Skip to main content.

Back to: >> Personal action

Dealing With The Psychological Roots of Authoritarianism

Do You Want a Paint-by-Number Life or Are You Working on an Original?
Kris Rosenberg

According to the authority Philip Zimbardo:

    A locus of control orientation is a belief about whether the outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do (internal control orientation) or on events outside our personal control (external control orientation)."

George Lakoff addresses how this issue affects politics in our times. See: Moral politics - George Lakoff

The essence of what follows provides hope for the future, the long term future, that is. Regrettably, for the sake of self-serving political, religious, and economic goals, the path our nation is on currently is making the situation worse at a cost that goes beyond imagination. But in order to save ourselves, we must first understand the way off this burning ship, this violence trap, this "asymmetrical war" among cultures.

The way out is not to shift the ship's steering control in response to every ghost in the closet. That only enhances the cycle of violence which is so evident in Iraq, Palestine, and everywhere else political violence is prevalent. By humiliating ordinary Iraqi prisoners, we humiliate a culture with an effect identical to that encountered by Israel in Palestine. Iraqis, who welcomed us at first, now despise us. We seem to be trying to pick a fight with the whole of Islam! We must elevate our vision and deepen our insights to the underlying psychology of these cultures. If we thoughtfully and seriously look, we will find that the enemy lurks within each of us, yes, each of us. And that is what was on full display at Abu Ghraib Prison. Ordinary people in an ordinary system followed their ordinary instincts all the way to the top and down again. It may be too late to make over this occupation, but it is not too late to try to make this ordinary system become extraordinary.

Basically, the issue is simple. Do we, as individuals, practice what we know is right or do we merely follow others? Do we even have a society that will permit doing what is right? The present administration, in valuing loyalty above all else, is answering "NO" to the latter question and in the process is disparaging free expression guaranteed by the Constitution. Those who thoughtfully practice what is right are even branded as traitors! At the same time, only those who follow through with what they know is right are truly free. And, like Hitler in his Germany, George W. Bush in our time is counting on American voters to behave like sheep.

As individuals and as a nation, we should be concerned because nothing less than our own freedom is at stake. One antidote is to raise our children to have internal loci of control. That is not as difficult as it sounds. Practicing Dialogue with our children from the time they can speak is all that most kids ever require, for they become free thinkers in the process. Dialogue only works when parents go into it with integrity, with their child's ultimate welfare in mind.

It is not quite that simple. Unrestrained, totally free expression that remains unrestrained, produces spoiled brats, dictators if you will. A civilized thinking person will have a healthy balance of internal and external loci of controls. The latter is needed to make us civilized, the former is required do avoid becoming sheep, subservient to despotism in whatever expression, interpersonal, political, economic, religious. The Japanese Society provides a contemporary example of how to achieve some balance between the external and internal loci of controls. Time will tell if the Japanese system is optimal -- it may still be short in individual expression. Nevertheless, the Japanese system may well be the best one around for avoiding conflict within a single society.

Both internal and external loci of control are necessary to guard against Extremism , for it is the ultimate enemy of all humankind.

Return to Menu

By now, we have all heard of whistle blowers. It is probably not surprising that a large number of us (possibly the majority) disapprove of their activities. Never mind that whistle blowers save the public countless dollars and peace of mind while insuring the integrity of the system required to earn the lasting respect of society, much less the world. A perfect example of this mind-set rests with the recent Abu Ghraib Prison incident. There, American guards at Hussein's infamous Abu Ghraib Prison (and terrorists elsewhere) humiliated captives in violation of the Geneva Convention. Specialist Charles A. Grainer Jr. and Pfc. Lynndie R. England were among those proudly humiliating their Iraqi captives. Each has received prominent headlines. Doubtless many readers secretly envied them; even more perhaps identified with Grainer and England sub-consciously. It is no accident that England will do time in prison while her superiors at levels responsible for policy and its enforcement escape punishment.

But in the reporting of these events, how many of us have heard of Lt. David O Sutton who put an end to one such incident at Abu Ghraib? And just who are William J. Kimbro and Joseph M Darby? Have you heard of them?

      Kimbro is a Navy dog handler who refused to participate in improper interrogations and Darby gave military police the evidence they needed to sound the alarm about improper interrogations at Abu Ghraib. These people are patriots, not rats. They also do not make the headlines, which speaks volumes about American society, its political leadership and news organs.

