Happy Earth Day! I’ve read two books recently that provide some interesting insights into human behavior so I thought I’d attempt to interpret their relevance to modern commerce and consumerism.
Specifically, I think it’s important to understand the psychological interplay between the decision-makers in companies that harm the planet and society, and the consumers who financially support their existence despite the harm inflicted.
The first book, The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout (2005, Broadway Books) deals with the condition of sociopathy, or to give it the official clinical name, antisocial personality disorder. Sociopaths are people with little or no conscience, and may represent as much as 4% of the population (1 in 25 people). According to the Mayo Clinic, the symptoms may include:
- Disregard for right and wrong
- Persistent lying or deceit to exploit others
- Using charm or wit to manipulate others for personal gain or for sheer personal pleasure
- Repeatedly violating the rights of others by the use of intimidation, dishonesty and misrepresentation
- Lack of empathy for others and lack of remorse about harming others
- Irresponsible work behavior
So let’s assume that we have some people in power, whether political or corporate, who are not limited in their actions by a strong conscience. Perhaps they never had much of a conscience to begin with, or maybe they were conditioned over time by the political or corporate culture that became their life and learned to suppress their conscience. People with little or no conscience can profit from it by being willing to do things that people of conscience would not do. Anyone who has read or watched documentaries about corporate misbehavior over the last decade (finance, food, energy, water, etc.) should be in no doubt that there are people benefiting by ignoring their conscience and hurting others in the process.
What stops us from rejecting whatever that person has to offer – whether it’s a political point of view or a consumer product or service? According to Dr. Stout:
Very simply, we are programmed to obey authority even against our own consciences.
She gives two examples to support this disturbing claim. First, the psychological experiments of Professor Stanley Milgram in 1961-2. Milgram introduced his experiment as follows:
Of all moral principles, the one that comes closest to being universally accepted is this: one should not inflict suffering on a helpless person who is neither harmful nor threatening to oneself. This principle is the counterforce we shall set in opposition to obedience. A person coming to our laboratory will be ordered to act against another individual in increasingly severe fashion…
If you’ve never heard of Milgram’s experiments I’d encourage you to watch or read about them (here’s a summary and the original manuscript). In case you think society has changed that much since then, the experiments have been repeated over time by different people, including this reproduction in the UK in 2009, with similar results.
On the outcome, Milgram wrote:
A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.
Or, in the words of Dr. Stout:
Milgram believed that authority could put conscience to sleep mainly because the obedient person makes an “adjustment of thought,” which is to see himself as not responsible for his own actions.
This “adjustment of thought” makes it much easier for benign leadership to establish order and control, but … has countless times rolled out the red carpet for self-serving, malevolent, and sociopathic “authorities.”
Dr. Stout goes on to discuss studies by military psychologists in which soldiers are not as likely to kill if a commanding officer is not present to give the order—they will deliberately miss their subject or not fire at all. A U.S. combat historian for World War II (Brig. Gen. S. L. A. Marshall) wrote of many incidents in which almost everybody obeyed and fired their weapons when a commanding officer was present, but the firing rate dropped by around 80% when the commanding officer was absent.
Are we off topic here, discussing the psychology of killing? I don’t think so. Both the Milgram experiments and the psychology of war come to similar conclusions: that the vast majority of us don’t want to hurt or kill other humans, but with the correct conditioning from an authoritative source many of us can do just this. Just as the subject in Milgram’s experiment administers shocks to a person one room away, as long as a man in a white coat tells them to do it, we consumers often condone social and environmental atrocities because a company does it for us and tells us that it’s OK.
We need to no longer blindly accept the authority figure.
It may be that we are puppets—puppets controlled by the strings of society. But at least we are puppets with perception, with awareness. And perhaps awareness is the first step to our liberation. – Stanley Milgram.
Awareness, as Milgram says, is a key step. We can’t do anything about social or environmental problems that we are not aware of. We are, I believe, learning to no longer accept authority figures that come in the form of large multinational corporations, but the key is that we need to know which ones to steer clear of and which alternatives deserve our financial support as consumers.