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How People Can Get You To Do What They Want

AuthorityAs a software developer I love to code, but over the last year I have been gaining more and more of an appreciation for marketing (it’s what makes the world go ‘round, that and money, if you can believe the song) and therefore I follow quite a few blogs that deal with the subject. One of the best blogs about online marketing right now is Brian Clark’s Copyblogger, so when Brian recently released a free report titled “Authority Rules” I had to have a read. Imagine my surprise when the report kicked off by describing the Milgram experiment. The reason I was so surprised was that I had an interesting discussion on the Milgram experiment just few days ago in a Lean workshop me and some of my colleagues did with Jason Yip. There are several important lessons that The Milgram experiment can teach us and so I believe it is well worth sharing, as the more people know about it the better.

The Milgram Experiment

I am quoting most of this from Brian’s report:

Let’s say you see a newspaper ad saying the psychology department at Yale is running a little “experiment on memory.” Paid volunteers are needed for the hour-long study, so you figure why not? Upon arrival at the lab, you meet two men — a research scientist in a lab coat, and another volunteer just like yourself. The researcher proceeds to explain the study to you both. He tells you the study is about the effects of punishment on memory. The task of the other volunteer will be to learn a series of word pairings (he’s called the “Learner”). Your job as the “Teacher” will be to test the Learner’s memory of the word pairs, and administer electric shocks for each wrong answer. And for every new wrong answer, the voltage goes up.You’re not sure about this whole thing, but it must be okay, right?

The testing begins, and when the other volunteer misses a question, you pull a lever that delivers a mild shock. Over time, though, the shock levels increase, and the Learner is grunting audibly. At 120 volts, he tells you the shocks are really starting to hurt. At 150 volts, he tries to quit. The researcher tells you to keep going, and that the shocks will cause “no permanent tissue damage” to the Learner. You continue questioning and delivering punishment for incorrect answers. At 165 volts, the Learner screams. At 300 volts, the Learner refuses to respond any longer, as the shocks are impairing his mental capacities. The researcher tells you to treat non-responses as incorrect answers.The Learner is screeching, kicking, and pleading for mercy with every subsequent shock, all the way up to 450 volts when the researcher finally stops you.

Scary story.

This couldn’t possibly have really happened, right? Well, actually, it did, in 1963 at Yale, during a series of experiments by Stanley Milgram. But here’s the real scoop about the Milgram experiment:

  • there were no actual electric shocks
  • the Learner was an actor
  • the study had nothing to do with memory

What Milgram wanted to know was how far the Teachers would go when told to continue to deliver those shocks, since they thought they really were. About two-thirds (65%) of the subjects administered every shock up to 450 volts, no matter how much the Learner begged for mercy. However, without the researcher’s encouragement to continue, the study found that the test subjects would have stopped giving punishment quite early on.

What Lessons Can We Learn From This

This experiment has been used before to explain how during war-time some people can commit horrendous atrocities and their peers wouldn’t try to stop them, but would infact go along with it to the point of becoming directly involved in committing the atrocities themselves (e.g. the holocaust during World War 2). One of the lessons we can learn from this is the fact that people would tend to go along with someone they consider to have authority even if by doing so they go against their better judgment. There are numerous ways we can justify our actions afterwards (only following orders, didn’t know any better etc.), but at the end of the day it comes down to the fact that when we believe that someone knows more than us about a subject, they can get us to do what they want most of the time (or 65% of the time if you can believe the experiment).

The thing is though, even though we do it, it will often be with strong reservations, which means our own mind and judgment are still very much in play. So, why do we, so often let our moral compass be overridden by external factors? And this, I believe leads us to the second and most important lesson we can glean from the Milgram experiment. Trust your instincts, ask questions, challenge those around you no matter how expert you think they are (if their position is strong they will be able to defend it with cool logical argument, without misdirection). This is true for any software project (but is also true for life in general), it is every developers’ responsibility to question processes, patterns and yes, even code, that you believe can lead to trouble. If everyone on a team has this kind of attitude, then you will never be an outcast for doing this, but rather the whole team will either fill you in on what you’re missing or will work together with you to fix or mitigate the issues that were brought up. This, in my opinion, is the crux of the Agile spirit (it would also be a great example of leadership regardless of whether you hold a leadership role or not). I for one would never want to be one of the 65% of people who would shock another human being to the point of insensibility. And so I’ll leave you with this question, what are you doing to make sure that if you find yourself in a ‘Milgram experiment’ type of situation, you’re not one of the 65% either?

Image by takomabibelot

  • Chris

    Nice write up Al – I’ve heard of this experiment before, but never thought too much about the implications of it.

    I agree for the most part that this sort of questioning and challenging is great for quality – as long as everyone is happy to questioned and challenged.

    I heard of teams – and worked on one or two myself – that suffer from the “smartest guy in the room” syndrome, where you have a few people in the room that are all vying for that position of authority. You can forget arguments based on cool hard logic, and expect instead conversations to be driven by large egos. Granted, this is far from ideal and leads to an incredibly dysfunctional team, but in this situation, at what point does it become counter-productive to rock the boat?