Basic Conflict
Return to Menu

There we have the difference. The abusers and the squealers, so to speak. I choose the word squealer carefully, as that is the term I recall from my first playground experiences in school. The implied threat I felt at times, though I could not have put it in perspective or words as a child, was that if I squealed about another's misdeed, I would be kicked off the playground--alone. Of course, love and respect by pals verified my personhood and gave me the security I needed. So, rarely did I have the courage to squeal. To be labeled a rat was equivalent to doom! And so it was/is all over America and maybe in much of the world as well. My basic conflict was between what I knew to be right and the acceptance and regard of my peers whose approval I also needed as my personal support system.

Islam makes much of behavior. Behave in the prescribed manner and you will have the support of your group. Radical mullahs and terrorists merely take this "devotion" to the extreme. To be a Darby in the world of Islam is to be an apostate--the most despicable person possible. Apostates may be killed on sight once identified, or even killed on suspicion! American society may be less extreme, but it is not different fundamentally. The basic issue is the same in both camps.

Psychological Perspective
Return to Menu

The power to resist coercion arises from a person's internal locus of control. That is, his or her ability to determine one's own destiny, not to be coerced. In contrast, those coerced by others are assuming an external locus of control. Too often, the latter rise to positions of command or governance. Such people have authoritarian personalities (Visit Milgram and Adorno for more complete descriptions.) Philip Zimbardo, a renowned psychologist, has this to say about Abu Ghraib, in the Boston Globe:

    "If only this were about a few bad apples. It's more likely that a few "good apples" were "corrupted by an evil barrel." In 1971, I designed the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, in which student volunteers role-played prisoners and guards in a simulated prison. We had to call off the experiment after six days because the "guards" were becoming alarmingly sadistic even though the whole thing was a game. Some of what they did to the "prisoners"--stripping them, hooding them, forcing them to simulate sodomy--eerily resembles events at Abu Ghraib. The lesson is as simple as it is chilling: When people are given permission by a higher authority to suspend their moral values, they quickly devolve into savagery."

Zimbardo's student cohort was not composed of roughnecks. All participants were from middle and upper classes, and certainly quite bright. If this can happen among such people, why are we surprised by Abu Ghraib? Do we have our heads in the sand?! Zimbardo, in his book, "The Lucifer Effect" reported only a couple of students in a cohort of two dozen who went against the grain. [This is about the same frequency Milgam found in authoritarianism at Yale.] Zimbardo's result is most chilling; it predicted My Lai, Abu Ghraib, and the Rwandan massacre. In each case, supervision was lacking.

Each of us can and must balance the degrees to which we follow our internal locus of control relative to external pressures to follow the crowd. Do we set out our own destiny or do we follow the maps of others? In short, do we emulate the lockstep of Hitler's supporters or do we learn to think for ourselves? This issue lies at the very heart of American society, and of course, much of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity as well.

Now that we know an essence, we can do something for the next generation even as it may be too late for many of us. Just maybe we can begin turning the world away from terror as a means to effect political, plutocratic or religious goals. This possibility has profound ramifications. To the extent our families, society, and school systems teach and reward individuality and originality, to that extent we can resist coercion to violate established laws--not to mention human decency, morality and corporate ethics. Grainer and England exemplify the external locus of control near its worst perhaps. See Witch Hunters or Hitler for worse. Sutton, Kimbro and Darby are examples of the power of an internal locus of control . In true Authoritarian fashion, Bush and Rumsfeld are wrapping themselves with righteous indignation and vows to cure the problem. The cures they are setting out to bring about are mere Band-Aids intended to serve their political purposes.

For more on this critical topic see: Activate Your Potential.

For different slants on this issue, see Anahad O'Conner, NYT, 14 May 2004, Page A11, and Robert J. Lifton, The Nation, 31 May 2004, Page 4.

An anecdote.
Return to Menu

One Person's Journey to Self Enlightenment
(Toward an internal Locus of Control)

      I don't know much about ants, except that the big red ants that lives on the Mojave desert can give you a healthy sting when you step on them with your barefoot. When I was about nine, I went to war against the ants in our backyard. First I caved in all the anthills. Of course, the next day in Antville it was business as usual. So I found a shovel and dug deep, smashing all to be seen in blitzkrieg fashion. That worked better, but three days later it was again as if nothing had happened. Then I got to thinking about how I might waylay them. This led to a crumbs-and-ambush technique which had no effect at all. When I asked for poison, the only kind available was some Flit that had to be rationed for killing flies, and wiser heads knew even ant poison was a losing game where we lived.

