"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, August 26, 2012

We Will Believe Anything

There is no doubt that trusting is easier than doubting.  If I see a few pennies error on my bank statement, it is far easier to assume that the bank is right and I have added wrong; or that the insurance company really didn’t get my last claim; or that I really did need that T-28 valve on the intake manifold.  If I had to doubt everything – bank statements, insurance claims, car repairs, the sink-reamer, and Joe The Tree Guy; not to mention my sister’s estate management, my daughter’s accounting of the bridge loan for the house, or the need for an MRI.  It is just too bloody difficult.  A few bucks here and there, the opportunity cost of hassling for days, challenging specialists, are simply not worth it.

I never connected this behavior with anything more serious than personal indifference or laziness; but Frank Bruni has written an interesting article in the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/26/opinion/sunday/bruni-gullibility-in-politics-and-in-film.html?ref=opinion (Ever Meek, Ever Malleable) on credulousness – how we will believe even the most outlandish lies, incorporate them into our belief system, or at the very worst, perform outrageous acts if we have been told to do so. 

Based on a true story, the film “Compliance” is about how a fast-food manager, duped by a “police officer” who asked her to detain a suspected thief until the got there, commits more and more abusive and invasive acts to turn up the stolen money. “It’s an essential parable of human gullibility. How much can people be talked into and how readily will they defer to an authority figure of sufficient craft and cunning?”

Made on a modest budget and set during one shift at a fictional fast-food restaurant called ChickWich, it imagines that the manager, a dowdy middle-aged woman, gets a call from someone who falsely claims to be a police officer. 

The “officer” on the phone tells the manager that he has evidence that a young female employee of hers just stole money from a customer’s purse. Because the cops can’t get to the restaurant for a while, he says, the manager must detain the employee herself in a back room. He instructs her to check the young woman’s pockets and handbag for the stolen money. When that doesn’t turn up anything, he uses a mix of threats and praise to persuade her to do a strip-search. And that’s just the start.

The manager’s boyfriend later assumes the duties of watching over the detained employee. Cajoled and coached by the voice on the phone, he makes her do those jumping jacks, which are meant to dislodge any hidden loot. By the time he leaves the back room, he’s also been persuaded to spank and then sexually assault her.

The ‘prankster’ apparently did not stop with one franchise; he went on to trick other store managers with the same unexpected, frightening result.

This psychological phenomenon is not new and in fact has been studied.  I have written previously on the infamous Stanford prisoner-and-guard study:

Twenty-four male students out of 75 were selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison situated in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. The participants adapted to their roles well beyond Zimbardo's [experimenter] expectations, as the guards enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some of the prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, at the request of the guards, readily harassed other prisoners who attempted to prevent it. The experiment even affected Zimbardo himself, who, in his role as the superintendent, permitted the abuse to continue.

This study was scary not only because of the easy willingness of the ‘guards’ to take orders, but the capacity for cruelty and perhaps worst of all, the total abnegation of any reasonable moral and ethical sense.

This capacity for gullibility, credulousness, and the total abandonment of principle and right behavior is bad enough when we are directed to act in a certain way.  The question of the Twentieth Century is why did the German people carry out the murderous, insane principles of Adolph Hitler?  There have been many attempts to explain or even justify this complaisance and obeisance, and these have been studied by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust whose arguments are summarized below:

There had always been virulent anti-Semitism in Germany and Hitler’s call for The Final Solution, although extreme, was not illogical.

The authoritarian regime of Hitler was such that anyone who did not comply in Hitler’s orders to kill Jews would have been executed. 

Only the SS and other fanatical Nazi groups did the killing

The holocaust went on without the German people really knowing the extent of the massacre.  

Those Germans who participated actively in the roundup or killing of the Jews were simply venal technocrats looking to their careers

The holocaust was carefully divided into tasks and thus few Germans were able to piece the puzzle together and conclude that mass killings were occurring.

Hitler’s charisma was a potent, lethal, and irrefutable power in forming public opinion

Goldhagen dismisses all of these explanations and argues that the Germans knew and were complicit in the systematic, wholesale slaughter of the Jews.

The explanations treat Germans as if they had been people lacking a moral sense, lacking the ability to make decisions and take stances. They do not conceive of the actors as human agents, as people with wills, but as beings moved solely by external forces or by trans-historical and invariant psychological propensities, such as the slavish following of narrow "self-interest."

As importantly:

These [explanations] do not sufficiently recognize the extraordinary nature of the deed: the mass killing of people. They assume and imply that inducing people to kill human beings is fundamentally no different from getting them to do any other unwanted or distasteful task. Also, none of the conventional explanations deems the identity of the victims to have mattered. The conventional explanations imply that the perpetrators would have treated any other group of intended victims in exactly the same way. That the victims were Jews - according to the logic of these explanations - is irrelevant.

In other words, ‘ordinary’ German people were brought up with and believed in a set of moral and ethical values which were challenged in the extreme by Hitler; and no amount of charismatic influence, venal ambitions, lack of total information, or self-protective instincts could have so influenced so many – especially because of the horrendous and horrific nature and scale of the crime.

