Everyone is submissive, but is everyone free to choose how?

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by Ayoub El Moudne, translated by Katrina Barnes

With his Darwinian air, weathered by observing personality and human interaction, Professor Jean-Léon Beauvois, indisputable expert in social psychology, honoured us with a conference entitled “impressions and illusions of freedom, a point of reflection for educational sciences”. For an hour and a half, he discussed the dualities between autonomy and necessary education, individual freedom and conformity, social liberty and submission.

To put it succinctly, Professor Beauvois first of all explained what led him to his current study of the cognitive and behavioural consequences of problematic limitations: experimental situations of induced submission in the 1970s (Milgram, Glass)..
Of all problematic limitations, he chose to highlight restrictions (forbidden children’s toys, restrictions imposed on students) and obligations (eating spinach, carrying out tedious tasks).. In each case, it is important to note how rarely these limitations, imposed by social factors which in turn are given by a legitimate power, are rejected. Most surprising is that a declaration of freedom (giving the subject the choice of whether to accept or not) could incite obedience through submitting the limitation to a process of rationalisation.
As proof, there is the example of Christiane Pavin (1991), a French teacher who told her 9, 10 and 11 year-old pupils to write a letter to the Education Minister arguing the case for reducing the length of the summer holidays. Some of the children had been told that they had complete freedom in their choice: “The minister wants to make clear that pupils are under no obligation, it’s your choice”.
Such an improbable situation leads us to generate a preconceived response: that the pupils will reject the proposal, especially those for whom freedom of choice has been made clear. The result … On average the pupils put forward 4 arguments. Every member of the “free” group wrote the letter. To explain this group’s response, we can theorise the rationalisation effect that these declarations of freedom have due to “commitment”.
Does this mean that freedom is an illusion? Jean-Léon Beauvois believes that it is simply the common definition of freedom that is wrong. For him, freedom is about the choice of whether to obey; what it is that must be obeyed is beside the point: If the authority changes the requested action, the so-called free individual will still carry out the action regardless, because he or she is committed to obeying.
A declaration of freedom can easily be misinterpreted, in which case there will be a direct impact upon commitment: if the idea of accepting or rejecting freedom is not made clear to the subject, their commitment will be weaker.
The declaration of freedom is therefore a factor when considering commitment. But there
are also other factors: the price of the action, its consequences (namely the absence of reward or punishment), repetition of the act and labelling. Jean-Léon Beauvois considers this final commitment factor to be the most important of all, because it creates obligation and value associated with behaviour; it is an internalisation of values. As this may be completely arbitrary, it allows for forceful labelling (initial labelling encourages acceptance
of a more demanding act later on, producing identification with the task which would have been rejected had there been no commitment to the initial or preparatory act).. We can take the example of a home owner who is asked to hang a little sign on their balcony. If, 3 weeks later, the investigator asks them to place a large billboard in the garden, the likelihood of the home owner agreeing to the second action rises from 7% to 72%!
Following this example and to conclude, the sociologist invited any questions,some of which were:
– “Is it possible to avoid obedience? “.
– J-L.B.: “No, because it is impossible to renounce social power. I am not talking about certain people being dominant over others. On the contrary, it is possible to obey a power which really offers choice, while participating in that choice. This replaces domination. This leaves us with two solutions: on the one hand, we can effectively choose social powers: school pupils, students, employees, amongst other things. The democratic solution. Or on the other hand, we can lead social groups to decide what they do for themselves. The self-management solution. “


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