The neurology of cross-cultural authority?

So I was thinking the other day about the question of why do people go along with others and do things even when they know they believe (or know) they shouldn’t. As Tolstoy asks, why did the French army go along with this mad idea to invade Russia in 1812? Why did Milgram’s subjects obey his orders to “electrocute” people? Why do I feel emotionally distressed when refusing to do something, even when I have very good reasons to refuse?

As I mentioned ages ago, I suspect that normal people have neural circuits that reward them for imitating others and punish them for failing to imitate. Mirror neurons probably play a critical role in this process, but probably aren’t the complete story.

A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.[1][2][3] Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. …  In humans, brain activity consistent with that of mirror neurons has been found in the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex and the inferior parietal cortex.[6] (Wikipedia)

These feedback loops are critical for learning–infants only a few months old begin the process of learning to talk by moving their mouths and making “ba ba” noises in imitation of their parents. (Hence why it is called “babbling.”) They do not consciously say to themselves, “let me try to communicate with the big people by making their noises;” they just automatically move their faces to match the faces you make at them. It’s an instinct.

You probably do this, too. Just watch what happens when one person in a room yawns and then everyone else feels compelled to do it, too. Or if you suddenly turn and look at something behind the group of people you’re with–others will likely turn and look, too.

Autistic infants have trouble with imitation, (and according to Wikipedia, several studies have found abnormalities in their mirror neuron systems, though I suspect the matter is far from settled–among other things, I am not convinced that everyone with an ASD diagnosis actually has the same thing going on.) Nevertheless, there is probably a direct link between autistic infants’ difficulties with imitation and their difficulties learning to talk.

For adults, imitation is less critical (you can, after all, consciously decide to learn a new language,) but still important for survival. If everyone in your village drinks out of one well and avoids the other well, even if no one can explain why, it’s probably a good idea to go along and only drink out of the “good” well. Something pretty bad probably happened to the last guy who drank out of the “bad” well, otherwise the entire village wouldn’t have stopped drinking out of it. If you’re out picking berries with your friends when suddenly one of them runs by yelling “Tiger!” you don’t want to stand there and yell, “Are you sure?” You want to imitate them, and fast.

Highly non-conformist people probably have “defective” or low-functioning feedback loops. They simply feel less compulsion to imitate others–it doesn’t even occur to them to imitate others! These folks might die in interesting ways, but in the meanwhile, they’re good sources for ideas other people just wouldn’t have thought of. I suspect they are concentrated in the arts, though clearly some of them are in programming.

Normal people’s feedback loops kick in when they are not imitating others around them, making them feel embarrassed, awkward, or guilty. When they imitate others, their brains reward them, making them feel happy. This leads people to enjoy a variety of group-based activities, from football games to prayer circles to line dancing to political rallies.

Normal people having fun by synchronizing their bodily movements.
Normal people having fun by synchronizing their bodily movements.

At its extreme, these groups become “mobs,” committing violent acts that many of the folks involved wouldn’t under normal circumstances.

Highly conformist people’s feedback loops are probably over-active, making them feel awkward or uncomfortable while simply observing other people not imitating the group. This discomfort can only be relieved by getting those other people to conform. These folks tend to favor more restrictive social policies and can’t understand why other people would possibly want to do those horrible, non-conforming things.

To reiterate: this feedback system exists because helped your ancestors survive. It is not people being “sheep;” it is a perfectly sensible approach to learning about the world and avoiding dangers. And different people have stronger or weaker feedback loops, resulting in more or less instinctual desire to go along with and imitate others.

However, there are times when you shouldn’t imitate others. Times when, in fact, everyone else is wrong.

The Milgram Experiment places the subject in a situation where their instinct to obey the experimenter (an “authority figure”) is in conflict with their rational desire not to harm others (and their instinctual empathizing with the person being “electrocuted.”)

In case you have forgotten the Milgram Experiment, it went like this: an unaware subject is brought into the lab, where he meets the “scientist” and a “student,” who are really in cahoots. The subject is told that he is going to assist with an experiment to see whether administering electric shocks to the “student” will make him learn faster. The “student” also tells the student, in confidence, that he has a heart condition.

The real experiment is to see if the subject will shock the “student” to death at the “scientist’s” urging.

No actual shocks are administered, but the “student” is a good actor, making out that he is in terrible pain and then suddenly going silent, etc.

Before the experiment, Milgram polled various people, both students and “experts” in psychology, and pretty much everyone agreed that virtually no one would administer all of the shocks, even when pressured by the “scientist.”

In Milgram’s first set of experiments, 65 percent (26 of 40) of experiment participants administered the experiment’s final massive 450-volt shock,[1] though many were very uncomfortable doing so; at some point, every participant paused and questioned the experiment; some said they would refund the money they were paid for participating in the experiment. Throughout the experiment, subjects displayed varying degrees of tension and stress. Subjects were sweating, trembling, stuttering, biting their lips, groaning, digging their fingernails into their skin, and some were even having nervous laughing fits or seizures. (bold mine)

I’m skeptical about the seizures, but the rest sounds about right. Resisting one’s own instinctual desire to obey–or putting the desire to obey in conflict with one’s other desires–creates great emotional discomfort.

To Be Continued.