Just following orders

MEDIUM-LENGTH: Thoughts on cognitive dissonance, obedience, and psychological integrity

And now you do what they told ya
But now you do what they told ya
Well now you do what they told ya

- “Killing In The Name”, Rage Against The Machine

Cognitive dissonance is one of the most famous, paradoxical, and enduring concepts in the field of social psychology. First proposed in 1957 by Leon Festinger, this phenomenon occurs when someone has to hold two opposing ideas in their mind at the same time, or when they say or do something that’s against their values. The resulting psychological tension either causes them to modify their internal beliefs, or to double down on them and reject the “other side”.

One of the seminal papers on the subject, written by Festinger and Carlsmith, had subjects participate in a boring series of experiments… and then be paid either $1 or $20 to lie to other participants about how fun it was. In a follow-up survey, they found that people who were paid less were more likely to conclude that the tasks were enjoyable, that the study was an important investigation, and that they would be willing to participate in similar studies in the future.

At first glance, these results might seem counter-intuitive. Wouldn’t it make sense that the people who were paid more to lie would have more incentive to change their beliefs? It stands to reason that they would put more effort into the lie, be more invested in its success, and would therefore experience greater psychological tension.

However, this isn’t the case. In this study, and others, it was found that the presence of large incentives or the imposition of authority prevents cognitive dissonance from taking place. In his “New Look Theory” of cognitive dissonance, Joel Cooper argues that these factors seem to act as “plausible deniability” mechanisms, allowing people to maintain their psychological integrity while justifying their words or actions:

When our actions result in unwanted consequences, we naturally ask ourselves who is to blame for having brought about the aversive events. Who is responsible? If I am responsible, then I experience dissonance. That is why choice or decision freedom is so important in producing dissonance. If we are forced to behave in a particular manner, then we can and do absolve ourselves of responsibility. If a person with legitimate authority tells me to advocate in favor of a position with which I disagree, I will conclude that it is not my fault that I did it. It is the authority’s responsibility.

- “Cognitive Dissonance: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going”, Joel Cooper

Reviewing the results of Festinger and Carlsmith’s experiment, it seems clear that only being paid $1 to lie did not create enough plausible deniability for the subjects to “blame” their lying on the money. Therefore, the resulting psychological tension resulted in cognitive dissonance, and seems to have produced an abnormally positive view of an otherwise boring experimental procedure.

Compliance as dissonance reduction

After the totalitarian horrors of the 1900s, we are all well aware of the danger of “just following orders” and the human propensity to do so. But if this phenomenon is best understood as a way for people to manage or eliminate cognitive dissonance, then we may be able to unlock possible methods for counteracting it.

In the case of Germany’s Reserve Police Battalion 101 in Nazi-occupied Poland, otherwise ordinary police officers were ordered to massacre thousands of Jewish civilians - and complied, with various degrees of enthusiasm:

As one policeman bitterly commented, “Major Trapp was never there. Instead he remained in Józefów because he allegedly could not bear the sight. We men were upset about that and said we couldn’t bear it either.”

Indeed, Trapp’s distress was a secret to no one. At the marketplace one policeman remembered hearing Trapp say “Oh, God, why did I have to be given these orders,” as he put his hand on his heart. Another policeman witnessed him at the schoolhouse. “Today I can still see exactly before my eyes Major Trapp there in the room pacing back and forth with his hands behind his back. He made a downcast impression and spoke to me He said something like, ‘Man… such jobs don’t suit me, but orders are orders’.”

- “Ordinary Men”, Christopher Browning

What, exactly, is happening here? Perhaps a more extreme version of what happened when some students were given $20 to lie: the locus of control gets shifted externally, responsibility for wrongdoing is absolved, and psychological integrity is preserved: “it wasn’t really ME that did these things, I was just following orders”.

What seems to be important here is that the story that people tell themselves needs to not only make sense, but be psychologically bearable. It’s a lot easier to tell yourself that you shot a Jewish woman in the head because of “orders” rather than admit you were too much of a coward to turn your gun on the man who gave you those orders. It’s also a lot easier to convince yourself that the boring study you took part in was interesting, rather than admit that you lied to another human being for $1.

However, once wrongdoing takes place, any “psychological integrity” that does not account for such wrongdoing is a false integrity. The story people tell themselves about “following orders” or "the study actually being interesting” does not reflect the facts. And so, genuine psychological integrity gets corrupted.

I will not eat your green eggs and ham

I find it interesting to note that only eleven out of seventy-one participants in Festinger’s and Carlsmith’s study refused to take part in the lie. That’s only 15.4% of people, which means that almost 85% of people would rather follow orders than guard and maintain their own psychological integrity.

If we extrapolate this small study out into the general population and the real world, it would seem like the vast majority of the population may have an ongoing integrity problem. If people would lie for a measly $1, what are they capable of when they’re in a high-stakes situation? How many times have they compromised their own integrity in the past, and how corrupted is their self-perception because of it?

Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me

- “Killing In The Name”, Rage Against The Machine