Essay on Dorian Grey

What if a President ordered an all-out war against their own people? What if extraterrestrials pitted human against human in a battle to the death? Everyone likes to think they would rise up and fight against evil in some sort of heroic rebellion. But how realistic is that thought? Unfortunately, studies suggest that that is mostly wishful thinking, and that people are far less likely to resist a known evil than one might assume. In fact, most humans seem to be willing to maim and even murder others, as long as they’re instructed to do so by an established authority figure. So where is the line drawn? At what point do we begin to resist and fight back against the governing body? The most obvious answer is that a person will resist a power once their own livelihood is at stake – once the potential losses outweigh the risk of rebellion. But the true answer is much more complicated, and is based on a variety of factors specific to each situation. One of these factors is empathy – how heavily do individuals weigh the losses of others against our own, and does everyone value empathetic concerns equally? Another factor is the so-called “mob mentality” – are we more likely to resist if we have a group of like-minded people backing us up? And, similarly, are we less likely to rebel if we see others sit by passively? Fortunately, with over a century of psychological experimentation and study, these questions can begin to be answered and the mindset of a rebel can be better understood. Unfortunately, the results of these studies have begun to point at a depressing assertion – that the majority of human actions against authority are committed solely for an improvement of our own lives. When it comes to taking a stand, humans are selfish. Although that seems like a blindly pessimistic statement, it’s really a psychological fact backed up by decades of research and explored by centuries of literature. In 1961, Stanley Milgrim conducted a famous set of trials trying to determine how ordinary adults would act when asked by an authority to apply electric shocks to another innocent person in a separate room. As the subject shocked the target more and more, the voltage would increase, eventually reaching near-lethal levels (obviously nobody was actually hooked up to the electrodes, it was just another researcher who pretended to receive a shock and simulate pain over the intercom). Milgram’s basic conclusion was that far more people were willing to injure and even kill than originally predicted. His fellow scientists originally predicted that approximately 6% of the population would continue through all of the shocks, resisting the target’s pleas for relief. In a groundbreaking discovery, Milgram’s reported numbers were over 65% (Burger). Milgram’s experiment was the first testament to our internal selfishness, but countless psychologists followed suit and conducted their own trials that peered into a previously untested corner of human reaction – compliance. The most recent of these bandwagon experiments was conducted by Jerry Burger, a graduate student at Santa Clara University. As with most other near-identical studies, Burger’s results were distressingly similar to Milgram’s. He concluded, once again, that the average person is likely willing to perpetrate horrific actions, as long as they have an established authority instructing them to do so. In his baseline experiments, the subject was hooked up to an intercom with the “listener”, and was urged by the scientist to apply increasingly painful shocks. Before the experiment started, the listener explained to the subject that he has a mild heart condition which may cause issues, but is quickly silenced by the scientist in charge. The experimenter routinely provided the subject with verbal motivation (ex. “While the shocks may be painful, there is no permanent tissue damage.” or simply “I am responsible.”) if the subject showed any signs of resistance. However, after four of these “prods” by the subject, the experimenter would end the trial. Out of the 40 subjects, 28 of them (70%) continued up to the 150-volt mark, at which point the experimenter would explain the true nature of the experiment and the listener would assure the subject he was fine (Burger). Milgram’s findings were almost identical – 26 out of 40 of his participants were willing to administer the final shock (Blass). As one final check of integrity, Thomas Blass, a professor at the University of Maryland, performed an analysis on every similar experiment conducted in the last 2 decades, averaging out the collective results. He found that although the results varied extensively, the average percentage for US studies (61%) was close to the one for non-US studies (66%) (Blass). Finally, 40 years after, Milgram’s results were fully confirmed among the scientific community – the average American was willing to administer lethal damage on an unwilling participant as long as a confirmed authority figure told them to do so. However, Jerry Burger’s experiment was more than just a remake – he made a point of expanding the trials, manipulating and examining a multitude of additional factors that affect human compliance. As a result, the motivations driving resistance can be further analyzed, and more light can be shed on where we draw the line. Finding the point of opposition is a difficult process, mostly because resistance can’t be totally boiled down to a statistic – it’s a complicated internal process. Before every act of rebellion, our brain makes a split-second decision, weighing the benefits of