      Wearing shoes, the best strategy of course, would have avoided all the stings, but I didn't own a pair. So my war continued, being stung once or twice a day played havoc with my playtime. So, I began watching my nemeses carefully, everywhere I found them. After several days I realized that they had trouble climbing glass windows. So I put an old Coleman Lantern glass over an ant hill as a barrier they couldn't climb over. The next morning I discovered they had tunneled under it to continue their mischief. So I gave up. Then one day it came to me, out of nowhere.

      I found an empty Coke bottle in the dump, polished its top and throat, and buried it in a strategic place at the foot of an ant hill. I leveled the sand exactly flush with the lip of the bottle. Then I watched. Sure enough, ants on the run couldn't stop in time and wound up in the bottle, and couldn't climb out! The next day, there were only a few ants left from the six or so nests I had ambushed. Soon I had a dozen coke bottles each nearly full of red fire ants. I never completely won that war, but ant stings went down to once a week or so. My need, curiosity, and persistence combined toward a creative result.

      But no way could I be as persistent as the ants were, a lesson in itself!

      The lasting effect from this experience was that it became the first of many where I remember being allowed to set my own destiny. Free thinking became a habit, then it became ingrained and part of my adult personality. And I was fortunate in school. Though none of my early schools were good, a few of my teachers gave me room. I lived and died for them as I endured the rest.

The above story is a mere anecdote, but it captures an essence. By being persistent and being allowed to become self-actualized for self-learning, comprehension became insight. And insight strengthened internal control by giving its holder a win; it was the beginning of many such experiences that cemented in an internal Locus of Control for its owner. Along the way there were setbacks, of course. But forward won out in the end.

Return to Menu

Just as ordinary people can be radicalized to become terrorists, so also each of us can find in ourselves the wherewithal to sail our own ship. With practice, it can become second nature and resistant to coercion.

Societies that encourage true freedom of thought and opinion, are the groundbreakers; they develop strength in individual minds. But our society has gone soft, not by what is on TV, but by affluence over generations, the affluence that tends to spoil people, as it did the Romans. And we have learned to fear all the wrong things and believe even blatant propaganda.

Our society is often criticized for what is on TV. Now what is on TV is not necessarily all bad, though frequent graphic violence can lead a suggestible mind to emulate same in perpetuating our culture of violence. TV just does not reinforce the things we need to become as individuals in a society that insures peaceful living. Compare one child, passively entertained by comedies, sports or game shows with another child visiting a website hosting a natural history, science, games with various levels requiring insight to solve or win. The passive kid gets a laugh; the active kid gets information, a deepened insight into things, and a win. Now extend these experiences for months and years. Which child as an adult is more likely to go with the flow in a situation similar to Abu Ghraib? Which child will win a Purple Heart or Medal of Honor? Which will try to leave the world better than s/he found it? Which kid leads which kid?

This concept is true even as ultra-conservative forces everywhere try to reset clocks to medieval times. One of their pet projects involves standardized testing in all schools. This is certainly a valid way to measure performance. But what is the downside? Kids with external Locus of Control, robots, nonthinkers, that's what. Meeting standards only in what one knows, ensures an external locus of control, the kind Hitler drooled over. As a nation, we need more freedom of thinking, not less. Along with the Homeland Security Act, "No Child Left Behind" is a step backward, not forward. It fosters rote teaching and external locus of control even as it implies the opposite--insight with internalized control.

After three years, the initial scores are in. Any way you slice the data, the program so far has fallen short. It fails public education in important ways. The Administration proclaims that if there are any problems, it's only because the system is so new. But, even if the system or the schools are new, they are staffed by veterans. And if they aren't, why not? This smells a bit like Iraq. Many of the states have seen the light and the problems. Propaganda cannot cover this one up, at least not yet.

The real virtue in an internal Locus of Control is not so much the skills we develop as it is the morality we develop along the way--the kind exemplified by Sutton, Kimbro and Darby who brought the crimes of Abu Ghraib to light.

Moreover, Internal Locus of Control is more than that. It also encourages thinking, the kind needed to distinguish malevolence from benevolence, thoughtfulness from propaganda, and reality from fantasy. Since these traits are important for voters when evaluating those running for public office, politicians who put their own interests ahead of the electorate will torpedo the idea. And so it seems to have come about.

Finally, an internal Locus of Control provides self-motivation and self-actualization. In this way, an internal Locus of Control serves as a call to action for many people. Doubtless the folks who resisted the hijackers on flight UA93 were internally activated as were the Guardian Patriots we honor on this site.

