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Control or Conform? Social Psychological View of Power, System and Role Herman Ong Upper Iowa University


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Abstract Some people in the world are said to be power holder who use the power to influence or even abuse others while some people are said to be power follower who are being influenced or tortured in will. Scholars have attributed the power abuser or follower to personal characteristic and disposition at all time. However, after 1950s, many social psychologists, such as Solomon Asch, Stanley Milgram, Philip Zimbardo, Hofling and Jane Elliott conducted famous experiments to prove that we have under-estimated the situational force and system power. In fact, human are neutral in nature in which people are only the actor who became the role of power abuser or follower mainly depends on the pre-determined system rather than disposition. And certain role descriptions and characteristic will be given to the actor in order to perform the role well, such as deindividuation, anonymity, objectization and social stratum bias etc. Through the dynamic stage and functionalistic role approach in this study, we explained how the role in social stage affects the normal people controlling others or willing to being controlled by others.


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Control or conform? Social psychological view of power, system and role “I was only following orders”, said by Adolf Eichmann, the murder and machinator of the Jew’s frightful slaughter in WWII and caused millions Jew’s dead (Arendt, 2006). “They were just the cockroaches needed to be eliminated”, said by Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, who was accused for inciting the thousands rape and kill of women during Rwandan genocide (Hatzfeld, 2006). The above cases may let us know how people misuse their power to harm others. However, some people who were captive in Auschwitz concentration camp said that, “This may be our destiny to be killed, just like the natural fate of prey to predator…” This makes us confused that why there have some people can do such a devil act on others, just like Adolf Eichmann and Pauline Nyiramasuhuko. On the other hand, there still have other people had this tolerance of devil act which happened on them as the cases of captive. In fact, these tragedies have usually attributed to the personal characteristic or dispositions of power holder at all time. For example, those moral judgments to Adolf Eichmann and Pauline Nyiramasuhuko were focused on their personality and psychological pathology, such as conduct disorder, antisocial behavior, personality disorder or autism etc (Zimbardo, 2008). Judges all claimed that these abnormal devil characteristic constructed the devil like them and implied a strong philosophical statement, “Human is goodness in nature”. Isn’t it? Is human really good in nature? And is human act or conform to the devil thing is solely because of their disposition and inborn characteristic?


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Alike to Adolf Eichmann, many devil power abusers who were arrested defended that, “I had no choice… this was the thing I have to do…” Is this implied that their personality was shaped as “Power abuser” by their parent or peers or they were born to be a “Natural born killer”? So they said they had no choice at all? However, the “final statement” of Adolf Eichmann may inspire us there may have a “hidden force” to drive them crazy and depravity, it left them no choice but just following orders involuntarily as one of the victims. This study is attempt to examine the controversial topic of human nature in social psychological perspective by reviewing famous experiments conducted in the past 60 years, such as Solomon Asch’s “Visual Line experiment” (Asch, 1955), Stanley Milgram’s “Electrical Shock experiment” (Milgram, 2009), Hofling’s “Nurse-Physician experiment” (Hofling, Brotzman, Dalrymple, Graves & Pierce, 1990) and Philip Zimbardo’s “Stanford Prison experiment” (Zimbardo, 2008) etc. In additions, we will introduce “Dynamic stage and functionalistic role” theory to explain how people fit into these tragedies and why they can behave such extremely either power abuser or follower. Literature Review Since 20 century, molecular biology and psychology are raised and developed rapidly. They have contributed many fields, such as DNA, personality, cognitive thinking and learning behavior etc. However, regarding to the human nature which is the most controversial topic in history, they contributed less on it. If we claimed that human nature is


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inborn either evilness or goodness, it seems there have no evidence found in our gene pool as “devil gene” yet (Dawkins, 2010). Although the prevalence and maturity of DNA technology and behavioral psychology have increasing, the crime rate in United States still in high (The Disaster Center, 2009). For example, the violent and abuse cases in United States were about 288,460 where the population was only 180,000,000. However, it increased quadruply to 1,318,000 while the population is only double in 2009. If human nature is predetermined or solely attributed to personal dispositions, then we must see the decreasing of power abuse or violent cases while the increasing efficiency of these fields. In contrast, we have seen the total difference result which the crime rate keeps increasing. It showed that power abuse and violent case have never been resolved biologically or psychologically. Rather than that, there may have another factor to explain the misuse of power including violence and abuse on top of the dispositional approach. This is called “Fundamental Attribution Error”. It is a concept proposed by Jones and Harris (1967) and coined by Lee Ross (1977) to state that people over-estimate the power of personal or dispositional attribution while under-estimate the situational force. In this topic, we have definitely under-estimated the situational power but over-estimated the personal attribution as mentioned above. In fact, people behavior can be influenced tremendously by situational force which a person may behave totally different from one setting to others, this is related to the reason that some power abusers were found as kindness in family but brutal in occupation. And


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explained why some people are said to be rebellion at all time but willing conform to others in one setting. In order to examine the power holder and follower, we have to identify the power first. Social psychologists, French and Raven defined the power sources in 1959, they proposed 5 types of power at that moment and add one more later (Raven, 1965). The total 6 power types are reward, coercive, legitimate, referent, expert and informational powers. Among these powers, legitimate and expert powers have been focused in experimental psychology at all time. Many experiments have been conducted by social psychologist to study how these 2 powers influence people or vice versa. In general, it can be divided into 2 categories, one is power-to/from-others; another is power-to/from-authority. For the former category, American psychologist, Solomon Asch conducted a “Visual Line experiment” in 1951. In this experiment, Asch assigned one subject to choose an answer after evaluating different length of line visually. He found that the answer people chose was tend to follow social information from others more than their self even though they were quite sure they are right. On the other hand, there have several famous experiments were conducted to explain the authority power and its influence, such as Stanley Milgram’s “Electrical Shock experiment” (Milgram, 2009), Hofling’s “Nurse-Physician study” (Hofling, Brotzman, Dalrymple, Graves & Pierce, 1966) and Philip Zimbardo’s “Stanford Prison experiment (SPE)” (Zimbardo, 2008) etc. Hereinafter, we will examine and discuss what these experiments tell us about the human nature in different contexts, so people may become


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situational power abuser or follower regardless of their disposition or gene. Discussion Instead of dispositional approach, most social psychologist believed that human nature is neutral or bidirectional in which people have no predetermined goodness or evilness. Human’s nature is same as personality which is full of plasticity that can be molded into either goodness or evilness depends on situation and role. For the evilness side, the neutral people who became the power abuser because of obtaining “deindividuation” (Zimbardo, 1969) and “anonymity” (Silke, 2003) in given context while people were voluntarily become victim because they perceived or being “objectized” (Zimbardo, 1969). During the Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment (SPE), some youths who were defined as humanitarian and rebellion were brought into a simulated prison to study how good people react in the devil situation. Dr. Zimbardo and his colleagues originally thought that it should be a boring experiment because most subjects were well-educated and assessed as no aggressive tendency. However, he was wrong. The 2 weeks experiment was just carrying 7 days and then stopped. He found that the normal student who acting guard became power abuser who verbally insulted and abused other students who acting prisoner. And the prisoners who described themselves as rebellion (It was the time against US military movement in Vietnam) were voluntarily accept those order, insulting and punishment from guard. These results surprised Dr. Zimbardo and his colleagues at all. In fact, the normal


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student could become power abuser as devil prison because they were deindividuated by the system and context. For example, people usually inhibit to act out something which is described as proscriptive norms or injunctive norms which is not accepted by dominant culture (Forsyth, 2009). This is because they have the social identity to take the responsibility and suffering from the consequence after acting out (Guerin, 1999). However, if a person who have no identity or perceived less identity in a given situation, it implies he/she may perceive less or no responsibility to take the consequence of his/her behavior regardless of evilness or goodness. Then he may act out freely depend on what the current situation provided to him/her. This is the power of deindividuation and anonymity. In the Stanford prison, the guards were deindividuated physically by black sunglasses, formal uniform and baton (Zimbardo, 2008). Moreover, they were cognitively deindividuated by the job descriptions. They thought they were there to order, to control or even to act everything without responsibility because it was contracted, and so as the prisoner too. If anything went wrong, it was the responsibility of this research, not them. Thus, when guards were on-duty, they erased their real identity and personality, gradually became a guard A, B or C. They perceived everything they done were acted by the prison identity, but not real self. Then this deindividuation combined with “devil seed� in which Dr. Zimbardo and the system provided them a power and feasibility to control and insult the prisoner, thus they finally grew as devil prisoner as system expected. On the other hand, the prisoners were willing to be insulted and


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ordered because they were objectized by the guards. Objectization means de-human and subject is being treated as thing, animal or everything but not human. Re-cap to Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, who also described the victims as cockroaches. In the Stanford prison, by the same token, the prisoners were also deindividuated as dirty thing and trouble-maker, they wore dirty and crinkly T-shirt and given prisoner number. They were told to do exercise which were conflict to their rebelled self-concept and caused cognitive dissonance. However, they couldn’t change the behavior as they perceived themselves limited by contract, so they changed their perception to justify the order from guards and gradually perceived no identity, no freedom and no self at all. This was said to be “objectized”. Apart from the SPE, in order to study the German army conforming behavior in WWII, Stanley Milgram (2009) conducted another experiment in which participants were told to electrical shock the researcher’s confederacy. Although most researchers thought there would only have 10% people who pressed highest 450V to confederacy, the result was surprising them as 65% subjects pressed the highest voltage by conforming to the authority who ordered them to shock. This implied that people may over-estimate their autonomy in the social setting. In fact, their behavior may greatly be affected and influenced by the power figure, such as authority and expert regardless of goodness or evilness. They shocked the confederacy because of tendency and attraction to group with authority rather than their intrinsic evilness. Once they grouped with the authority and they perceived less responsibility


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for their action. Besides, they felt cognitive dissonance between their self and order too, therefore the only method can resolve and get out from this conflict was complete the experiment as soon as possible which was finish all questions faster until pressed the 450V. In additions, this “In-group tendency” (Leyens et al., 2000) to authority and expert was also consistent to the findings of Hofling’s “Nurse-physician study” in which they found that nurse unreasonable complied with the doctor who is an expert. All of these examples proved one principle of human nature – “Human is neutral”. Sometimes, other than the above causations, the reason of people act out power or influenced by power may relate to social division and stratum. According to the “blue/brown eye children” experiment conducted by Jane Elliott (2007), an American teacher who told the children there have a biologically difference between blue and brown eyed children. Once the high or low stratum was predetermined by Jane, the children acted out according to their given status. This proved that some people act out power because they perceived higher than others regarding to the stratum and role in the society while some people perceived as follower because they are predetermined in lower stratum and role. And these stratum or role difference in society are created by “system power”, such as cultures, history, religion and resource. System power pre-determines and formulates every role in the society including power holder and follower, what people needed to do are just fill in the role and act it out like an


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actor in stage without any deviation. No matter whom acting this role, after wearing the specific role mask and costume, he/she will do the same job and expresses the same characteristic as role description expected. For example, put anyone of us in the Stanford prison either as guard or prisoner, we will also behave as evilness as the guard and weakness as the prisoner because the script of this scene is pre-determined and written. You and I are possible to be the power abuser or follower depends on role description rather than our dispositions. This is the power of Dynamic stage and functionalistic role. Admittedly, role is more important than traits to determine human behavior in social setting. In the functionalistic perspective, every role in the social system has its own function and value, including murder and power abuser (Wright, 2000). Without the role of crime or power abuser, law and control becomes meaningless and functionless. Then the whole society may in dysfunctional and anomie (Durkheim, 1997). Therefore, the role of power abuser or power holder is not something we have to eliminate. Rather than that, they are something that we have to preserve with control. Like Adolf Eichmann, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko and other power abusers, we are not trying to justify what they done. On the other hand, we are trying to present a holistic view of power influence and obedience in a social setting where all of us are just the actor, the main course is system. For example, there had a tourist-abuse case in Hong Kong (ON.cc, 2010) which was considered as power-abuse case. In 2010, a tour-guide called Jane Li was accused of forcing the tourists shopping and discrimination. During the


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tour, she deliberately insulted and blamed the Chinese tourists who shop less, even affronted them as inferior and threatened them by cancelling their hotel. This was also another example of system power. Jane was deindividuated and objectized the tourists in the whole tour. Since her license was suspended in 2007, she was using another license to guide without valid license. At that particular moment, she was using another identity, perceived deindividuated and less responsibility to her action. In additions, the social stratum bias made her feel higher status than the Chinese tourists. And she might be told by travel agency to order and control the tourist in order to achieve the sale target, similar to the guards in SPE. A series of deindividuation, objectization and social stratum effect caused this tourist-abuse case. Nevertheless, Jane was only the actor and scapegoat in this case, whoever being put in this situation may also do the same misdeed because of the pre-determined system power. However, the causation of this case may be related to the materialism culture, the relationship and history between Hong Kong and Chinese people, the travelling policy, the socialization of Chinese people of travelling experience and even social division. Thus, this system and stage are complicated and dynamic to intervene and resolve, it have its own rundown to play and say nothing of preventing or predicting the next power abuse by solely changing one or two settings even attributed to the individual sinner. This is called “Dynamic stage and functionalistic role�.