    • Alan Skorkin

      Yeah, in a team where people are not prepared to listen you only end up being the ‘bad guy’ if you keep harping on. In cases like that it is probably best to keep quiet, update your resume and start setting up some job interviews :)

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  • jose

    I will put you an example of a real situation that happened in the Spanish Civil war(1936):
    +Two guys arrest one man because he has properties in the village(for communist this was a crime), with orders of transportation to jail.
    +One of the guys take the gun and kill the man without saying anything.
    +The other guy says: What have you done?
    +The killer says: He desired it, he was a fascist!!(He didn’t knew the man).

    He didn’t ask for permission , he just killed him. Now both were guilty, so they buried the body and said he was not in the village.

    We know the story because people saw the two man in the village, and finished the war, one of the men was arrested(the killer had killed a lot of people in the war and escaped to another country, the other was caught because he felt he had not done anything bad so stayed) and said what happened. He went to prison for two years.

    What would you do in this situation? Someone of your own party do something bad, the only solution is fight with him, and he is way more aggressive than you(he has not problems killing as he had killed in your presence as if nothing has happened). If you fight him, you loose, if not, you loose, but maybe nobody knows, only your mind does when bed dreaming.

    • Alan Skorkin

      That is a very tough situation and many people have found themselves in it time and time again.
      You’re right, you might fight and lose and maybe even die for it.

      Another thing you can do would be to simply walk away and refuse to be associated with it. Even though you’re avoiding the problem, it is somewhat better than participating in a crime.

      Another thing to do would be to walk away and with the intention of gathering some support in order to prevent further crimes by that person. You may not be able to prevent a crime but you might prevent others.

      What it comes down to is this, how far are you prepared to go before you’re unable to live with yourself? It is possibly one of the great problems that humanity or individuals can face in their lives. Do you have the responsibility to do something if you’re able, even when the odds are against you.

      Some of the greatest things humanity has achieved have been done only because people were prepared to put their lives on the line and stand up for what is right. On the other hand some of the greatest evils have been perpetrated when people closed their eyes did not want to get involved.

      This is going way deeper than my software development analogy, it is tough, I don’t have the answers, but I do want everyone to think about the question, I believe that would be a decent start.

      • John

        “Do you have the responsibility to do something if you’re able, even when the odds are against you?”

        Yes. My belief is that if you don’t live by your principles when it’s difficult then you have no principles. If you don’t protect free speech when you very much disagree with the speech then you don’t believe in free speech. And so on…

        To bring it back to software… you don’t have to disagree on every little thing – there is the possibility that you are wrong, or that it is a matter of opinion and while one is entitled to an opinion one is not required to voice it 100% of the time. But when it is a significant matter and you see a problem then voice your opinion even if it is unpopular. Then drop it. If you turn out to be right don’t rub peoples’ noses in it. Over time if you continue to be right most of the time then people will start to put value on what you say even if you are disagreeing with them. If you are in a situation where, over time, that doesn’t work then you should give serious thought to finding a different situation.

        • Alan Skorkin

          I think what you suggest would be a very pragmatic and effective approach, this is what I try and do and would recommend it to everyone else.

  • Daniel Larsson

    A variant of this is “Groupthink” well explained by Wikipedia, and very much applicable to software development:

  • Christofer Eliasson

    Interesting post. I have heard about this experiment before, but never really thought about it that much.

    As a web designer, the first thing that popped into my mind when I read your post was that it might be quite advantageous, as a web site owner, to put your self in the position of the all knowing leader. By doing so, you might increase your possibilities to control your visitors behavior on your site. I am not sure of how this would be done in practice yet, but I think it can be worth spending some time thinking about.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Alan Skorkin

      You’re welcome. Interestingly enough in a funny twist on the subject, from everything I read, people actually seem to put more trust in sites where they can relate to the author on human level rather then seeing the author as a godlike authority figure. I am not sure if that is true, but there you go :).

  • tastle

    “Trust your instincts, ask questions, challenge those around you”

    I know Agilists try to push off everything perceived as good as Agile, but I would consider the above traits as a subset of the skills you would see in an innovative person. There are many opportunities for people like that and they’re the driving force behind change.

    • Alan Skorkin

      You’re right, but in my mind agile has always been about innovation, leadership and respect first and foremost. The practices and boilerplate are just there for support and context. That’s my view anyway.

  • cak

    This experiment is about how people respond to authority figures. I would not expect people to respond the same these days, well at least younger than 40. I also find it funny you get easily excited about the most basic of coincidences.

    • Alan Skorkin

      I think you would be very surprised at how younger people respond. Every new generation thinks it is different and rebellious and would never behave the same way as the preceding generations. There have been several studies done about this and some of the findings have been that there are only ever 4 distinct generational archetypes and then the cycle repeats.

      This is experiment has become one of the better theories put forward for how human beings can exterminate millions of other human beings, that feels like more than just a ‘basic coincidence’ to me, but each to their own I guess.

  • Kone Zi

    Let’s face it. The simpler explanation is that most people are stupid.