resistance against the potential downsides of failure. So even if one knows that resisting is the right thing to do, they’ll often cease to act because that is the easy thing to do. This process is clear throughout Act I of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet, a young prince, has recently struggled with the death of his father, a man he revered like no other. His uncle Claudius has taken the throne from Hamlet by marrying Queen Gertrude, Claudius’s sister-in-law. So when the Old King’s ghost appears to Hamlet and tells him of Claudius’s treachery, the prince understands the need for revenge, but waits to act. Once he’s certain that his uncle is guilty, Hamlet vows to himself that he will resist the throne and kill the King by any means necessary. However, Hamlet himself is not in mortal danger, and thus his conviction to retaliate is frail. Once the prince discovers Claudius’s attempt on his life, he realizes the potential danger in leaving the King alive and marches back to Denmark to enact his revenge. This phenomenon of frail conviction is not exclusive to literature, though it’s often overlooked in psychological studies, since it’s so difficult to quantify. Matthew Hollander, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, reevaluated Milgrim’s results using recordings of the patients’ reactions during the experiment. He disagrees with Milgrim’s claim that we’re all internally evil and are willing to sit idly by without thought while atrocities are committed. Instead, Hollander decided that “For virtually all subjects, irrespective of outcome, initial resistance performs ‘wait and see’ (silence and hesitation) as to whether the experimenter will remedy the learner’s complaints. It postpones continuation, rather than explicitly pursuing discontinuation,” (Hollander). Just like Hamlet, these subjects don’t agree with the authority, yet they only entertain the idea of resistance and wait for confirmation that they have no other option. However, unlike Hamlet, their entertainment of rebellion tended to lead to nothing, and they continued shocking their target until they were instructed to stop. Hollander concluded that although most of Milgram’s subjects complied with his commands, their words made it clear that “It wasn’t a blind kind of obedience,” (Hollander). However, obviously, a mere entertainment of disobedience is totally different from active resistance with intent to change. And the unfortunate truth is that the majority of people choose the path of least resistance. As long as they aren’t in any tangible danger, they tend to do what they’re told. The most obvious motivation behind resistance (outside of personal gain) is a strong sense of empathy, though it’s impact is far less substantial than one might assume. Jerry Burger wanted to explore this relationship in his study of human compliance, so he relied on a personality test that measured, among other things, a trait aptly named “Empathetic Concern”. Burger’s initial theory was that empathy was one of the few personality traits that would actually have a sizable impact on a subject’s likeliness to comply with an order that causes physical harm to others. However, once again, the morals and actions of the average human disappointed the clinical psychologist. Burger explains that in his study, he “compared the personality scores of those who continued with the procedure with the scores of those who stopped. No significant differences were found for the empathic concern score,” (Burger). He finally concluded that the shocking percentage of subjects who fully complied wasn’t due to a lack of empathy in general, but rather a lack of a connection between empathetic concern and resistance to a known evil. However, Burger does make an interesting point by mentioning that “participants who were high in empathic concern expressed a reluctance to continue the procedure earlier than did those who were low on this trait. But this early reluctance did not translate into a greater likelihood of refusing to continue” (Burger). So although empathy can inspire reluctance in perpetrators following orders, it’s not strong enough by itself to drive action, and often its effects can be overcome when the responsibility is put on the authority figure. In other words, empathetic individuals will comply with the same heinous acts, but they’ll feel slightly worse doing so than the average person. This exact psychological phenomenon takes place throughout literature as well. In 15 Million Merits, Bingham Madsen leads an extremely dull existence until he falls in love with the girl of his dreams. When he eventually loses her to the toxic culture of his society, Bing works tirelessly for months in an attempt to fight the oppressors and save his friend. Clearly, empathy for his first real friend is strong enough to drive him to work towards a rebellion. However, when his work finally comes to fruition, Bing is offered a nicer home and an easier job. In this moment, his empathetic concern is overpowered by a desire for a marginally better life, and the rebellion stops dead in its tracks. However, in the final scene, Bing looks out his massive window, seemingly contemplating his decision. Even if his own ambitions won out in the end, concerns brought about by empathy would never be forgotten. In Portrait of Dorian Grey, Dorian feels intense guilt after dumping his fiancé Sybil in an attempt to impress his compatriots. However, he quickly thinks of Lord Henry’s words, even though Dorian himself knows of Henry’s corruption. “When [women] took lovers, it was merely