The Counterintuitive Nature of Actions: From Milgram to Sewol

Reading through Kia Ma’s article about the sinking of the South Korean passenger ferry, I was slightly taken back by the Dallas Morning News comment on the event, which stated,“ If that was a boatload of American students, you know they would have been finding any and every way to get off that ferry. But in Asian cultures…compliance is de rigueur.”

To me, the comment wasn't interesting for what it said about Asians (Koreans) but what it said about Americans. The quote was powerful in its sheer confidence that American students would act both defiantly towards an authority, and would act differently in a crisis situation.

However, it was 63 years ago when a famous hypothesis was tested in hopes of finding an answer not too dissimilar to the Dallas Morning commentary on American defiance.

As an academic, Milgram (1963) set out to understand the nature of obedience to authority. Not just obedience, as a child obeys his father, but the type of obedience that ultimately goes against an individual’s better judgements. What Milgram referred to as “destructive obedience.” He wanted to know to what extent would an individual obey authority — even if obedience meant inflicting pain and harm to another individual through the delivery of electric shocks to a stranger.

The results from Milgram’s (1963, 1965, 1974) experiments were profoundly disturbing: 65% of the participants followed strict orders to give a full 450-volts to the “learner” in his experiment. If you include those who refused to administer shocks between the 315-450 volts range, that would increase obedience towards 87.5% — where pain was audible at 150-volts (it should be noted, the “victim” affected pain for the experiment). In cases of extreme cognitive dissonance, subjects were drawn into fits of giggles and, in some cases, seizures. In other cases, subjects would follow through in cold-matter-of-fact compliance.

Interestingly, before his experiment, Milgram decided to poll a group of Yale seniors about the possible outcomes of his experiments. What he found has repeatedly confirmed the inclination to think that one’s inner-group or tribal connections are exceptionally different. With the Yale students, he asked what percentage of subjects would “comply” with instructions to go to the full 450-volts. He polled a 1.2% compliance rate. Curious to know if results would be replicated by an older sample, he also polled a group of 40 psychiatrists on the possible outcomes of his experiment, and found a projected obedience rate of 0.125%. In no uncertain terms, the Yale students ended up being off by a factor of 500%. The group of psychiatrists were off by a staggering 52,000%. No one ever imagined a 65%+ compliance rate to authority.

The point here is quite simple. People commit errors all the time. At some level, one expects errors to be randomly distributed. If not, there’s the perception that something is fundamentally wrong underlying the manifest “error.” The Yale students made a mistake in their estimation. They believed their “own” would act differently. As so, the 40 psychologists also made a mistake in their estimation, a very big one (or what’s referred to as a Fundamental Attribution Error). However, they can be forgiven. They were living at a time when early social-psychology work on Attribution Errors was in its infancy. But. They did make mistakes in their estimates. Never did they imagine the counterintuitive findings of ordinary middle-Americans obeying an malevolent authority figure, going against their better judgement — and engaging in what was effectively human torture.

What Milgram and other psychologists have found is that people consistently underestimate the situational forces present in any event. When people make attributional inferences, they often play up dispositional factors in explaining 3rd person behavior, while overestimating situational pressures when explaining their own behavior. For instance, when you hear cultural determinists talk about the Sewol sinking, they will inevitably describe the behaviors of the Korean high school students as guided by dispositional factors (Obedience). However, if you ask them how they would have behaved if they were on that doomed passenger ferry, they would be biased towards taking into account situational circumstances in explaining their actions. This is the very definition of a Fundamental Attribution Error.

An error that often leads to a misinterpretation of events from those who experienced it first-hand. And an error that misunderstands the complex and often counterintuitive logic that can guide human action under the influence of an authority figure.

In the same way, when the Dallas Morning News chooses to cast the actions of Asians as “compliance is de rigueur” — while describing the actions of American students as “finding any and every way to get off that ferry”. Guess what they are doing. They are fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of the April 16th events. If the famous Milgram’s studies have taught us anything over time, it is that given a highly unique set of conditions with an authority figure present, humans can act counterintuitive to what we would expect, irrespective of culture.