Preventing Psychic Damage -- Actions We Can Take
Return to Menu

If there is a "call to arms" on this web site, this page is it. There are many things we can do. They are not traditional for these are extraordinary times. For starters, some ways for encouraging people, young people especially, in gaining internal control and directing their own destiny follow:

  • Provide home environments that support and reward individuality in thinking at all ages.
  • Teach reading at the earliest possible stage of human development; concentrate as much as necessary on character and word recognition for all students; bring the entire student populace to reading fluency. [Unless we can read, the world passes us by; this may be one place where standardized performance may be helpful. The dyslexics among us need extra patience and extended practice reading, for we may be slow in no other way.]
  • Reward achieving insights into information and the use of logic with insight.
  • Encourage independence of thought along with rigor.
  • Provide educational environments conducive to and supportive of individual expression and creative activities; reward creative achievements in such ways that build individual self-confidence.
  • Teach with insight via dialogue into the workings of the Socratic methods with empathy; use positive reward systems for progress and independent thinking. [Interpreting information correctly requires deep insight into the social as well as practical elements in human situations--especially important when dealing with one's own hang-ups as well as with those of others.]
  • Teach natural and human history with emphasis on the psychology and technologies evident in the historical eras, the repeating issues of war and peace, and pendulum swings arising from the march of folly. Emphasize the historic march of folly that history repeats in the large. [Psycho-history could well be the most fascinating of careers for the young and curious; history, anthropology, sociology and psychology would be elements to be molded into a coherent whole. What is it that keeps leading humanity astray could well be the main question?].
  • Teach mythos (philosophy and religion) as a natural counterpoint to logos (science, engineering, and technology). Include both for what they are, qualitatively different disciplines and ways of thinking that serve different human needs. Emphasize their differences.
  • Encourage dialogue throughout society, for dialogue is the highest form of communication, and the least authoritarian.
  • Provide universal public education for all citizens who wish it and can achieve it through the bachelor degree.
  • Create truly equal opportunities for both genders, all races, and ethnic groups.
  • Study the peaceful cultures, such as those of Asia, for their secrets. China, for example, has never been an expansionist country, unlike countries in Europe and the Middle East. Reasons may be found in Buddhism and Confucianism. Wisdom of the ages is contained in each. Look for the effects of Locus of Control. Look also for how these cultures provide morality through external loci of control that recognize that the whole is more important than any one individual.
  • On the national scale, study the differences in violence shown between cities like Honolulu and Washington DC. Look for the effects of Locus of Control, for they are there.

In other words:

  • Help people learn to think and enjoy learning.
  • Make the world interconnected early in life.
  • Make life interesting.

Kris Rosenberg was a living example of an internal Locus of Control -- from quite a young age. See her personal essay "Even a Child Can Do It." But Kris married too young, the in-thing to do when you could not go on to college. She did not begin working toward full internal activation and finding herself until she was 35, handicapped by polio, and responsible for a house full of children. Part of what she was, she was born with. Her deep insights into life she developed on her own, one little victory at a time. You can do it too. (See Memorial and her articles on Inner Peace for more from this remarkable woman.)

For most of us now living, it will be more difficult for us to re-track our minds along more self-insightful lines. Most importantly perhaps, many of us resist change by nature, particularly if we have an authoritarian bent, or hang-up, as most of us do. When that influence is minimal, some people can take on new attitudes simply by trying repetitively. And yes it cane be done; see Can People Change.

Linking up with, and relating, to self-actualized people with strong internal loci of control who naturally engage in dialogue may be sufficient. Remember dialogue requires a measure of empathy--an ability to put one's self in the other's shoes, hear them out respectfully, resting on what is said, and responding honestly about one's own thinking and feelings.

If that seems not to work, one might try Operant Conditioning, the details of which date back to B F Skinner How one does this makes a difference. In many cases, mere study of the technique is enough to allow a change in course.

As a last resort perhaps, professional intervention may work. How successful this would be depends mostly on the skill of the professional and the desire to change on the part of the individual. So proceed with care in selecting a professional. It may be quite difficult to find a professional who provides a comfortable environment in which growth is enabled.

We have a right to expect certification and experience, but there is more to positive result. A string of degrees, even awards, do not ensure competence. And even when competence is present, trust might not be as it often depends on prior experiences on the part of either party that may hinder full communication. If progress toward knowing ourselves--the precursor to change--does not begin after two-three sessions, we would consider changing professionals.

There is no shame in getting to know one's self better, after all we all have Hang-Ups. The rewards often begin in short order. Rewards lead to enhanced self regard, less anxiety, and improved relationships with others.

MACHINE TRANSLATE: This or any other page: Download Babylon


No comments yet

To be able to post comments, please register on the site.