The Agentic State: What Would You Do?

Denisa and I watched an interesting movie on Netflix Saturday: Experimenter. It’s a fairly low-budget depiction of the studies of Stanley Milgram focused on the resistance (or lack thereof) of people to authority. You might have heard about the study before: someone’s brought into a room and told they’re going to be administering a test to a person, and each time that person gets a question wrong, he’ll be given an electric shock that goes up in intensity each time. How far will the test-giver go? Will he stop once the shocks are too dangerous? It’s complicated by the fact that the person running the experiment continually reassures the test-giver that “no lasting damage” will be done to the taker, and that the experiment must continue.

It’s a good depiction of the test and the issues surrounding it. I recommend it. 4/5

But (naturally) it also get me thinking. It describes an “Agentic State,” where people disassociate themselves with their actions, once they begin to view themselves as the instrument of someone else. This is a concept that really resonates with me, as I feel like I see it manifest itself in many different parts of society. The film depicts it by showing a man go into a hospital needing emergency help, only to have the nurse shove papers in his face with an explanation that “these need to be filled out first.” But really, for me it boils down to doing anything simply because that’s the way it’s always been done, or because that’s what the “higher ups” have told you to do.

Ironically. sometimes I don’t think there need to be any actual “higher ups” to tell us to do things. All that’s necessary is a perception that there are higher ups who hold a certain position. If enough people believe that something has to be done a certain way, it doesn’t really matter if no one “higher up” actually believes the same thing or not. Milgram used this study to partly explain how it was possible that so many people could buy into the horrors of the Holocaust, and while his findings have been disputed, the question remains the same.

The easy way out is to dodge the question and say the Holocaust was due to a flaw in the German people. (In the film, that’s what Milgram said he expected to find.) But having lived in Germany for two years, I can personally refute that claim. My experience has been that people are people, no matter their nation or race. We are susceptible to the same arguments and weaknesses, able to be manipulated the same way, motivated by the same desires. I’m not saying we all act the same, but rather that you find me any personality in one area of the world, and I’d be able to find a similar personality in another area.

This isn’t to say that following authority is always a bad thing. But I do believe it’s a good idea to question authority and to take ultimate responsibility for your own actions. Of course, in the act of questioning, others will automatically equate that with criticism, but it isn’t that at all. It’s simply important to be conscious of what you’re doing and why. It’s just too easy otherwise to shrug, say “that’s what they told me to do,” and merrily make a mistake.

I don’t have much more to offer than that today. Just a deep thought I came across Saturday night. And now, to lighten the mood a little, I present you with TRC’s favorite Super Bowl commercial:

Leave a comment