Who knew that Cobra Starship and Leighton Meester's short-lived hit “Good Girls Go Bad” was developing breakthrough personality research? A new study published in the Journal of Personality finds that socially desirable traits may make you more likely to engage in destructive behavior — if you’re given orders to do so.
In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram’s social psychology experiments revealed how easy it is for authority figures to influence people's behaviors, as the study's subjects complied with orders to deliver potent electrical shocks to strangers. The more recent research included a Milgram-variation experiment, where researchers wanted to look at whether specific personality traits would make someone more or less likely to follow orders — even when those orders involved harming another human.
For the study, 66 participants (ranging in age from 26-54) were asked to partake in a mock TV game show. Subjects were instructed, as part of the game’s rules, to deliver an electric shock to their teammates as a penalty for answering incorrectly; the intensity of the shock would increase after each wrong answer. Then, eight months later, the participants were asked to take a survey (which they thought was unrelated to the experiment), to help the researchers assess personality traits such as agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, and openness.
The researchers showed that participants with strongly agreeable and conscientious dispositions were most willing to follow orders — and therefore willing to deliver the highest shock intensity to their game-show teammates. Who was most likely to refuse to follow orders? Those with left-wing political ideologies, particularly women who had participated in past strikes or demonstrations.
“Many studies show that agreeableness and conscientiousness are widely related to positive outcomes such as improved mental health, longevity, academic performance, reduced aggression, and pro-social behavior,” explains lead author Laurent Bègue, professor at the University of Grenoble-Alpes. “However, in some specific contexts, they may also have darker sides, in that they can lead to destructive and immoral obedience.”
Watch out, all you Most Popular candidates: In the right context, those “desirable” interpersonal traits that may boost your favor among coworkers and friends can also contribute to destructive behavior choices. This doesn’t have to happen in such game-show conditions, either; every day, we’re faced with social norms and peer pressure that may urge us to follow the crowd — with potentially disastrous results. In the end, it seems like marching to the beat of your own, unconventional drummer is a valuable thing. So, you keep doing you.