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In Introduction to Political Psychology, Martha Cottam uses scientific methodology and procedures to unravel the mental reasoning behind social and domestic public policies. As we have journeyed through the first weeks of Govt 319, we have experienced the themes in Cottam in our day-to-day group exercises, class activities and lectures. In particular, we have studied the imposing influence of authoritarian rule on personalities. In “the Wave” we saw a group of high school students empowered through fascism/authoritarian rule, mobilized by a larger ideal, take power.
In the Stanford Prison Experiment we saw how authoritarian power corrupts, how even the most innocent of people can be driven to do horrendous acts. Lastly, the “Shipwreck exercise” we examined the complexities of group dynamics and roles, how an authority figures can persuade individuals from otherwise logical choices, but also examines how individuals keen to compromise in groups. In each of these activities we experience, the pages of Cottam and the psychological complexities of politics relevantly in play.
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In “the Wave” teacher Rainer Wenger is able to mobilize his students into a small authoritarian regime. “Herr Wenger” himself loses sight of reality and becomes obsessed with his absolute power over the students. Throughout the movie we see the students adopt fascist authoritarian behaviors and procedures. Ironically while there are no more social insecurities between the members of “the Wave” united by their label, however they neglect those not within the group. Moreover, while the students argued in the beginning that Germany could never undergo another fascist government, they themselves unconsciously evolve into a fascist regime by the end of the movie. Themes in the movie appear regularly in Cottam, using Altemeyer as reference:
“Psychologically, right wing authoritarianism is submission to perceived authorities, particularly those in the establishment or established system of governance” (Altemeyer, 1996). The students believed so much in the power and leadership of Herr Wenger that they became submissive to the teacher, as he was the living form of an ideal. This too relating back to fascist governments, where people felt submissive and inferior to the power of the central figure. In the “Stanford Prison Experiment” we saw how seemingly regular college students can be turned into brutal, pitiless individuals, when given authoritarian power. Tasked with the role of prison guard, the students treated their peers rather ruthlessly.
In this, they tortured their fellow classmates, much without regard for the mental well being of the inmate. The experiment may be compared to fascist Nazism’s in which, people were paid and tasked with the responsibility to kill millions in what we know now as the Holocaust, to them it was simply work. Commentating on these personality traits Cottam explains: “Groups demand loyalty, compliance, and obedience and those psychological factors can override even strongly held values: for example, perpetrators of genocide in the Holocaust who explained their behavior in terms of obedience to the norms in the group (e.g., “I did it because I was ordered to do so)” (Cottam 10).
While in the interviews the students spoke with great shame, they did not hold back while in the experiment. It became so that torturing the inmates became amusing, and the guards lost all sympathy in the inmates. This sympathy was ever present in the Holocaust, where so many stood by and simply did as they were told, not consciously being bothered by the acts they were committing.
In “the shipwreck exercise” we studied group dynamics using the scenario of a shipwreck. In this the group must rank a series of possibly useful equipment, without argument and tension. We saw how people shied away from confrontation from the authority figure, opting to simply go with the group. Using Altemeyer Cottam explains: “Those high in right-wing authoritarianism have greater difficulty than low scorers in engaging in critical thinking. They are more likely to agree with a statement of fact without examining it critically” (Altemeyer 1996).
While there were authoritarian figures within the group, those who were confident in their belief of the equipments rank, there was also a desire to care for each other and sacrifice. Citing the Authoritarian Personality Study Cottam talks about these dynamics: “But social identity goes beyond group dynamics. People are influenced by groups, but are also personally driven to support groups to which they are strongly attaché. They make sacrafices that are sometimes extraordinary, for the sake of the group” (Aderno et al 50). In many cases we as a group felt the need to compromise, in order to satisfy the congeniality of the group.
This I feel is an ever relevant considering that while there is a natural authoritarian desire, to have things go your way, it is furthermore natural to be kind, and sympathetic to others. In each of these activities we saw how authoritarian rule can manipulate the most regular of people into committing the worst of crimes. In both “the Stanford prison experiment” and “the Wave” we saw the abuse of power; on the contrary in the shipwreck exercise we saw how groups were also keen on sympathy and compromise. In this I believe that it natural to be sympathetic towards all groups, though when a strong authoritarian figure is present it is also easy to be manipulated.
Adorno, T., Frenkel-Brunswick, E., Levinson, D., & Sanford, P. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper Altemeyer, B. (1996). The authoritarian specter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press Cottam, M. (2010). Introduction to Political Psychology. NewYork: Psychology Press.