How to Vaccinate your Children against High Demand and Controlling Groups

Positive Steps to Becoming Less Vulnerable to Influence and Authority


By Sharon Presley


Vol. 7, No. 3, July/August 2006 edition of the reFOCUS Forum: An Internet Newsletter for Recovery

reprint from Free Inquiry, Vol. 15, No. 1, Winter 1994, Page 29

reFOCUS is a network of referral and support for former members of closed, high demand groups, relationships or cults.


Mindless obedience to authority has contributed to social destructiveness of frightening proportions in this century. The Holocaust, the My Lai massacre, the mass suicides of the Jim Jones cult in Guyana, and the debacle at Waco (where both sides were mindless) are only the most obvious examples – there are untold millions more. These kind of examples garner public attention, but others, quiet and almost invisible (beating down of children’s minds into docile and unquestioning lumps in schools and churches, for example) are also matters of grave concern.

As humanists, it’s easy to agree with this diagnosis, easy even to be a little smug about it, to see mindless obedience as something “they” do. Those Germans, those soldiers, those cult members, those fundamentalist Christians. “I’m not the sort who would go along with a guru or an authoritarian leader,” you might be saying. “Only pathetic, insecure people with low self-esteem get sucked into mindless obedience.”

You might be right; there are individuals who are highly resistant to the blandishments of obviously authoritarian demands. The mind manipulators, however, don’t all wear uniforms, armbands, or robes. There are thousands of little influences that can seduce us all:

* The “expert” we believe because we like her or his ideology so we don’t look critically at what’s really being said.

* The television or magazine commentator whose analysis we accept uncritically without looking at other points of view.

* The boss who is doing something we consider immoral but we fail to speak up.

* The physician whose diagnosis and prescriptions makes us uneasy but we don’t question.

Psychological research on obedience to authority and social influence, in fact, shows how readily ordinary, decent people can be manipulated into obeying destructive authority or uncritically accepting supposed experts. And not necessarily because of personal weakness. One of the biggest mistakes many people make in thinking about the reasons for obedience to unjust authority, for example, is to assume that only “bad” or “weak” people obey. Social psychologists call this kind of mistake the “fundamental attribution error.” In plain English, it means that people, in trying to explain another person’s behavior, tend to overestimate the influence of personality factors and underestimate the influence of social or situational factors.

A classic example of the power of situational factors is provided by Stanley Milgram’s famous study on obedience to authority. Ordinary people solicited from the community around Yale University were asked to participate in an experiment ostensibly on the effect of punishment on learning. They were willing to continue administering what they thought were increasingly higher levels of shocks to another subject (actually a confederate) simply because the experimenter said to do so. The results, in fact, were so “shocking” that they made Milgram the most famous social psychologist in the world. Fully 65 percent of the subjects continued to obey the experimenter to the end of the experiment even when they thought the victim was getting dangerous levels of electric shock, and when he asked them to stop.

Milgram’s study elegantly demonstrated the influence of situational factors by varying one factor at a time in each different version of the experiment. He found, for example, that the closer the victim, the lower the rate of obedience; and the more diffuse the responsibility for administering the shock, the higher the rate of obedience. The study also demonstrated the powerful pressure of the authority figure. Nothing the victim said or did had as much influence as what the experimenter said.

Another example of the power of social factors is the Zimbardo prison simulation study. Ordinary male college students, all screened for psychological health, were asked to role-play prisoners and guards in what started out as a two-week study conducted in the basement of a building at Stanford University. Though they were deliberately not told how to act out their parts, what they did was unconsciously play out scripts of bad prison movies. The “guards” were arbitrary, sometimes mean, treating the “prisoners” as if they were less than human. The prisoners became increasingly docile and passive, even turning on one prisoner who tried to protest the actions of the guards. (Zimbardo had to call the experiment off after only six days.) Thus, rather than thinking about what were the most appropriate and reasonable behaviors, the subjects all unthinkingly fell into social role expectations they had unconsciously learned in the past.

In neither study did personality factors play a major role in predicting the outcome.

Instead, most of the subjects mindlessly succumbed to situational influences or unquestioningly went along with comfortable, familiar and cliched expectations about how to behave. As in real life, the authorities exerted their influence not through using force but by making use of the human penchant for unthinking compliance.

