Why Some People Resist Authority
One of the major aspects of social interaction is that certain individuals enjoy more authority and influence than others. Whether that be on a micro-level through teacher-student interactions in a classroom, or the power political figures exert over nations, psychologists have long been interested in the influence of authority on human behavior.
Most of us would like to believe that we would stand up to authority and refuse to do something we felt was morally wrong. But the reality is far from that. The reasons behind our tendency to obey commands from authority figures — even if it involves harming other people — have been of particular interest to psychologists for decades.
Stanley Milgram’s study on obedience and the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment are famous experiments on authority that revealed a shocking truth — human beings exhibit much more destructive compliance than we like to believe.
But what makes most individuals prone to following orders? Is it our biological makeup? And why are some people able to resist authority when the vast majority are not? Below, we tackle these commonly asked questions.
Why Are We Obedient To Authority?
An experimental study by social neuroscientist Emilie Caspar investigated why most humans are prone to following orders given by an authority figure. The experiment was conducted on over 450 participants, and it was found that only three refused to follow orders given by a person in command.
So what is it about human psychology that makes us obedient to authority? The experiment suggested that the makeup of our brains has a role to play in it. As the investigator gave participants orders to harm another individual, their brain activity began to change (as shown by brain scans).
It was found that coercion can change the sense of human agency in the brain, rendering it unable to process the consequences of one’s actions. When placed under psychological pressure by an authority figure, the participants’ sense of responsibility and agency seemed to melt away.
Then Why Do Some Individuals Resist Authority?
If orders from an authority figure melt away with the brain’s sense of agency and responsibility, then how can we explain resistance? How do individuals resist the status quo or exercise their right to silence when facing immense pressure during police investigations?
A study from the Society For Neuroscience has offered new evidence explaining why some individuals are more resistant to authority than others. The study found evidence that functional connectivity and specific features in the brain play a role in control aversion (the act of rebelling against constraints on personal decisions).
The results of the study suggested that the connectivity between two specific regions in the brain (the parietal lobe and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) was associated with control-aversive behavior. When there was stronger connectivity between the two areas, individuals exhibited more defiant behavior.
The results also showed that there was a significant difference in brain activity when the participants engaged in a game with free choice as opposed to when they were in controlling conditions. While the full role of these two brain regions is not fully understood yet, this study offers a biological explanation for why some individuals are predisposed to resisting authority figures.
Is It Biology Alone?
Many individuals have argued that the question of how the brain can resist authority is both scientific and philosophical. The brain’s prefrontal cortex, also referred to as the “protest center,” may be the basis of our ability to doubt and question authority.
But this is not a built-in functionality. Socialization, exposure, and development can strengthen and weaken this ability significantly and impact people’s ability to resist (or obey) authority.
For The Greater Good
Megan Birney, a psychologist at the University of Chester, has suggested that factors other than brain biology also influence our ability to resist authority. When it comes to large-scale obedience (for example following a political leader), individuals tend to obey their commands if they believe in the cause behind them.
When asked to do something morally objectionable by authority figures, people may push through the discomfort if they believe there is a greater good behind their actions. In conflicting situations, people also tend to identify with the cause they side with more, even if that leads to more harm than good.
Resisting Oppressive Authority
The research into brain processes responsible for resisting authority has just begun to surface. Multiple experiments have proven the powerful tendency of the human brain to comply with authority. And there aren’t any specific proven pathways people can take to train themselves to resist oppressive authority.
Nonetheless, studies such as Milgram’s have helped individuals gain insight into their natural tendency for obedience, making them better equipped at standing against unjust authority.
If you’re looking for ways to become more assertive and resistant to unjust authority, CBT might be a good idea.