Obedience: Why We Follow Illogical Instructions

Image credit: https://www.pexels.com/@pixabay

Image credit: https://www.pexels.com/@pixabay

In all the coverage of the sinking of a South Korean ferry carrying nearly five hundred people—mostly high-school students—I keep mulling over one fact: The crew told the passengers to stay below decks, in their cabins, to await rescue boats.

And they obeyed.

Perhaps many would have died or suffered injury had they disobeyed and jumped ship or stood on the boat decks. After all, the ferry took about two and a half hours to sink—a long time to float in cold water in a life jacket, given that the crew couldn’t make it to the lifeboats.

Yet two and a half hours provides plenty of time to get above decks. To hop overboard. Even when jostling among a few hundred passengers. And I’d take my chances of survival in cold water over certain death below decks in a sinking ship. I’d also gamble that boats could more easily rescue me above the water, not under it.

Not these passengers. They settled below decks and let the ocean engulf them, trusting the crew’s instructions. No logical person could have thought that the crew’s guidance made a lick of sense. With half a thought, they would have realized that following orders would result in death.

Does anyone else think this action—or lack of action—completely bizarre?

And so I wonder: Would I have obeyed?

We follow the herd. Gregory Berns, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University, found that people will change their answers to a question to conform to others’ answers. He discovered through fMRI testing—which shows what happens within our brains when they perform certain tasks—that what others tell us changes our perceptions. Our brains alter what we see based on what other people tell us we see.

Scary. And quite possibly a factor at play in the passengers’ behavior on the South Korean ferry.

I tend to ignore rules and customs that I deem arbitrary or nonsensical. Yet I quite often follow instructions as well—I tend to the straight-laced—mainly because I dislike drama and disruption. The cost-benefit analysis of doing as instructed and doing as I see fit come into play and, quite often, I find it easier to follow the rules.

And so: In the tension of a sinking ferry, would I have listened to what seems like a blatantly illogical order and followed the herd or would I have trusted my judgment and jumped ship?

What would you have done—do you think?