Compliance, Obedience and The Attraction of Risk

Originally posted on June 11, 2013 @ 12:53 PM

Compliance, Obedience and The Attraction of Risk

Great Response by Dr Rob Long (thanks Rob) to our recent article: Our Obsession With Forbidden Pleasures. Please find detail of Rob’s next education program at the bottom of this article.

Most people know of the experiments of Stanley Milgram back in the 1960s and 1970s. Milgram’s book Obedience to Authority (1974) is a rare find these days but I did manage to get a copy a few years ago. Some pictures are attached from his famous obedience experiments. Milgram is one of the most known social psychologists of our time and like number of other researchers had direct connection to the atrocities of The Holocaust.

Milgram’s famous experiment engaged everyday people to administer lethal electric shocks to others simply because they were asked to do so by a person in authority (the experiment did not administer real shocks but was set up with actors). You can see a repeat of this famous experiment conducted more recently by Derren Brown here ( )

Other researchers such as Adorno, Frankel-Brunswick, Levinson and Sanford (The Authoritarian Personality 1950) also wanted to explain why good people do bad things. Later Zimbardo (The Lucifer Effect 1974) and other social psychologists undertook experiments (eg. The Stanford Experiment) to show that we are all capable of similar attitudes and behaviours. A cursory glance at Facebook in response to the 60 Minutes story on Muslims in Australia this week demonstrates that similar xenophobia (as was exhibited by the Nazis) is thriving in social media space.

How is this all relevant to risk and safety? The study of social psychology seeks to understand how social arrangements affect human judgment and decision making. The evidence is overwhelming that the nature, structure and presence of others affects our decision making and judgments. Social psychology also demonstrates that humans are strongly influenced by the language, discourse and priming of messages presented to us as well as how our environment is structured. The science of discoveries made in social psychology are applied everyday to supermarkets ( and a host of environments to affect the way we behave and act. Most people are not conscious of how the use of space, place and language affects them, but advertisers and social psychologists do. It is fascinating to see industries such as building, construction and mining (in their love of zero harm) completely ignore the discoveries of social psychology.

So what has all this got to do with compliance, obedience and authority? The recent blog on ‘Our Obsession with Forbidden Pleasures–Applying it to Safety’ touches on some of the fundamentals of social psychology without really delving deeply into it, there isn’t really space to do such things in a blog anyway.

Social psychology is also interested in persuasion, conversion, influence, aggression, belonging, attachment, attraction and attribution-causality and host of other dynamics that affect our approach to risk and safety. Social psychology is concerned with questions such as; Why do people not do as they are told? Why do people purposefully seek to non-compliance with rules, even rules for their own safety? What motivates people to work against their own self-preservation, the so named ‘precautionary principle’? Why are people disobedient? Why are people attracted to others and reject others? These are important questions for anyone involved in risk and safety. Yet, the risk and safety industry seem preoccupied with engineering and legislation as if the enactment of these dynamics doesn’t involve social psychology at all?


So why are people attracted to forbidden pleasures? Why are defiance, rebellion and disobedience attractive? Do we counter-intuitively make rebellion even more attractive by the way we administer and police risk and safety? There is not the space in this blog to respond to all of these questions but a few simple principles may be just as helpful, these are:

1. People are not machines or objects, they cannot be programmed and will not be programmed or controlled just because some engineer or legislator thinks so.

2. People are not the sum or behaviours or naturally attracted to systems.

3. Humans are limited in perception and awareness, mostly managing their day to day activities on autopilot, habits and the unconscious.

4. Human comprehension is easily ‘flooded’ and this needs to be understood in the saturation of systems.

5. Humans filter messages and communications according to their environment and history, there is no common sense.

6. Many of the things humans do in risk and safety have by-products that are often hidden and subversive.

7. The presence and structure of relationships at work strongly influences decision making. Group dynamics can heighten rebellion and defiance if misunderstood and mismanaged.

8. You don’t get social psychology knowledge off the back of a postage stamp. Otherwise, you end up with people advocating zero harm as a great idea without any knowledge of the psychology of goals. A read of Gladwell’s Outliers is a good start to learn about the importance of acting on what you don’t know.

9. Culture, sub-culture and micro-cultures are very powerful and culture is not systems, procedures, behaviours or just values.

10. Humans and relationships are complex so when you hear of any safety snake oil, quick fix, simple fix, guarantee no injury, no harm spin, instant solution quackery in the risk and safety space, it’s probably nonsense.

One of my favourite sayings is: there is no learning in life without risk, and no maturity without learning. If an organisation doesn’t consider the counter-intuitive nature of human decision making, the importance of learning and human social psychological arrangements in what it does, any success with risk and safety will be very limited.

The Graduate Certificate in the Social Psychology of Risk Program delivered by Dr Long at ACU National is currently over subscribed. Next student intake will be in September 2013. If you are interested in studying with Rob you can email him at


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