How Human Nature and Conformity Support Toxic Leaders

The normal reaction to an abnormal situation is abnormal behavior – James Waller (Author of Becoming Evil – How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing – 2007)

When I started this blog a few years ago, I had no idea that I would ever attend college to get a degree in anything. Back then my goal was to find professors of humanistic studies, such as psychology, sociology, political science, etc., and convince them to take on predatory leadership as a field of study. I envisioned dozens, if not hundreds, of brilliant and humanely motivated students researching the origins, nature and solutions to the problem of toxic personalities in positions of power and control throughout the world.
I eventually understood that by the time an academic achieved a measure of prowess and success in her or his chosen field, they were locked into that field, and that to switch to a new field of study would probably not be healthy for their academic position or means of support. I finally accepted that I have to become the academic that I have been seeking.
I started the process last March, signing up with Walden University to earn a degree in psychology. If I am able to sustain the work, in ten years or so, around the age of 70, I should be sporting a Ph.D. in some psychological specialty so that those who only listen to people with initials after their names will be more open to considering the possibility that we can redesign our culture to minimize or eliminate the corruption of the abusive leader.

So far I have greatly enjoyed the process of going back to school. Yes, I’m four decades later than most but there are advantages. I am certainly approaching the experience with much more interest, purpose, pleasure and anticipation than if I had followed the traditional path of entering college immediately after graduating high school. I am able to keep up with the reading and homework fairly well, considering that I am also self employed full time and traveling a fair amount in the course of my work.
The greatest benefit is that I am able to directly apply what I am learning about human nature to my ongoing study of the nature and impact of predatory leadership. In some cases I already understand the material but the study is filling in gaps and providing a more solid foundation for my work.

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This week we are studying social psychology and the power of social influence – how, as humans, we conform and comply as we live and work with and within various groups and organizations such as our family, our work environment, our spiritual or religious community, and the crowds in which we may occasionally find ourselves.

I wasn’t aware that there are numerous studies of how people will modify their beliefs and behaviors in order to fit in with the various groups in their environment. I had read a little bit about the experiments by Stanley Milgrim and Philip Zimbardo that revealed how role playing volunteer students in positions of power over other volunteer students fairly easily moved beyond positions of regard and respect for others as they acted out that power. In Milgrim’s work, as far as the students could tell, they were inflicting significant pain while in Zimbardo’s work, they began subjecting the powerless volunteers to humiliating behavior. In Zimbardo’s experiment, many of the powerless volunteers played their parts to the extent that they accepted and fulfilled their subservient roles. The intensity to which all players fulfilled their roles caused Zimbardo to end the experiment after six days.

The insights of these studies begin to explain how entire populations can be motivated to carry out the extreme examples of inhumane behavior as it shows up in war, racism and other tragic behaviors. Not every predatory leader is a sociopath or abusive personality but so far I am standing with my belief that these kinds of personalities either created or modified the conditions in which our worst behaviors are played out. From my perspective, no war was ever started or even desired by a population; a few “leaders” took careful steps to move their constituents from complacency to leaving their homes to travel to some other place and attack another group of people.
In this week’s studies, I learned that one of the tools to help accomplish this is called the foot-in-the-door phenomenon. It basically says that if you can get someone to agree to a small request first, later it will be easier to get them to agree to a larger request. You can see this technique in play in the way the Bush Administration moved Congress and the nation into war with Iraq.

Another tool takes advantage of our innate nature as social people: the need to conform as described above. When our actions are out of line with our attitudes, we experience tension. When the actions are engaged as a way to conform to the community, one way to resolve that tension is to adjust your attitude. This can be seen as idealistic young teachers or hospital staff become apathetic and disenchanted with their work as they conform to their older co-workers who conformed themselves earlier in their career.

A couple of years ago, I read “The Book Thief” about a  young girl growing up in Nazi Germany in the mid 1930’s. A powerful theme in the book described how those who, in spite of not buying into Hitler’s vision, had conformed to the Nazi model of governance in which the population lived in an atmosphere of fear and paranoia; their compliance allowed no opportunity for resistance to Hitler’s path to war.

The formulas to ensure conformity and compliance are frighteningly easy to employ – one more element that helps to support and sustain a culture of predatory leadership.

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