Posts Tagged ‘motivation’


It’s been fifty four years since Stanley Milgram made history with his experiment on obedience to authority.  His results are in every psychology course, political science theory, and argument about war.  I, myself, have taught the experiment’s hypothesis and results for years.

It turns out, there is an essential piece most of us are missing when we talk about this study.

In 1961, Stanley Milgram chose hundreds people to ostensibly be participants in an experiment on learning techniques.  In reality, he was searching for information on obedience.  After World War II, social psychologists were hellbent on figuring out how ordinary citizens participated in the mass killings of Jews; Milgram believed part of this phenomenon was as a result of being given orders by an authority figure, allowing people to rationalize their behavior and continue to kill their fellow citizens.  Milgram asked ‘teachers’ to administer shocks to ‘students’ (who were confederates not being shocked), with scientists in the room prodding them to continue if they wavered.

In Milgram’s most famous instance of this study, almost 65% of people continued shocking a subject past lethal levels, past screams of pain, past no response, as a scientist stood at their shoulder and reminded them the experiment required they continue.

Scary, right?

It totally is, but not for the reason you think.*

I’ve always understood this study to be an exercise in taking orders.  Milgram had four scripted responses for his ‘scientists’ to use to prod subjects into continuing to shock learners:

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential you continue.
  4. You have no choice but to continue; you must go on.

The first three are suggestions; strong prods, very persuasive, but not an order, not “you have to do this.”  When scientists used the fourth prod, people stopped administering shocks.

Turns out, we’re not really great at following orders.  People who heard the fourth prod started disobeying, stating they absolutely do have a choice, and it’s not to keep doing this, dammit!

Those of you knowledgeable with how psychology works, or close to a difficult teenager, will not be surprised by this finding.  We are not fond of feeling we’re not in charge of our own lives; the instinct can be to do the opposite of whatever you’re told.  Therefore, giving orders becomes more effective when they are strong suggestions; processes like denial of responsibility, confirmation bias, and rationalization can all start whirring away to make people believe following orders is their own choice.

If this sounds familiar, dear reader, it’s because it’s the same principle underlying one of the most effective psychological treatments ever practiced – motivational interviewing, which was codified in 1991, is based on the idea that confrontation is not helpful in changing behavior.  On the contrary – when people are confronted and they’re not ready to change, they tend to dig in their heels and negative behaviors become more entrenched.

The takeaway is not that we’re mindless automatons, waiting for our masters to tell us what to do; the truth is far more insidious.  We are suggestible.  If we can make ourselves believe we’re doing bad things for a good reason, or a reason that’s consistent with our own self-concept,  or if we can push the responsibility for our actions on someone or something outside of ourselves, we can be persuaded to continue.

And that should terrify every contrarian.

*(Radiolab just did a segment on this, which can be heard here)

So this morning I heard a song in my trampoline exercise class (which is fabulous, as you can imagine) with a chorus of “Only you can make me feel beautiful.”  Me being me, I started thinking about all the times that people tell others how beautiful they are.


First and foremost, one of the hallmarks of individuation is being able to know who you are and what you think about yourself, not being moved from who you are by feedback from others.  Gestalt therapy notes one of the issues leading to neurosis is a lack of clear boundaries between “me” and “not me.”  In our internet articles, magazines, books, and movies, it is emphasized  how “sexy” confidence is and how we have to be our own people.  However, this overt message contrasts with the covert messages in the products of popular culture; in this case, music and movies are the most obvious examples.

A lot of responsibility is placed on our partners for our feelings.  We assure people that we can see beyond the outside and we like what we see.  We place our very survival on another person simply being aroundThe number of these messages is tremendous and transcends genres and generations.

oy vey.

Aside from the obvious neediness and lack of our own lives here, there are a few intersections with mental health theory which may not be so stark.  Firstly, women (and men, to a lesser extent) are stuck waiting for their perfect partner.  I can’t be beautiful unless someone’s telling me I am.  I can’t feel beautiful if my partner doesn’t constantly assure me I am.  I can’t feel beautiful and be single.  I can’t feel beautiful when my partner isn’t making me feel I am.

The other aspect has to do with a defensive reaction, something we’ve talked extensively about and that motivational interviewing therapy ‎ is built to reduce.  When we’re told something, that we should do something or we are a certain way, a lot of us have a knee jerk reaction, a defense, that NO WAY reaction.  Even when it’s a “good” thing or “good” behavior we’re being pushed into.  The problem is the push.

so if i do, it’s your fault!

Does telling someone they’re beautiful defeat the purpose?  I know when someone tells me they’re having a bad hair day, and I tell them it looks fine, most of the time they dig in their heels to convince me I’m wrong and they’re right.  In psychology circles, it’s known as the confirmation bias and surprisingly (or not), it confirms we’d rather be right than happy.  We’d rather confirm I’m right about being ugly than be wrong and be beautiful.

The point isn’t to stop telling our partners they are beautiful or to stop accepting complements, but that we first need to change our self-concept and correct the stories we tell ourselves.  Only when we see ourselves as beautiful can we hear and appreciate others telling us the same.