Obedience to authority is a necessary part of human survival. Most of the time our caregivers have our best interests at heart, and obeying their warnings keeps us safe from harm. But human history is not light on examples of authority figures seeking to exploit this innate impulse. The famous/infamous Stanley Milgram obedience experiments demonstrate that the majority of “normal” human participants will deliver a lethal shock to an individual they’ve never met, simply because an authority figure told them to do so—even as they listen to that individual scream out in pain. The image below shows a rough mock-up of how the experiment is staged.
What’s more, if a person sees their friend deliver the deadly punishment before it’s their turn, they’re even more likely to go along with the slaughter. However, if their friend refuses, the subject will become more likely to refuse as well.
So while we may be innately tuned to obey authority, and act on it’s wishes, there are factors that mediate this phenomenon. Read all about this and similar studies on the Lucifer Effect here.
Collective ritual helps promote bonding
Over 100 years of social science has demonstrated that collective rituals, particularly painful or frightening rituals, lead to intense group bonding. This has been observed in both tribal initiations and military hazing (e.g., Whitehouse & McQuinn, 2012). Once an individual bonds with a group, or fuses their identity with that of the group, they become increasingly likely to act on that group’s desires. This includes obeying directives to harm someone else or risk one’s own health. Kavanagh et al. (2018) investigated If this same phenomenon extends to painful rituals in martial arts, specifically belt-whipping gauntlets in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ).
“These gauntlets involve the individual being promoted walking past a line of their training partners, who stand shoulder-to-shoulder and use their untied belts to whip the individual being promoted, which often results in severe welts and bruising. The practice remains a controversial topic amongst BJJ practitioners, with some schools banning the practice outright.”
In this study researchers examined over 600 practitioners of BJJ, some of whom had experienced belt-whipping rituals and some of whom had not. They wanted to know how this experience, or lack thereof, impacted students’ wiliness to personally identify with their gym, and their subsequent willingness to devote their time, money, and ultimately their life to that gym.
Conclusions on ‘belt whipping’ in BJJ
What did they find? Students that experienced belt-whipping rituals rated their time in that gym as more negative. Additionally, this experience did not increase (nor decrease, interestingly) their identity fusion or group identification with that gym. Overall they rated the experience as painful and without benefit.
It did not increase their desire to spend time, money, or risk their life for that gym. However, positive experiences did! For students that reported enjoying themselves and learning techniques they found valuable, group bonding increased. Positive experiences were associated with a significant increase in willingness to spend time and money in that gym.
More importantly—or more ominously—positive experiences significantly increased the likelihood a student would risk their life for that gym. Apparently, people still catch more bees with honey, even if those bees can break your limbs.
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