I study personalities…It helps me understand contrary people in particular and why they do and say certain things -- and why they advocate issues that are not always popular with the “agreeable” mainstream, whatever that may be.
Curious about a person's willingness to obey an authority figure, social psychologist Stanley Milgram a few decades ago began trials on a 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.
A new Milgram-like experiment published recently in the Journal of Personality took 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.
For an eight-month period, the researchers interviewed the study participants to gauge their social personality, as well as their personal history and political leanings. When they matched this data to the participants' behavior during the experiment, a distinct pattern emerged: People who were normally friendly followed orders because they didn't want to upset others, while those who were described as unfriendly stuck up for themselves.
"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." Some people who are religiously rigid (yes, even Christians) may well fall into the "agreeable, conscientous behavior" category. I can think of a lot of examples, but will let readers make that judgemental call.
The study also found that people holding left-wing political views were less willing to hurt others. One particular group held steady and refused destructive orders: "women who had previously participated in rebellious political activism such as strikes or occupying a factory."
The findings lend themselves even further to Milgram's original goal in the '60s: trying to understand the rise of Nazism. Milgram began his experiments in July 1961, three months after the start of the trial of German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. He believed his findings might help explain how seemingly nice people can do horrible things if they are ordered to do so.
Does that mean the Nazis were just nice people trying to follow the dictator Hitler's orders and be polite? You probably wouldn't want to go that far, but suffice to say, it turns out nice people just want to appease authorities, while rebels stick to their guns on moral grounds.
For me, I now try to be more understanding of rebel types because they just might be more morally social-minded than meets the eye. In all honesty, I sense some rebellious tendencies in myself and that is not necessarily a bad thing, I am happy to discover.