What it takes to stand up to authority
Most people do what authority figures tell them to – even when they disagree. The reason, it turns out, is hidden in the brain. The good news? It can be changed.
We like to think we’d do the right thing in a tough situation. We’d stand up to our boss when necessary, step in if we saw someone being bullied, and say no if we were asked to do something we felt was wrong. It’s tempting to think we have an innate moral compass that guides our actions, even under pressure from others.
In reality, however, most of us are remarkably bad at standing up to authority. New research is revealing why this is, giving us insight into how the brain deals with – or fails to deal with – these difficult situations. The research could show us how we can train ourselves to become stronger-minded and better able to stick to our guns when needed.
I’ve tested more than 450 participants, and so far only three refused to follow the orders.
(Emilie Caspar – social neuro-scientist)
At the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, volunteers gave each other electric shocks.
First, participants were asked to administer shocks for a small sum of money (about 5p each time). When a participant was given 60 chances to shock their partner, about half of the time they chose not to. Around 5-10% of people choose not to shock their partner on all 60 opportunities.
Then Caspar stood over the participants and ordered the person giving the shocks to do it. Now, even the participants who didn’t give any shocks previously started to press the button.
As soon as Caspar gave orders the
participants’ brain activity also changed, electroencephalogram (EEG) scans showed. In particular, research showed the brain became less able to process the consequences of the respon-dents’ actions.
Outermost layer of the front part the brain.
What is it about this part of the brain that helps us stand up to authority?
The question of belief. In order to understand a new idea or fact, our brain must, for a split-second, believe it completely. “The act of understanding is the act of believing. Whatever those processes are, they are the same.”
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