November 29th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Can Anybody "Take Responsibility?" Does That Ever Work?

Back to the social psychology of evil for a second. Reading Zimbardo's list of some of the contributory factors in an environment that make it more likely that some people will choose evil means to achieve their goals and that as many as 999 out of a thousand people will join in or go along, one of them was a variable that measured the perception of "diffusion of responsibility." In other words, do people believe that if they do something that they and everybody else know to be evil, do they expect to be held accountable for it? While it's not a sufficient criterion, diffusion of responsibility alone won't make otherwise harmless people malevolent, it is a contributory factor. In other words, it makes an already dangerously potentially malevolent situation more dangerous.

Reading that, I remembered that one of Milgram's 18 variables in the original Milgram Obedience Experiment was whether or not a person who was costumed as an authority figure used the following sentence, "I take full responsibility." And thinking about that in the context of diffusion of responsibility, it struck me this week to wonder something about that English sentence. Is it ever true? Can that ever work? Is it even possible?

Maybe I'm showing my age here. I was, apparently, one of the last Americans to go through grade school at a time when schools in the USA were determined to raise us all to never be "good Germans," to never end up in some future war crimes trial because we accepted an evil order. As a result, I was taught as early as 1st grade, back in 1966, that one of the legal principles that the US insisted on in running the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials of captured Nazis and captured German soldiers was, "'I was only following orders' is not a defense. It's an indictment." And whether or not it's still taught, it's a meaningful legal principle.

Let me give you an example. Consider the loan sharking "industry," the division of the Mafia that makes loans at illegally high interest rates to people who can not otherwise borrow money and who are desperate enough to risk Mafia displeasure if they turn out to be unable to pay. Since the Mafia can't collect on those loans via court settlement, they rely on the judicious, intermittent use of men who are called "torpedoes," or less somewhat colorfully, leg-breakers. Often enough to make an example out of someone who couldn't pay his debts, often enough to scare the rest into going to heroic lengths to repay, they hire a guy to go out and beat someone who's in default so severely that they have to go to the hospital.

Now, if you analyze the history of leg-breaking as a profession, if you read confessions of former leg-breakers and so forth, you can see a lot of Zimbardo's variables in operation here. In fact, the more I think about it, the more of them apply. The Mafia has a disparaging name for people who default on loan-sharking debts, "welchers," and we know that denigrating one group of people to another makes it much more likely that the latter group will do something truly awful to the former. Leg-breakers are never sent into their own neighborhoods, so there's the presumption of anonymity. There's even the correlative factor that being a leg-breaker is a boring job 99% of the time, that most of it consists of being paid to sit around and not go to the fake job that you're supposedly being actually paid for. There is no uniform or change to the leg-breaker's appearance while he's on the job, I guess they missed that one. But add to the mix something that I don't know if Mafia lieutenants say to leg-breakers consistently or not. Let's assume that when a Mafia lieutenant sends somebody out to put a dead-beat in the hospital for the first time, if the newly hired leg-breaker expresses any reservations about whether they should do this or not or shows any hint of sympathy for their victim, the Mafia lieutenant says, "Don't worry, I accept full responsibility for this."

Did that sentence actually change anything? If the leg-breaker is arrested, he's not going to get a Get Out of Jail Free card because someone else uttered the phrase "I accept full responsibility." At best he might, maybe, but not certainly be able to cut a deal with prosecutors for a reduced sentence if he testifies against the person who "took responsibility." But society won't forgive him just because someone else "took responsibility," nor would any of the world's major religions forgive him just because someone else "took responsibility." So you ask me: why on earth would anybody ever believe that it is possible for another person to "take responsibility" or "assume responsibility" for their own actions? I saw, even as a small child, that this couldn't possibly work. But maybe I missed something. Everybody else must, under at least some circumstances and on some level, believe it to be true because it's been shown scientifically in multiple studies and multiple contexts that when an authority figure promises to accept responsibility for their inferiors, their inferiors behave as if this were possible. Why does this happen? What's going on here?