on force?" she replied "Well, it shouldn't be" and added "I suppose that's dodging the question". Payne's analysis:

 

She knows in one corner of her mind that government is based on force, which she deplores. Yet she looks to government to fix society's problems. She feels that Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, public education, and so on, are desirable programs. Hence, she is conflicted. She doesn't want to disparage the big government she likes by recognizing its distasteful foundation in brute physical force. 

 

There is no denying that government is ultimately based on force, but as Payne notes, people "see some special character about government that transmutes its violence into something else, something nicer that they can approve of". People naturally dislike force and this "creates a powerful psychological pressure to repress the recognition of government's coercive nature".

 

The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by altering existing cognitions, adding new ones to try to create a consistent belief system, or alternatively by reducing the importance of any one of the dissonant elements. Many studies show that people tend to adjust their beliefs and values to make themselves and their choices and behaviour look better to themselves and to others. Huemer argues that cognitive dissonance generates a bias in favour of political authority:

 

Almost all members of modern societies have frequently submitted to the demands of their governments, even when those demands required actions that they would otherwise be strongly disinclined to perform. [...] How do we explain to ourselves why we obey? We could explain our behaviour by citing fear of punishment, habit, the drive toward social conformity, or a general emotional drive to obey whoever holds power. But none of those explanations is emotionally satisfying. Much more pleasing is the explanation that we obey because we are conscientious and caring citizens, and we thus make great sacrifices to do our duty and serve our society. Philosophical accounts of political authority seem designed to bolster just that image. [...] whether or not our behaviour is motivated by compassion and a sense of duty, it is likely that we would generally wish to believe that it is. To believe this, we must accept a basic doctrine of political obligation, and we must accept the legitimacy of our government. 

 

Of course, this does nothing to show that no such doctrine is true, but it seems to undermine one set of powerful reasons for thinking that such doctrines are true.

 

"Social proof" and status quo bias

Other experiments mentioned by Huemer shows a high level of conformity to the beliefs and attitudes of others ("social proof"), and a general bias in favour of the status quo: "Social proof convinces us that what others believe must be true. Status quo bias convinces us that what our society practices must be good." For example, many of the world's cultures (and our own in the past) include beliefs and practices that strike us as bizarre, absurd, or horrible, but the members of these societies generally embrace their own cultures' beliefs and regard their practices as obviously correct, and vice versa. The conclusion to be drawn is that humans have a powerful tendency to see the beliefs of their own society as obviously true and their common practices as obviously right and good. In A History of Force, Payne applies this simple observation specifically to coercive practices:

 

If we had been alive in times past, we say, we would have condemned human sacrifice, the torturing of criminal suspects, the slaying of religious heretics, and so on. How - we ask in disbelief - could anyone have endorsed these practices? This attitude of superiority blinds us to the real complexity of the evolution that operates against force-based institutions. When a coercive practice is ascendant, it is not condemned. To the contrary, it is seen as essential for the health of civilization. It is endorsed by the best citizens, and its critics, if it has any, tend to be society's deviants and outsiders.

 

What does this tell us about the belief in the legitimacy of political authority? Huemer answers:

 

Government is an extremely prominent and fundamental feature of the structure of our society. We know that people tend to have a powerful bias in favour of the existing arrangements of their own societies. It therefore stands to reason that, whether or not any governments were legitimate, most of us would have a strong tendency to believe that some governments are legitimate, especially our own and others like it. 

 

Again, this does nothing by itself to show that any government is illegitimate. But it provides reasons to view the common belief in (the legitimacy of) political authority with suspicion.

 

Stockholm syndrome

Stockholm syndrome is a kind of psychological defence mechanism that can occur when one is under the power of a dangerous person and one's survival chances depend on developing traits that are pleasing to one's captor, including sympathy for the captor. Huemer points out that victims do not consciously choose to adopt these traits, and nor do they merely pretend to adopt them. They simply find themselves with these emotions and attitudes. The existence of such a defence mechanism can be explained in evolutionary terms. Huemer writes

 

[D]uring the history of our species, it has been common for a person or group to hold a great deal of power over others. Those who displeased the powerful person or group were likely to be killed or otherwise harmed. Those who pleased the powerful were more likely to survive and prosper from the powerful person's favor [and thus more likely to be able to propagate their genes]. It is plausible to suppose that Stockholm-like characteristics would be pleasing to powerful persons. Therefore, evolution may have selected for a tendency to develop such traits in appropriate circumstances. 

 

Huemer cites empirical evidence that those who develop Stockholm syndrome in hostage situations and the like are in fact more likely to survive. This supports the idea that Stockholm syndrome is an effective survival mechanism. But does it apply to subjects of political power? Huemer lists five conditions under which Stockholm syndrome is most likely to develop: (1) The aggressor poses a credible threat to the victim, (2) The victim perceives himself as unable to escape, (3) The victim is unable to overpower the aggressor or to effectively defend himself against the aggressor, (4) The victim perceives some kindness from the aggressor, even if only in the form of lack of abuse, and (5) The victim is isolated from the outside world. Huemer then argues that these conditions do in fact apply to a considerable degree to citizens of well-established governments. 

 

 

  1. Governments do control their populations through credible threats of violence. They possess an impressive apparatus for imprisoning individuals; and for those who resist, governments have impressive tools of physical force, up to and including deadly force.   
  2. "Escape from one's government tends to be difficult and costly, typically requiring an abandonment of one's family and friends, one's job, and one's entire society. Even those willing to undertake such costs will generally then only become subject to another government. Escape from government in general is virtually impossible."
  3. "It is virtually impossible for any individual to defend himself against most modern governments, to say nothing of overpowering them."
  4. "Most citizens perceive their government as beneficent in light of the social services that it provides. Some also feel that their government is good because it does not abuse its power as much as most other governments throughout history."
  5. Citizens of modern, western nation-states have access to information from other countries, but most people obtain the great majority of their information from within their own country, and the "outside sources" are all in a similar political situation: "It is as though the hostages had access only to the 'outside perspectives' of hostages and hostage takers in other places. In such a situation, it is not clear that access to these perspectives would retard the development of Stockholm syndrome.

 

 

Does this mean that most people suffer from Stockholm syndrome? I don't know. It's a fascinating thought. Taken by itself it is bound to strike many people as far-fetched, but in combination with other explanations it might well describe a genuine aspect of our situation.

 

There is, of course, much, much more to be said on the very interesting topic of the psychology of authority. Steven Pinker's discussion in chapters 8 through 10 of The Better Angels of our Nature (to which I gave shamefully insufficient attention in my review of that masterful work) is essential reading. But Huemer's treatment (which itself contains much more than I've mentioned here; to say nothing of the book as a whole) is a valuable contribution.

 

The whole first chapter of The Problem of Political Authority is available for free here.

 

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