Should we despair? No, we are not robots. We can change, we can learn to be mindful, we can protect ourselves against the seduction of authority. There are personal factors that predict resistance to authority, research that suggests that we need to encourage the cultivation of willingness to question authority and the development of independent moral judgment based on respect for individuals. There is social psychology research that provides suggestions we can use to make ourselves less vulnerable to the lures of unjust authority and negative social influence. Here are some of those suggestions.

Seventeen Suggestions for Becoming Less Vulnerable to Influence

1. Cultivate a sense of self-worth. Keep in mind your special talents, the times when others thought you were special. Nourish a secret “inner core” of self that cannot be violated. If you feel good about yourself, you’ll not be as vulnerable to manipulation and emotional appeals by others.

2. Know what your values are. Develop and maintain a sense of commitment to principles that are important to you. Understand why they are important. Have a sense of purpose in your life.

3. Build your critical thinking skills. Practice analyzing and discussing arguments; look at the pros and cons of important issues. Build creative arguments and counter-arguments.

4. Read diverse opinions from different kinds of sources. Don’t just read what you agree with. Be as well-informed about opinions you disagree with as your own. Analyze the pros and cons of these opinions. Be open to the possibility of changing your opinions.

5. When watching television news or reading a newspaper, remember to ask questions and be critical of what you see or hear. Be more aware of what the media selectively reports, distorts, and leaves out. Remember that the media don’t represent “the truth,” only certain perspectives.

6. Teach yourself and your children or students to watch out for persuasive manipulation and tricks in advertising and news reporting.

7. Join with others who are willing to stand up for the values that are important to you. Find allies at work or school. Join an organization that supports your values.

8. If there’s a social or political issue that’s important to you, get active. Join a group and work for social change. But be careful not to get mired in dogma. Remember that people with views different than your own are not stupid or “evil.”

9. Before joining any religious, political, social, or self-help group, check it out. Get outside perspectives and criticisms. Make sure they don’t have a reputation for being dogmatic, authoritarian, secretive, elitist, intolerant of outside opinions, etc.

10. Develop and maintain a sense of humor. Be willing to laugh at yourself as well as others. Humor deflates dogmatism and pomposity. But nourish a sense of humor that pokes good-natured fun, not one that is mean-spirited or based on humiliation of others. That kind of humor encourages seeing others as “bad” instead of merely different.

11. Try to encourage independent thinking at work, school, or groups you are in. Encourage and support diverse opinion and dissent. Don’t make fun of or attack people within these groups whose views are different from your own or who are different from the majority.

12. If you see something inappropriate, troubling or potentially harmful going on in your workplace, school, or other social situation, talk about it with someone outside that situation whom you trust. Seek allies within the group.

13. Maintain outside interests and sources of social support. Reject appeals that claim that devotion to the cause requires severing relations with others outside the group. Religious converts, battered wives, and people in institutions and prisons are often victims of impoverished connections to outside systems.

14. Watch out for attitudes you may have that reflect negative attitudes or stereotypes about others who are different from you – in race, ethnicity, religion, lifestyle, or politics. Learn more about the history, culture, traditions, or values of those different from you in these respects. Attend cultural, social, or other events of these groups. You’ll be less vulnerable to attacks on these groups or emotional appeals that see them as “the problem” or “evil” if you have seen them as ordinary people and not just some faceless monolithic group.

15. If you have trouble being assertive in the face of authority or are overly timid or passive, find an assertiveness training group, a counselor with a background in such training, or at least read a book on assertiveness training. In a nonthreatening situation, practice using the techniques you learn so you won’t feel so awkward or timid when you really need to stand up for yourself.

16. If you lack self-confidence or have excessively negative attitudes, fears, or anxieties that make you vulnerable to pressures from authority, seek professional counseling, or at least seek advice from an appropriate book (books based on cognitive therapy usually offer sensible and effective techniques that can help you change negative beliefs).

17. Practice going against social rules or conventions when no harm will occur as a result of breaking them. For example, dress differently than you normally do or differently than a social group you participate in, play devil’s advocate in your social, political, or religious group. You may find out that the consequences of being different are not as catastrophic as you imagine. Even if you get flak, it’s a psychologically stretching exercise.

Sharon Presley is a social psychologist. Her Ph.D. dissertation on political resisters to authority, chaired by Stanley Milgram, demonstrated the role of critical attitudes toward authority and highly developed moral judgment as factors in resistance to authority. She is currently executive director of Resources for Independent Thinking, a non-profit organization that provides educational tools to help people think for themselves and increase their critical thinking skills. Its address is 4067 Hardwick #129, Lakewood, CA 90712-2324.

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