Goldhagen especially dismisses the point Frank Bruni and the director of Compliance are making – that people are willing dupes:

Hitler's charisma (the perpetrators were, so to speak, caught in his spell), a general human tendency to obey authority, a peculiarly German reverence for and propensity to obey authority, or a totalitarian society's blunting of the individual's moral sense and its conditioning of him or her to accept all tasks as necessary. So a common proposition exists, namely that people obey authority, with a variety of accounts of why this is so. Obviously, the notion that authority, particularly state authority, tends to elicit obedience merits consideration.

It is almost impossible to decide the question of gullibility vs. true belief; the role of external forces (a repressive, brutal, dictatorial regime enforcing compliance); or even the influential power of a charismatic leader.  There are too many Twentieth Century examples of slaughter and depredation to assume anything other than a confluence of many factors.  Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot – like Hitler – could never have orchestrated and carried out such widespread, systematic killings without a powerful, controlled, disciplined, and well-paid and therefore loyal coterie of Nazi-like SS cadres; or a quasi-plausible goal (Communism and equality for all).  But nor could they have succeeded unless there was some willingness and complaisance on the part of the people they ruled.  Perhaps it was too late for Cambodians once the forced march to the countryside had begun, but was there not ample time for dissent and revolt before?

There is an excellent film called The Lives of Others which recreates East Germany at the time of Stasi, the secret police and the common practice of informing among the German people.  It was not uncommon for friends to inform on other friends, and even for family members to betray each other.  While the film does not attempt to answer the question ‘Why’, the audience is forced to; and yet there are no easy conclusions.  The answer, like that to the question about Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot or the Kims of North Korea, has many parts – true belief, gullibility, complaisance, obedience, fear, and ambition.  Perhaps the one element that is not discussed by Goldhagen, Bruni, or others is courage.  It takes tremendous personal courage to act against overwhelming force, especially when that force is quite willing and able to torture and murder the family of those who rebel.

In other words, credulity is but one part of the equation.  It is never enough, it seems, for simple gullibility to excuse slavish adherence to outrageous actions.

Bruni suggests that gullibility is not only common but extremely problematic in America today.  People will believe just about anything, he says, because it is simply easy to do so.  Like my ignorant acceptance of my bank statements as correct, many people subscribe to conspiracy theories because it is easier than challenging them, going through the work of comparing sources, assessing conflicting views, arranging all in a logical argument, and making one’s own decision.  It is even easier to accept conspiracy theories if they already conform, more or less, to one’s existing worldview or current beliefs.

People also routinely elect trust over skepticism because it’s easier, more convenient. Saddam Hussein is stockpiling weapons of mass destruction; the climate isn’t changing; Barack Obama’s birth certificate is forged; Mitt Romney didn’t pay taxes for 10 years. To varying degrees, all of these were or are articles of faith, unverifiable or eventually knocked down. People nonetheless accepted them because the alternative meant confronting outright mendacity from otherwise respected authorities, trading the calm of certainty for the disquiet of doubt, or potentially hunkering down to the hard work of muddling through the elusive truth of things. Better simply to be told what’s what.

“We can’t be on guard all the time” [said Craig Zobel, the Director of Compliance]. In order to have a pleasant life, you have to be able to trust that people are who they say they are. And if you questioned everything you heard, you’d never get anything done.” It’s infinitely more efficient to follow a chosen leader and walk in lock step with a chosen tribe.

The problem is not in the gullibility alone, nor to the perpetuation of outlandish beliefs, it is that a culture of credulousness – taking arguments on face value and responding to them emotionally not logically – can lay the foundation for more serious usurpations and arrogations of power.  It is not a straight line by any means, but if you believe that Obama was not born in the United States, you just might believe anything.

Bruni describes that only if there is a willing collusion between the ‘police officer’/Hitler/Stalin and the fast-food manager/German people can the abusive actions take place:

“Compliance” charts the mechanisms and progress of mind control. The “officer” introduces himself with utter confidence, sure of himself and unambiguous about the necessary course of action. He expresses sympathy, telling his human puppets that he knows how confusing and difficult everything he’s asking of them must seem. He doles out compliments and rebukes, establishing himself as someone who sits rightfully in a position of judgment. He insists that he’s mindful of their self-interest: “You need to listen to me for your own sake.”

And he grows bolder in studied increments, knowing that once a person has decided to believe you, he or she is more likely to continue to, because to rebel at a late juncture is to admit that you’ve been duped all along. At a certain point you’re psychologically invested in fealty. At a certain point a spanking is no longer outside the realm of possibility.

This is yet one more, and possibly a key component to willing obedience to immoral commands – if you haven’t stood up right from the start, then by doing so later, you admit your ignorance and compliance.  “Well, Hitler was wrong, but it is too late to do anything now.”

I have noted before that there is a troubling trend in America – that despite the electoral railings about defending freedom and democracy, there is an increased concentration of power in the federal government.  With our direct and indirect assent, the government is compiling Stasi-like dossiers on all of us; and a fine line exists between the abusive use of that information and its legal use to stop crime and terrorism.  We have been far too trusting of government to do the right thing.  We have bought into the equation of limitation of individual rights with American Freedom.  Are we that different from East Germans after WWII as the mechanisms of State security were being put into place?

Being a birther and believing that the government is not spying on us are two sides to the same coin.  Gullibility, credulity, lazy conformity, whatever you want to call it – it is a serious issue.  Only with clear-minded, rational, logical assessment of the facts can we be the informed electorate that the Founding Fathers had in mind to keep government honest and at bay.  We are today far from that vision.

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