Staying Silent or Speaking Up: Choice Part 3

By Ike Lasater with Julie Stiles
Ike and Julie

In my previous two posts about choice (Part 1 and Part 2), I talked about how we can become more aware of the choices that we have, even when we are telling ourselves otherwise. I’d now like to share some reflections on the societal implications.

Our culture in many ways encourages our perception of not having any choice and the silence that results from it. In the public arena, this perception arises in a couple different ways. First, when in relation to an authority we often feel like we are relatively powerless and “have to” do what the authority says. Second, in situations where we fear standing out by going against some perceived group or cultural norm, we might go along instead.

Research in a variety of situations shows the reluctance to speak up to an authority. Well  known, in this regard, is Stanley Milgram’s experiments in the 1960’s, detailed in his book Obedience to Authority, where 100% of subjects delivered electrical shocks labeled “Danger” to a learner. The subjects were unaware that the shocks were not actually being delivered; they thought they were “teaching” a list of word combinations by administering an electric shock when the learner made a mistake. 65% of the test subjects continued to give shocks up to the maximum level labeled 450 volts.

Even in extreme real-world situations, such as in cockpits of commercial airliners, research confirms these communication patterns toward an authority. Analysis of plane crashes where the crash was attributed to crew error showed that often there was a level of deference to the authority of the captain to the point that other crew would not speak up even when they knew that a serious problem existed. The co-pilot or engineer would hint at the problem, such as fuel running low or ice on the wings, instead of making a direct statement. If the pilot did not catch on, they would then keep quiet, knowing that the plane was going to crash. Airlines realized they had to create training programs to teach people to speak up.

Similarly, speaking up to authority is an issue in the medical field, where staff not speaking up to a surgeon or other doctor can have negative consequences for a patient. Even in non-life-threatening situations, the same pattern holds true. For example, studies show that most employees will not tell their boss that an idea is bad, even when it is obvious to them that it is.

We also don’t speak up in situations where the group norm precludes it. Research has shown that in situations where someone is being bullied, even though most bystanders think it’s wrong, they do not intervene. Yet speaking up in these situations is crucial. Studies show that when bystanders do get involved, bullying episodes are shorter. Only 10% of students in a school are bullies, 75% are witnesses to bullying. When no one speaks up, the 90% of victims and witnesses give power to the 10%. Speaking up also changes the culture of the school, so bullies know that their behavior is not acceptable.

All It Takes

In a less-known variation of Milgram’s experiment, he found that when another person was in the room with the subject and showed reluctance to continue, the percentage of people willing to continue to administer shocks dropped to 10% and a much higher percentage were willing to speak up to the authority figure. This research shows that if one person goes against the grain of a group decision or an authority, it’s more likely that others will also speak up. As long as people are silent, then most will tend to think that others are in agreement with what is going on. Once one person expresses hesitation, it gives others permission to do the same.

As individuals, we all have amazing power. But it takes that one person.

Will you be that one?

In the final post on choice, I will relate the story of a police officer I met who was that one.

Meanwhile, let us know below in the comments the public situations in which you find it difficult to speak up.


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