Presley offers advice for thinking independently.

Sharon Presley, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the Association of Libertarian Feminists and co‐​editor of Exquisite Rebel: The Essays of Voltairine de Cleyre. She is editor of Libertarianism and Feminism: Individualist Perspectives on Women, Men, and the Family, an anthology in progress. As a social psychologist, her specialties are gender studies and obedience and resistance to authority. A long‐​time libertarian activist, she is the co‐​founder of Laissez Faire Books. Her articles have appeared in Reason, Liberty, and other libertarian magazines.

Thinking Critically: Ask Yourself Questions

The following suggestions are based on what social psychologists have learned about social influence and obedience and resistance to authority.

Don’t let others define the situation for you. Ask yourself:

  • Is this person really an expert?
    Advertisements often include obvious examples of “experts” who aren’t really experts (“I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV”) but there are many other examples of people who make pronouncements without sufficient expertise. A degree in one area doesn’t necessarily mean expertise in another, for example, an M.D. who gives psychological advice.
  • How truthful can you expect this person to be? Does he or she have a vested interest? Does the authority, institution or publication have a hidden agenda?
    Moral justifications for war given by politicians often cover up economic interests; people pushing a particular social issue aren’t always objective about the evidence; people who want you to join their group may only tell you want you want to hear.
  • Is the authority asking me to do something that troubles me, that I have doubts about, or where there are unanswered questions?
    People living in the Nevada nuclear test range area were concerned but the authorities refused to warn them of the danger so they remained; physicians sometimes make mistakes in medication prescriptions or in diagnoses. You may have side effects from a drug or are unsure about a surgical procedure but are reluctant to ask questions.
  • Is the person or authority asking me to go against my own values or conscience?
    Would the actions advocated be considered immoral or inappropriate in another situation or in a private context (if a government demand)? Will my behavior or assent result in harm to innocent people?
    Sales managers often ask clerks to use deceptive sales practices; killing goes on in war that would be considered monstrous (like the My Lai massacre) if done by private citizens.
  • Is the authority demanding unquestioning obedience or attacking anyone who dissents?
    Cult groups may tell you you must trust their guru or you are not worthy; political groups may demand “political correctness” or you will be vilified; religious groups may tell you you’re a sinner or “evil” if you don’t agree with their point of view.
  • Is the person or authority using mind‐​control tricks or manipulation? Is he or she using emotional reasoning? Pushing an “us” vs. “them” perspective?
    Is the person or authority appealing to ugly impulses or fears that encourage you to put others in an out‐​group that will suffer?
    Calls for restricting immigration often take this form, with hidden racism at their core; demands for harsh punishment against real or imagined infractions of social rules are often cover‐​ups for personal inadequacies.
  • Am I letting myself be taken in by extraneous trappings like a fancy title, clothing, or setting?
    Am I letting myself be swayed by a person’s Ph.D. even though it may be irrelevant or the person isn’t being sensible? Do I respond favorably (and uncritically) to a well‐​tailored business suit, an impressive uniform, or a prestigious institution without looking more closely at the message? Or am I rejecting the person just because s/​he doesn’t have a fancy credential without investigating whether they have appropriate experience or knowledge gained in other ways?
  • What are my own motives for responding favorable to this authority or person (if I am)? Am I letting him or her define the situation because I’m too lazy or too fearful or too anxious to think for myself?
    It’s a lot easier to just accept the TV news at face value rather than reading opinions in diverse publications; going against the boss might cost my job; objecting to the illegal shenanigans of my “friends” might make them dislike me (do I need friends like that?).

Separate the message from the characteristics of the person trying to persuade you. Look for discrepancies between the words and actions of the person. Ask yourself:

  • Am I responding favorably because I like them or like their looks?
    Advertisers exploit the halo effect of attractive appearance. We may be less critical of our friends than others.
  • Am I responding to this person—either negatively or positively—because of their ideology or reputation, without looking more carefully at what they’re actually advocating or saying?
    Regardless of ideology, no one is necessarily right—or wrong—all the time. Some feminists may reject Rush Limbaugh but not be critical of Gloria Steinem. Some Conservatives may do the opposite just as a knee‐​jerk reaction. Neither may really be looking carefully at the message.
  • Am I ignoring hypocrisy or troubling behavior because I like the person or agree with them on other issues?
    Politicians ignored warning signs about the authoritarian behavior of Jim Jones and the result was the tragic mass suicide in Guyana.
    Some fundamentalist evangelists profess Christianity and presumably, the Golden Rule, but preach hatred of others who are “sinners” and advocate intolerance.
    Some conservatives who profess individualism and individual rights advocate serious infringements on personal liberties. Some liberals who profess compassion and concern are now advocating punitive “law and order” bills.

