Posts Tagged ‘sociology’



[Picture of Stanley Milgram]I first came across mention of Stanley Milgrams famous experiment from Peter Gabriel of all people.  I was at a Peter Gabriel concert, and Peter sat at his piano and took time to explain The Milgram 18 Experiment to us.

He told us that this was the meaning behind his song “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” from “So, 1986”, which needed an explanation as the lyrics are very brief!

I remembered this when I did some sociology and criminology modules at Open University.

Pioneering social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, did a very controversial and famous experiment in the 1960s. It was designed to determine just how far ordinary people would go in obeying people in authority. “Following Orders”. Milgram was Jewish and wanted to understand how Germans could have persecuted the Jews and other groups during WWII.

A volunteer was wired up in a room, and in an adjoining room was a device that administered a varying electric shock to the volunteer.  Subjects were asked by researchers to administer the shock each time that the volunteer failed a word association test. The Subjects did not know that the shocks were fake and that the volunteer doing the word association tests was in fact an actor.

Over 65 per cent of the subject followed orders, even to the extent of delivering potentially lethal electric shocks “Carrying Out Orders“.  They simply felt that the moral responsibility did not lie with them, but with the authority figure telling them to do it.

It was all about who had the ultimate responsibility, and that each of us has a far greater capacity to be evil if the circumstances are right, and where there is a recognised hierarchy, or a clear ringleader.

The Milgram Experiment has had a profound effect ever since.  It means that we each have to be watchful of the context in which we act.  I am amazed at how often Milgram crops up in my life.

Not long after Milgram‘s experiment, Philip Zimbardo set up a new experiment where female subjects were asked to monitor a task and to give electric shocks to those who failed, but half of the female subject were dressed in normal clothes, the other half were in a disguise that rendered them anonymous. Those who could not be identified gave stronger and longer shocks.

Zimbardo showed that people are more viscous when masked, in disguise, unidentifiable, in a crowd, in a car, on the telephone, or through the internet. Anonymity is incredibly important, and when mixed with Milgram, such as with the army, or police force, where anonymity and authority / abrogated responsibility come into play, the de-individualisation and dehumanisation is maximised.


Ordinary, nice people can carry out acts of violence or cruelty that they would never believe themselves to be capable of.




I must say that I laughed out loud when I saw this old TV clip on

[embedded video clip from]

What I loved about “Candid Camera” was that it was both funny and true — the psychology behind our behaviour is solid and so we are very predictable in what we do when faced with set up situations.

The fact is that we all have to face the same way in elevators, and we even have to remove hats! Hilarious!




A great many years ago I was taught a set of tools to use in learning and working.  I have and hold these tricks dear; they have served me well. The following is a tool for bringing reason and rationality to making decisions.

It can be built up into a complex thing, but to give you the idea, let’s start off with a small grid.

You get two options (the action and not-the-action) and so does your opponent. They get the rows and you get the columns. It’s a bit like this:





All you have to do is think about the outcome in each of the four boxes where the rows meet the columns.

Now, it must be said that the initial idea one might get from the above grid is that action is always better than inaction — the chances of winning (or not losing) are better.  Inaction provides two outcomes — nothing or a loss, but action yields a win and a war that might be won. However, it would be a huge mistake to use this grid as qualification for attack, for doing something, or to always strike first. It would, in fact, be a huge mistake to use the grid at all; it’s just the basic outline!

The grid is supposed to be realistic — a tool for the real world every day, so let’s get straight to making a proper one — but we’ll still keep it a simple two column, two row grid.  Having seen the outline grid, and once you have seen a real one thought up and thought-through, I hope you will be confident about giving it a go — making it perfectly suit your own special circumstances.

First of all, simply change the column headed “inaction” for “avoidance”. It is a subtle change, but it makes all the difference in the world. The original grid is too unrealistic and simplistic because “inaction” implies turning the other cheek and letting people do things without defending yourself.  “Avoidance” dramatically improves the decision-making — so here’s our first “real” decision grid.

Let’s say there’s been an argument between two people which has caused a rift such that people have sided with the other party. This is very common — you fall out with someone at work,  a family member, someone at a club or even a group of neighbours, and it seems like everyone has taken their side over you.

The question is what to do next. Who should make the first move to break the stalemate? The grid will help.

THEY ARE GOING TO GET YOU This is a fight! Both sides will want to make points and get things off their chests.
Because the group has sided with them, you cannot win.
You have to choose to stay or go.
If you are to be accepted back, you are looking for damage limitation, saving face, capitulating with some dignity.
If you are going, you want to clear the air, give as good as you get, all as you depart forever. It’s about losing, but not giving in.
They cannot get a response, they are frustrated; they want a fight, but you’re not playing to their rules; you’re unavailable until they cool off — it’s on your terms…

them — disadvantage

THEY ARE NOT ACTIVELY OUT TO GET YOU If it turns out that they are not actually actively out to get you, you are likely to make things worse by stirring everything up. It is more likely that doing something in this case would make them actively out to get you — see row above

them — win

If it turns out that they are not actually actively out to get you, and you are unavailable and saying nothing, then you cannot make it worse, and neither can they, so it’s a win-win.

them — win

Well, look at the result now — it is pretty clear that avoidance is the winner for a person in such a situation.

  • Avoidance/ going your own way or going about your own business is always the best practice when bullied by or ganged up on by a group.

As soon as you can, you must move house, get another job, change school or whatever — as long as you can get away and put it all behind you.

  • When people side with one person over you, it is impossible to fix without you capitulating, surrendering, apologising and debasing yourself.  Forever thereafter, the relationship will be such that you will always be the lesser, and all the rest will be greater than you.

If you cannot move house, if you cannot get another job, if you are stuck in that school, or if the rift is in a family or business where links exist that are difficult to sever, then, if you refuse to capitulate, an intermediary would then be required (because you are avoiding them).

Intermediaries can be an emissary from their camp, but they can be independent third parties — lawyers, councillors, trained negotiators.

The intermediary might decide to offer their peace deal, or some way forward (changing from top row to bottom row), or they may remain filled with animosity on the top row, and employ a lawyer or hitman or some other agent to get at you!  It is up to them as you have decided to avoid. Avoidance puts the ball firmly in their court.

I am sure you will agree that the decision-making grid (in general) is a great tool, and the example I have used here is particularly useful in understanding diplomacy and the social mechanics of quarrels and rifts.

You will see the truth in this — you only need to look around you to see it in practice.  I have seen levels of intermediary used to communicate and outline negotiate — things like magazine articles, press leaks, radio “gaffes”, whisper campaigns, e-mail virals, blogs, forums, and old-fashioned letters.

At the end of the day, you have to realise that when people gang up on you, they want you gone or they want you “put in your lowly place”. They do not expect to lose, and in fact the majority always wins in the end.  If you do not want to accept your lowly place, you must go quietly.  Don’t be bitter about it; that’s life!  You picked the wrong person to quarrel with or stand up to.

Every day bluffs are called. Maybe you thought they needed you more than they do.  Maybe you thought that in time, one-by-one you could win them round. Maybe you thought that because you were in the moral right that people would side with you, or maybe you naively thought that people would side with you to be rid of a hated bully.  It was a misjudgement, a miscalculation, that’s all.

You may even be waiting for the intermediary, the emissary — but none will come, for they just wanted you gone; you were a risk, a pest, trouble.  They don’t want you back to rock their boat. Another bluff called.

So, to conclude, I hope you find the descision making grid a useful every day tool, and I hope that you found the specific example enlightening and enriching!