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Peer pressure could save the military


'Join the Club' by Tina Rosenberg, book coverHuman beings are pack animals. All the studio apartments in Australia won't change the large part of our brain devoted to functioning as social beings. From an evolutionary point of view, it's served us well. It continues to define us in ways we're probably not aware of.

The American journalist Tina Rosenberg won a Pulitzer for exploring this very dynamic in Join the Club. She points to a study from the 1950s that shows just how powerful our desire to belong to the pack is.

Psychologist Solomon Asch invited a group of people — one off the street and the rest secret participants briefed by Asch — into a room. All were given charts with lines and asked questions about the length of the lines. The answer had to be said aloud and the secret participants always went first. The questions were obvious, but after hearing the secret participants give the wrong answer, the lone subject usually joined their opinion.

The takeout: 'In the face of strong public pressure to conform, most people conform.'

Monday's release of a review into military abuse reminds us how dangerous this lean to conformity can be. The Commonwealth Government's apology and suite of provisions for victims follows law firm DLA Piper's review into sexual and other forms of abuse by the military, announced in April 2011 after the Skype sex scandal. The firm received allegations of abuse from some 847 people, dating back to the 1950s.

The report looks at everything from the 'bastardisation' of new recruits, which 'seems to have been tacitly accepted as a part of ADF life', to the absence of safeguards protecting young people from each other and of adequate reporting and accountability structures.

Damningly, it states 'It is possible male cadets who raped female cadets at ADFA in the late 1990s, and other cadets who witnessed such rape and did not intervene, may now be in middle to senior management positions'.

There appears to be a similar mentality at play here, to that which alowed a French woman to suffer a tirade of racist and misogynistic abuse on a bus in Melbourne while, in the words of one Fairfax op-ed, the majority of passengers 'were silent and impassive, probably wishing they were elsewhere'.

Where was the dissent, in the face of such clear injustice?

Rosenberg might have one answer. She quotes Arizona State University psychology professor Robert Cialdini about the importance of community norms when facing something new. 'When things are changing, new or in flux, people won't look inside themselves for answers ... they look outside, to legitimately constituted experts and peers. That provides a shortcut way of determining what they should do in a situation.'

In short, if people look around and see others doing or saying nothing, most will do or say nothing themselves.

This is why the Piper report is wise to look at culture. Culture includes those invisible cues that help people know how to behave.

The defence forces are particularly invested in humanity's pack mentality. Victory on the battlefield, the survival of troops and the successful delivery of emergency assistance all come down to teamwork. Everything from basic training onwards is aimed at turning strangers into units ready to die for each other.

The Piper report itself notes: 'It is no accident that modem armies are built on small squads, grouped together into platoons — nor that terrorists almost always organise themselves into cells. Young men in all cultures have a common willingness to work together in small, intensely loyal teams.'

This is Solomon Asch's 1950s experiment amplified. It is not difficult to imagine the challenges involved in stepping outside of this space to make a complaint.

In the face of such incorrigible conformity, it is easy to despair. However the point of Join the Club is that if peer pressure is so powerful, why not use it constructively? It draws upon the fields of psychology, sociology, history and neuroscience, to argue that peer pressure can be a force for good.

In mounting her argument Rosenberg offers an interesting reframing of one of the most infamous experiments in all of social psychology. While the Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann was being tried in Jerusalem, Stanley Milligram (a student of Asch) wanted to explore obedience to authority. He invited 40 people into what he told them was an experiment testing the effects of punishment on learning.

Each participant was instructed to administer electric shocks in escalating doses to a subject in the next room when that person answered a question incorrectly. In actuality the 'subject' was in on the experiment, and a tape recorder provided the necessary screams of pain. The results are well-known and disturbing: 26 of 40 participants delivered shocks up to the maximum 450-volt level. Not one demanded the experiment be stopped.

What is less known is that at least 19 variations were considered to test whether people would respond differently under different conditions. Variations included the participant's gender, or proximity to the 'victim'.

The most defiance came from variation 17, whereby two secret participants joined a real subject in administering shocks. During the experiment the two conspirators would stop and complain that they'd had enough. Thirty-six of the 40 participants in this variation stopped before delivering the maximum volt.

Rosenberg deduces, 'The peer group's creation of a social norm of human kindness was the most effective way to encourage defiance to an immoral order.'

Peer pressure, so long derided as the domain of drug abuse and risky sexual practices, may be the very thing that can save us from ourselves.  

