Milgram’s famous study of obedience found that 65% of people would kill another person, knowingly, if someone who they thought had higher status than them, told them to. You can watch the full documentary of his research here. He coined the term ‘agentic control’. Every year when I teach this to my A level students, they are shocked.
Milgram wanted to know why normal Germans had carried out the atrocities of the holocaust; we should all be shocked by what blind obedience can do.
What happens when people experience a reduced sense of personal control? Among the various strategies to defend against a perception of randomness, people may show an increased acceptance of external sources of control. Indeed, in one of the most classic studies in social psychology, Stanley Milgram referred to an “agentic shift”—the tendency to relinquish personal control to an external agent. (Revisiting the agentic shift: Weakening personal control increases susceptibility to social influence, Bob M. Fennis Henk Aarts)
The really interesting phrases in this quotation are that we ‘relinquish personal control to an external agent‘ when we perceive ‘randomness’
And Covid-19 is random.
We have allowed ourselves to believe the illusion that things are under control, when flights have continued to arrive and leave from all over the world, when we have been told that the virus is contained by asking people where they have been and who they have been in contact with.
The scope and scale of the spread of covid-19 is changing daily, randomly; the perfect breeding ground for agentic control; giving up our power to someone else; whether the government, our employers, our family and our friends.
When we are scared, it is nice to think that someone bigger than us is taking care of things.
I lived through the 80s. I had just got to poly when AIDS leaflets started dropping through our doors and it took years to bring the virus under control through changing people’s behaviour as well as drugs. In the end, the biggest change came from education so that individuals could do what they needed to do to keep themselves safe, which back then was using condoms and having ‘safe’ sex.
Now is not the time to sink into the warm glow of agentic control, waiting for someone else to look after us. Whilst we are told to do all the practical things, like washing hands and not touching our face, the government has told us to keep schools, airports, shops, concerts, public places and transport open at the moment. And so the virus spreads.
But here’s the thing – you have free will. You can read the information and make a choice for yourself. You can decide if you don’t want your kid to go to school. You can make the decision to self-isolate to prevent yourself catching the virus, not just to prevent yourself spreading it if you have it. Most of the people reading this will have enough capital resources to take time off work even if we are skint for a while if we take leave without pay. Of course it will piss people off, they will call you hysterical, disloyal etc. But you have a choice.
I know there is an argument that it is our ‘responsibility’ to keep schools and offices open so the economy can keep going. But really? The economy will adapt, and recover, but we and our loved ones may not. Is it responsible to send your children to school in an area where the virus in confirmed? Is it responsible to be part of the spread? Is it responsible to overwhelm doctors and nurses and put them at risk?
A month or two off work and school, staying local, staying home, eating simply and less is all possible and could be one of the most responsible things we can do.
Time will tell and maybe I’m over exaggerating the situation. And maybe not.
But now is really not a time for blind obedience. Think and make decisions for yourself.