Don’t just passively react. Be aware of the irrelevant factors in the situation that could unconsciously influence your behavior. Ask yourself:

  • Am I being taken in by trappings and symbols that evoke emotional responses or lull me into a false sense of complacency?
    Uniforms have the power to elicit obedience, even when the request is inappropriate or immoral. Do you look beyond the police uniform, the priest’s robe, the repairman’s garb to look at the actual message?
    Clothing and appearance have more impact than we realize. Would you defer to someone in an expensive business suit because you unconsciously assume that their presumed status means they know what they’re talking about? Do you automatically trust people who dress like you or who have a “normal appearance” without considering whether their request is inappropriate or even dangerous? (Rapists often have “normal appearances”). Do you automatically reject people who look and dress differently from you?
  • Am I going along in a situation that I’m uncertain about or have doubts about just because everyone else is? Do they really know more than I do or are they just as uncertain?
    The behavior of other people in the situation affect us in both conscious and unconscious ways, as many social psychology experiments have shown. Don’t fall victim to the fallacy of “social proof.” e.g., in an ambiguous situation, looking around to see what everyone else is doing. They may not know any more than you!
  • Am I passing the buck and giving responsibility for the outcome to someone else? Am I thinking about the consequences of my actions? What will happen to others? To me?
    Lots of people say, “I don’t want to get involved.” Even in cases where it is clear someone is being abused, some people are reluctant to intervene. But what if the abused person is in real danger and you did nothing?
  • Am I letting myself be pressured into a commitment or action‐​decision before I’m really ready or while I’m under pressure?
    High‐​pressure salespeople try to get people to sign on the dotted line before they walk out the door.
  • Am I letting labels imposed by the authority or another person cloud my judgment?
    Labels that dehumanize or put others in a category that can be viewed as negative can evoke automatic “knee‐​jerk” responses (e.g., not just obvious ones like racial slurs, but also terms like “illegal immigrant,” “airhead,” “women’s libber,” “radical,” “girl,” or “sexist pig”)
  • Am I getting submerged in the crowd, letting a feeling of anonymity loosen my normal moral standards?
    People will do things in a crowd or when they think no one will notice that they would not do otherwise.

Be sensitive to initially small, trivial steps that can escalate into big commitments. Beware of “entrapment.”

  • Religious cults start out by asking you to just come to their meeting; then they gradually ask you for more and more time and eventually money, too.

Don’t be consistent just for the sake of consistency. Keep the larger perspective in mind.

  • Do I find myself in a situation I’m unsure or have serious doubts about but keep on going?
    We may have been taught not to be a “quitter.” People in the Milgram shock experiment on obedience to authority got caught up in this idea of “I’ve gone this far, I can’t quit now.” They felt they had to finish the experiment and lost sight of whether the experiment was appropriate. Or we may feel “I don’t want to lose my investment.” This was part of the rationale for staying in the Vietnam War even after it became clear that the war was a bad idea. But if thousands have died, would the death of thousands more make things any better? People stay in bad relationships because of the “investment” hang‐​up. Maybe they should be cutting their losses instead!

Don’t react just out of habit. Be willing to question the way things “have always been done.” Ask yourself:

  • Am I just going along with authority because I’ve never thought to question it before?
    Do we lack a “language of protest”? We may be so used to doing what authority tells us that we can’t even formulate the issue in terms of a question. We may not even have the words to say to the authority: “There’s something wrong here.” We need to recognize that we have the right to protest when we think something is wrong or inappropriate or immoral. We have the right to ask questions.
  • Am I just responding the way I was taught to react to authority by my parents, school, etc.?
    “Social programming” teaches us to be “good children” who know our place. It teaches us to be polite, cooperate, never make a scene. We are rewarded for going along with the group.
  • Am I going along with the status quo because it’s easier?
    Are you unwilling to make waves?
  • Am I going along with others (friends, government) say just because I’m being mentally lazy and don’t want to bother to think about the issues?
    Do you vote the way your spouse or friends do because you don’t want to take the time to think about the issues yourself?

Question social roles and relationships for hidden assumptions and expectations about authority and power. Ask yourself:

If you answer yes to some of these questions, maybe you are in an unequal power relationship that needs to be questioned.

  • Parent‐​child:
    If a parent, do you tell you children to obey you because “I said so”?
  • Teacher‐​student:
    If you are a teacher, do you impose rigid rules that discourage dissent and creativity?
    If you are a student, do you go along with behavior or rules that are inappropriate out of passivity or fear?
  • Physician‐​patient; Therapist‐​client; Lawyer‐​client, etc.:
    If you are a professional, do you encourage your client to ask questions? Or do you expect deference? If you are the client, do you question advice that is unclear or troubling? Do you seek a second opinion when you have doubts about the advice? Do you change doctors when they treat your in a condescending way or refuse to answer your reasonable questions?
  • Boss‐​employee:
    If you are a boss, do you discourage criticism, treat employees with disrespect, or in other ways lord it over them? If you are an employee, do you speak up when something inappropriate is going on?
  • Church‐​member:
    Have you thought carefully about your religious views or do you just accept what you’ve been taught without question? Have you thought about whether the principles of your religion really make sense to you? If you are troubled by them, have you explored other alternatives? Does your religion advocate ideas that may result in harm or humiliation to other people simply because their views are not the same as your religion? Does your religion claim that those who disagree with their principles are “evil” or “sinners”? Does it claim that it is the only “one true religion”? Does it insist on behavioral rules that are nothing to do with being kind and compassionate to others (the Golden Rule)? Does it insist on rules that seem to have less to do with thoughtful reverence for life or God and more to do with social control of your personal, private behavior?
  • Political group‐​member:
    Does your political group claim it has a corner on the truth? Does it vilify people whose views are different? Does it have a “politically correct” line that must be followed or else?
  • Peer or social group‐​member:
    Does your group make fun of members who deviate from their norm, whether in ideas or clothes, etc.? Does your group make fun of others outside the group in mean and humiliating ways? Does your group engage in behavior you disapprove of?
  • Husband‐​wife:
    Do you accept traditional rules and roles (who makes certain decisions, who does the housework, whose career is more important) without thinking about them? Or do you work out mutually acceptable and beneficial duties and decisions? Are housework and childcare duties inequitably distributed (e.g., the wife does most of the housework and childcare even though she has a job outside the home)?