to have some one with whom they could have scenes. Lord Henry had told him that, and Lord Henry knew what women were. Why should he trouble about Sibyl Vane? She was nothing to him now. / But the picture?” (Wilde, 67). Within just over three lines, Dorian Grey trivializes his fiancé’s grief, trusts a man who he knows is evil, and forgets about the love of his life, instead choosing to worry about a portrait of himself. Although Dorian certainly feels regret for the sadness he brought into Sibyl’s life, he doesn’t even come close to acting on it. Instead, he trusts the poisonous words of an evil, and does exactly what Henry asked him to – forget about Sibyl Vane. The idea of a mob mentality is generally associated with massive national revolutions, but like-minded individuals almost always inspire more rebellion, no matter how many there are. Jerry Burger recognized this idea, and adjusted his experiment to see just how much the “mob mentality” affects our willingness to comply. He added another segment of his experiment that was much like the base condition, only there were two subjects doing the shocking – one was real and the other was hired. During the experiment, the hired subject would consistently refuse to give shocks. Eventually, the fake subject would tell off the experimenter, warn the true subject of the study’s evils, and storm out of the room. Burger found that with this “modeled refusal condition”, the percentage of subjects refusing to continue dropped from 70% to just 55% (Burger). Additionally, the subjects expressed far more reluctance far earlier in the tests than when they were alone in the room with the experimenter. This means two things – the concept of resistance is somewhat contagious, and so is the confidence and willpower to follow through with the concept of rebellion. Although a drop of 15% may seem insignificant, this condition was the only thing Burger found that actually affected subjects’ willingness to comply with the experimenter (Burger). Over 100 years ago, Gustave Le Bon wrote about the same phenomenon when he was exploring the factors that led up to the French Revolution. However, he took it one step forward, believing that one’s entire psychology could change around like-minded people, not just their resistance to an authority figure, specifying that “under the influence of environment, the old personality may therefore give place to one entirely new,” (Le Bon, 42). So not only does one’s decision-making change, but a person’s entire psychological identity can alter under the right circumstances. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow makes a transformation very similar to what Le Bon describes. When he arrives in Africa, he witnesses a group of native men canoeing off the coast. Although Marlow is proven to be racist throughout the entire book, his initial portrayal of the African men is by far the most positive description in the entire book; “they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement, that was an natural and true as the surf along their coast.” (Conrad, 11). He even recognizes that the African coast belongs to these men, even if he doesn’t respect their ownership. A mere 3 pages later, Marlow’s attitude suddenly shifts once he realizes that the men “were called criminals” by his crewmates (Conrad, 13). He watches as a group of natives march by in chains, mentioning that “All their meager breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily uphill. They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages,” (Conrad, 13). Once Marlow recalls that the indigenous people were thought of as lesser by the majority of those around him, his once mildly racist description suddenly turns far nastier. This is the first we’ve seen of this version of Marlow – the hateful and violently racist version, though it certainly isn’t the last. For the remainder of the novel, Marlow’s inner morals constantly clash with the beliefs surrounding him, often leading to disastrous results. A society made up of like-minded people causes Marlow’s internalized racism to succumb to the toxicity around him – enabling him to commit heinous acts such as running African slaves to death, and then leaving them where they fall. We can’t say for sure if his innermost moral code has changed, but the way he thinks about African conquest certainly changes to fit the environment around him. Resistance and compliance is an incredibly complex choice, and scientists are continuing to search for the motivations that drive that decision. For that reason, predicting one’s willingness to comply is an almost impossible feat. As of now, most of the reasoning seems to revolve around ourselves, though a few other notable factors are important to mention. Empathy can inspire the idea of resistance, as seen in the psychological study conducted by Jerry Burger, though it’s rarely strong enough to inspire real action. In Hamlet, the real action doesn’t take place until Hamlet’s well-being is truly put in danger. In Dorian Grey, Dorian dismisses his empathy for Sybil Vane when he’s offered a better life, making the same decision as Bingham from 15 Million Merits. A more impactful factor is the effect of mob mentality. Not only can a group of like-minded individuals inspire the idea of change, but they can sometimes even motivate others to act. But the one factor that matters the most – the one that holds true in both science and literature – is one’s potential personal gain. After all, we humans love to make things easier for ourselves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *