Tag Archives: compliance gaining

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The Agentic Personality


Milgram’s work is a reminder that too many of us depend on responsibility-avoiding locutions like “I’m just doing my job.”

The recent film Experimenter (2015) dramatizes the work of social psychologist Stanley Milgram, who was interested in the seemingly fixed tendency of humans to shift responsibility for harmful acts up the chain of command.  Milgram is well known for his “shock box” experiments at Yale University in the early 1960s.  In this iconic study volunteer “teachers” were recruited and instructed to ask true/false questions to unseen “learners” in an adjoining room.  Any wrong answer given by the learner was to be followed by electric shocks administered by the teacher.  If the volunteer teachers expressed alarm over the shouts of pain coming from the next room, they were instructed by the white-coated experimenter to proceed.  This was usually followed by a reassurance that the researcher would take responsibility for the entire process. And so over two thirds of his volunteers proceeded to inflict seemingly lethal doses of electricity on the learner.

Of course the learner was not actually hooked up to the shock box.  He was an actor.  But the teachers did not know that, nor did they understand that they were the experimental subjects. Milgram was testing their willingness to carry out instructions issued by a superior, even when the effect of the shocks they were supposedly administering were harmful.

No Institutional Review Board at any university in the United States would ever allow this kind of research today. Volunteers cannot be put in this kind stressful state. But the Milgram studies remain as stark testimony to the willingness of seemingly decent people to comply when credible authorities take responsibility for indefensible actions against others.

Milgram was one is a long line of thinkers and researchers on the origins of German acceptance of the exterminations going on within the Third Reich.  All wondered why otherwise decent people could be so easily induced into lethal compliance.

Agentic personalities may assume no responsibility for the consequences of their actions. 

The short answer is that we seem to regard higher authority as a kind of shelter:  they can be responsible for decisions that they want to enforce. One effect is that questioning the morality of a “job duty” seems to get lost in the comfort of just “doing the work,” “doing what I’m told,” or “respecting the decisions of my bosses.”

Luckily, most encounters with mid-level functionaries do not come with such lethal risks to others.  But we can still imagine the urge to comply that so easily happens within the middle of the chain of command.  And so Milgram’s work is also a cautionary tale of how many individuals spend their working lives dependent on locutions like “I’m just doing my job.”

He calls individuals who find comfort in these caveats “agentic personalities.”  They assume no responsibility for the consequences of their actions.  And so paperwork must be filled out before an emergency room patient who may be bleeding out can be admitted.  An office supervisor insists on a performance review for a person who is about to retire. Or a pre-9/11 trade school registrar never thinks to inquire why a man wants to learn how to fly a commercial airliner, but not land it.  Functionaries in these roles find a degree of psychological shelter in the belief that they are acting in accord with their required job-role.  After all, it’s “the boss” who is really in charge.

But here’s the kicker.  In the Milgram study there was no requirement to comply.  Volunteers could quit if they didn’t like what they had to do. Even so, most stayed to the bitter end.

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The Response of Compliance

            Renoir         The Conversation

At best, compliance is only a pale halfway step in the direction of where an advocate wants to take their audience.  

The effects that individual messages have on others are often characterized by descriptors on the far margins.  We say a person is “persuaded,” or they are not.  We note that someone has “understood” a message, or they did not.  We pay attention or we don’t. It’s a function of our language of binaries to characterize communication only at the ends of various continua. When we talk about ideas in the abstract we are a bit less likely to look at effects distributed in between pairs of opposites.  It’s one of the advantages of survey and experimental research that the middle ranges finally get their due. But without research results to report, we revert to simpler reference points.

In studying how people are persuaded, we are lucky to have at least one term that suggests a realistic middle ground between “convinced” and “not convinced.”  We may see them as “compliant.”  A person in compliance seems to be taking on the behavioral attributes of someone persuaded, but the fine-grained meaning of the term also includes  the possibility that they are not fully convinced. They are still acting to carry out expected roles, but are perhaps seeking a way to avoid a more volatile  ‘stand your ground’ disagreement.  If you have a teen, you know this state when he grudgingly takes out the garbage or mows the lawn.  The behavior is present, but the attitude is still a work in progress.  Ideas like “duty,” “obligation,” and “required” are likely descriptors of compliant behavior.

You know the same state from watching yourself.  Someone wants something from you, and the calculation is to at least outwardly give it, even though you remain mostly unconvinced.  A relative wants you to attend a party you would just as soon skip. A friend explains their theory of price-fixing among competitors in an industry, and you find it easier to nod in apparent understanding, even while you doubt that he or she is correct.

On one hand, compliance is a courtesy: a half-effort to oil the social machinery and not create a rift with another person.  One the other hand, it’s usually a false signal: a momentary suspension of deeper or truer feelings. And so it happens that we get a commitment from another in a passing conversation that later falls short when they must actually deliver on their seeming agreement. This is the downside of compliance. It’s a low bar. Instead of a desired level of conviction that comes with authentic persuasion, you frequently get action that is grudging or a one-time-only change.

Compliance or conviction?

Understanding compliance ultimately is helped by a firmer effect several steps higher we can call conviction. A person with conviction is usually seen as having a firm allegiance to particular view or type of behavior.  For them the issue is mostly settled.  Conviction functions as kind of a lock that makes us resist efforts to change our commitment. Deep conviction is a motivator, representing perhaps the ideal of what an advocate would like from another person.  We frequently “perform” or convictions to others, using language and an animated self to show how settled our views have become.  On the other hand, compliance may be revealed in some circumstantial cues like less eye contact, more distance between the communicators, a three-quarter stance that puts the receiver on a different sightline, and a flattening of the receiver’s affect.

Change is always is a lot to ask from someone who is undecided on a point, but its existence is a reminder that compliance is, at best, only a halfway step.  Think of conviction as Robin Williams.  He was all in when he did anything.  Compliance is more like a timid guy in the corner hoping not to be noticed.