Evan Ellis headshotEvan Ellis is a community development worker in the Sutherland and St George area of Sydney. He is completing a masters in international studies with a China major. He won the 2012 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers for his essay 'Catholic and Aboriginal 'listening revolutions'

Topic tags: Evan Ellis, conformity, peer pressure, pack mentality, Australian racism



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Existing comments

"If people look around and see others doing or say nothing, they will do or say nothing themselves." This one observation on culture is a classic insight into one of the reasons that so many Church people are so compliant. The Church's culture is designed to to curtail thinking for oneself or acting against authority and the status quo. Evan's call for peer pressure to mounta moral change is timely. However the culture of unquestioning compliance makes it highly unlikely that such peers will be found in the Church of today.

Garry | 28 November 2012  

Here's a radical twist to consider - that compulsory army conscription produces the best humanitarian outcomes. If the entire spectrum of human temperaments were represented in our armed forces, including people reluctant to take up arms and those who avoid conflict at all cost, the business of warfare would be a whole lot different. Voluntary armies inevitably attract members with a certain leaning towards weaponry and combat. It's unlikely conscription would ever be considered in western countries, but it's worth pondering its merits.

AURELIUS | 28 November 2012  

We are social beings Evan. We do like to be part of a group, to be accepted and respected within that group. The case of the French woman who was subjected to a tirade of abuse on a bus truly shocked me. The passengers were only part of a very loosely-defined group, strangers really. So there was no investment in 'relationship' between them. I believe it's fear - for their own personal safety and psychological well-being - that allows people to ignore someone in peril in that particular situation. In the case of the Defence Force what's at work, I think, is a sense of tradition, that being part of the establishment brings acceptance and prestige. It's truly shocking that this could lead to turning a blind eye to anti-social and even criminal behaviour. And yet this has happened - time and again - in the Defence Force and in the Church. I'd like to think kindness can hold sway - I'll think about that every time I'm sitting in a bus in future!

Pam | 28 November 2012  

Years ago, I was with a Tridentine Mass community who after 1988 had looked into the possibility of regularization. In January 1994, two of us traveled to the Ecclesia Dei office in Rome to discuss the possibility. As for “regularization”, the trip was a waste of time; but as for hard lessons on how the how today’s Vatican operates, it was invaluable. At one point of our meeting, Father Arthur B. Caulkins from the Vatican’s Ecclesia Dei office told us that it was our duty to obey! And if the commands are bad, the guilt does not fall on us, but falls on our commanders. Father Caulkins was serious. I could not believe my ears. This mode of blind obedience, advanced by a Vatican official, means that Catholic clergy, religions – and even Vatican functionaries -- will carry out commands that are actually harmful to the Faith and harmful to souls, all the while telling themselves they incur no personal responsibility because “I was only following orders”. ( Source : Net )

Mark | 28 November 2012  

There is no hope at all that the ADF know how to change, want to change, or will change. Even, last year, as Smith was blasting the Gong Nongs at the top of the ADF for failing at every step of the way, my daughter was hearing from a friend of hers who was raped at a military establshment and feared reporting it to military authorities because her career would be over. The ADF are like the Church, too much power in the hands of dangerous and immature bullies. Then there is the prison system, the police force, schools, the nursing profession, the list of abusive systems goes on.

janice wallace | 28 November 2012  

Aurelius, one of the other benefits of a conscripted 'citizen' defence force is that the wider community would be more acutely concerned with what wars it allows politicians to get us into. Can you imagine Howard being able to participate in Iraq and Afghanistan if he had had to send conscripts?

Ginger Meggs | 28 November 2012  

Mark - I thought the Nazi war crime trials sorted that 'only following orders' shibboleth out years ago! Ginger Meggs - what about the USA military? Full of volunteers of endentured slave status and overwhelmingly from 'the poor folk' sector of society. Better to send our leaders to battle out their mistakes, supported by the CEOs and industry leaders who provoke trade wars. We can then get on with hoeing the cabbages.

janice wallace | 28 November 2012  

Janice, I didn't say volunteers - I said conscripts. When the sons and daughters of the middle-class are conscripted, the middle class will show a lot more interest in where they are sent.

Ginger Meggs | 29 November 2012  

I've been reading about Asch since Intro Psych. Not a funny subject, but I do have to share this different and lighthearted link: http://www.statsgeektees.com/view/1013105/asch-homeboy-funny-unique-tshirt-great-gift-for-stats-geek-student-prof-researcher

Steve Clarke | 04 December 2012  

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