Thankfully, one of America’s leading public psychologists has a solution—which has laid hidden inside a little-read book for nearly two generations. Stanley Milgram, whose notorious Obedience to Authority experiments demonstrated how power causes good people to do awful things, dedicated his career to researching how private individuals handle public pressures. Milgram’s lesser-known, but powerful, book The Individual in a Social World explains his most interesting, and disturbing, findings.
In one experiment, Milgram assigned graduate assistants to do something most New Yorkers would consider wholly unimaginable: walk onto a city subway and ask strangers to yield up their seats. Dedicated Gothamites know that, unless you’re disabled, pregnant, or elderly, this violates unspoken social standards. True subway users spread evenly and don’t talk, and seats are strictly first-come, first-serve. This experiment violated two norms, studious silence and seat respect.
Milgram’s results are surprising. For instance, male riders agreeably yield their seats to women twice as often as to men… but women are fifty percent more likely to yield their seats to women. Askers who give no reason for asking are twice as likely to actually get the seat as askers who give a trivial reason. And, weirdly, violating the subway’s unspoken rules apparently makes many askers physically ill.
One discovery seems surprising until you consider it coldly. If askers give some advance cue that they’ll ask somebody for their seat, several seconds before asking, this cuts compliance rates by more than half. If askers give no advance warning that they’ll ask somebody to surrender their seats, 56% of riders will yield their seats. But mere verbal warning followed by a brief pause reduces yielding to just over 26%.
Anyone who understands science knows that this data is insufficient to draw ironclad conclusions. Knowing people do something is a far cry from understanding why they did so. However, it does justify some reasonable speculation. The parallel between brief verbal warning, and trivial reasoning, lets Milgram suggest a short but persuasive explanation, oddly buried in an endnote. Citing Erving Goffman:
[R]equests demand either compliance or an “accounted denial.” That is, one does not merely say “No” to a polite request, one gives a justification for saying “No.” It takes time to realize that a justification is not required in this case or to construct one. Many subjects may have given up their seats simply because they didn’t know how not to.
People standing outside given situations may believe refusing an unreasonable request seems straightforward. Tell the asshole no, and forget them. But many people who believe that about others have nevertheless been unable to refuse one more drink, another unwanted party, or frankly unwanted sex, because saying no is prohibitively difficult. This especially affects women, who learn from early girlhood that not being agreeable equals unladylike behavior and “bitchiness.”
Fortunately, not everything is lost. This problem contains within itself its own solution. If we cannot directly refuse yes-or-no requests, we can nevertheless indirectly refuse them. If we have justifications, we can say no. And if we know what requests we’ll receive in advance—if every year involves another drunken Christmas party, say—then we can plan our justifications before we need them. Having refusals prepared makes giving them easier.
We’ve all known the helplessness of getting cornered with some request we’d rather avoid. And we’ve known the guilt that traps us into commitments we find burdensome, unpleasant, or intrusive. Simply planning ahead, having our refusals pre-scripted, takes that burden off our shoulders. Certainly we cannot anticipate every disruptive or irksome request others will make. But by having our rebuffs prepared, we can escape the pressures, and resulting guilt, we all experience this time of year.