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Opening Arguments

Nice and mean

Do you consider yourself a "nice" person? Careful, now:

In 1961, curious about a person's willingness to obey an authority figure, social psychologist Stanley Milgram began trials on his now-famous experiment. In it, he tested how far a subject would go electrically shocking a stranger (actually an actor faking the pain) simply because they were following orders. Some subjects, Milgram found, would follow directives until the person was dead.

The news: A new Milgram-like experiment published this month in the Journal of Personality has taken this idea to the next step by trying to understand which kinds of people are more or less willing to obey these kinds of orders. What researchers discovered was surprising: Those who are described as "agreeable, conscientious personalities" are more likely to follow orders and deliver electric shocks that they believe can harm innocent people, while "more contrarian, less agreeable personalities" are more likely to refuse to hurt others.

[. . .]

"The irony is that a personality disposition normally seen as antisocial — disagreeableness — may actually be linked to 'pro-social' behavior,'" writes Psychology Today's Kenneth Worthy. "This connection seems to arise from a willingness to sacrifice one's popularity a bit to act in a moral and just way toward other people, animals or the environment at large. Popularity, in the end, may be more a sign of social graces and perhaps a desire to fit in than any kind of moral superiority."

I don't quite know why this should be so surprising. Nice people want to be liked, so they will follow orders to please authorities. Contrarian jerks like me don't give a crap, so we stick to our own ideas. Another reaons to distrust populaar people.

I dunno, though. The story also says the study found that "people holding left-wing political views were less willing to hurt others," which seems sort of odd. Don't they look at things in terms of the group and what's good for the group? It seems a short step from that to going along with the group, however ugly it gets.

Posted in: Science