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Conclusion Many scholars we mentioned above, such as Solomon Asch, Stanley Milgram, Philip Zimbardo, Hofling and Jane Elliott have proved that people have under-estimated the power of situational force, most of us are doing our job in a pre-determined role under the social power. Anyone of us can be power holder to influence or abuse others through the given characteristic from system, such as physical identity, dress code or stereotype to deindividuate ourselves and play the role well. Or anyone of us can also be the power obedience and willing to be influenced or tortured through the objectization or perceived learned helplessness in the pre-determined social stratum (Seligman & Maier, 1967). Thus, we can definitely conclude that human nature is neutral in nature and full of plasticity. However, the system constructing human behavior and nature is extremely complicated and dynamic in nature. It is impossible for us intervene this system by changing one or two settings only. Besides, what people done are according to the role descriptions rather than their personal characteristic. Thus, we have to target to the role nature, such as social stereotype, bias, culture, assumption, expectation rather than assessing the human personality in order to control the system power. We hope this study can help other researchers summarize the views of social psychologists on power influence to obedience as well as the human nature. And look forward to the further study on examining and formulating a whole model of the mechanism of system power on predicting human behavior.


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Reference Asch, S. E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Scientific American, 193(5), 31-35. Retrieved from EBSCO host. Arendt, H. (2006). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Penguin Classics. Dawkins, R. (2010). The Greatest Show on Earth. London: Black Swan press. Durkheim, E. (1997). The Division of Labor in Society. Free Press. Erikson, E. (1950, 1995). Children and Society. Vintage. Forsyth, D. R. (2009). Group Dynamics. Wadsworth Publishing. French, J. R. P., & Raven, B. (1959). The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright and A. Zander. Group dynamics. New York: Harper & Row. Guerin, B. (1999). Social Behaviors As Determined by Different Arrangements of Social Consequences: Social Loafing,.. Psychological Record, 49(4), 565. Retrieved from EBSCOhost. Hatzfeld, J. (2006). Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak. Picador Hofling, C., Brotzman, E., Dalrymple, S., Graves, N., & Pierce, C. (1990). An experimental study in nurse-physician relationships. In T. Pence (Ed.) , Ethics in nursing: an anthology (pp. 21-29). National League for Nursing. Retrieved from EBSCOhost. Horowitz, C. (2007). Jane Elliott and her Blue-Eyed Devil Children. Retrieved from


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http://www.frontpagemag.com/ Jones, E.E. & Harris, V.A. (1967). The attribution of attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 3, 1–24. Leyens, J., Paladino, P. M., Rodriguez-Torres, R., Vaes, J., Demoulin, S., Rodriguez-Perez, A., & Gaunt, R. (2000). The Emotional Side of Prejudice: The Attribution of Secondary Emotions to Ingroups and Outgroups. Personality & Social Psychology Review (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates), 4(2), 186-197. Retrieved from EBSCOhost. Milgram, S. (2009). Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics. Oriental News. (2010). Retrieved from http://home.on.cc/news/ Raven, B. (1965). Social influence and power. Current studies in social psychology. NY: Wiley. Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. 'In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (vol. 10, pp. 173–220). NY: Academic Press. Seligman, M. E., & Maier, S. F. (1967). Failure to Escape Traumatic Shock. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 74(1), 1-9. doi:10.1037/h0024514 Silke, A. (2003). Deindividuation, Anonymity, and Violence: Findings From Northern Ireland. Journal of Social Psychology, 143(4), 493. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.


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The Disaster Center. (2009). United States crime rate 1960 – 2009. Retrieved from http://www.disastercenter.com/ Wright, C. (2000). The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press. Zimbardo, P. G. (1969). The human choice: Individuation, reason, and order versus deindividuation, impulse, and chaos. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 17237-307. Retrieved from EBSCOhost. Zimbardo, P. G. (2008). The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Random House Trade Paperbacks.

Control or Conform? Social Psychological View of Power, System and Role  

Control or Conform? Social Psychological View of Power, System and Role

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