I Was Just Following Orders…

“I was just following orders,” how often are those five words uttered in defense of crimes committed during both war and peace times. It’s a phrase everyone is familiar with, and one that has both let men go free and sentenced them to a life in prison. Despite the immediate attachment those words have with war crimes and acts of torture the situations that create them occur on an almost daily basis to everyone everywhere.

When children go to bed at nine, after brushing their teeth and preparing their bags for school the next day, they are in essence ‘just following orders.’ When a person hands their license and registration over to an officer that has pulled them over they are also ‘just following orders.’ When a gang initiate robs a corner store to prove his worth he is also ‘just following orders,’ but what about when the robbery goes a step further and becomes a homicide. Is he still ‘just following orders,’ or is he now acting according to his own free will?

This is where the power of situational factors come into play. At any given time there can be as few as half a dozen, or as many as hundreds. However, there are a few in particular that play a significant role in allowing people to ‘just follow orders.’ The first, and most universal is the need to belong, everyone has this need whether we acknowledge it or not we all want to belong to something and someone.

The desperate teenager joins the gang because of the need to belong to something bigger than himself, something bigger than the small home that holds too many people with too little resources. The child prepares for bed because of the need to belong to his/her family, the need to gain the approval of his/her parents, and the inherent idolization of their parents. A person handing over their license and registration may do so because they feel hopeless to alter the situation and the pending outcome. The opposite is also true, the officer feels obligated to process the person’s information and crime because he/she is part of something bigger than themselves, something that is for the betterment of their family, their society and a host of other things.

That is what allows the soldiers to torture their prisoners, the fearful teen to rob the grocer his family has purchased groceries from his entire life, the naive child to do as they are told whether they want to or not. It is all fueled by the belief that the actions performed are for the betterment of [insert cause of your choice]. It’s only when their behaviors and actions are questioned by a higher authority, that “I am just following orders,” is given as the reasoning.

So if we are all ‘just following orders’ in one way or another, how can we hold each other accountable for the actions we are ordered to commit? How can the teen be held accountable for the robbery and possible murder, the customer service rep held accountable for luring a client into an extended warranty, the solider for mistreating prisoners that he has been trained to think of as less than human.

This is the power of situational factors, they allow people to reach a sense of defused responsibility. “I didn’t want to burn that man I was ordered to,” “I didn’t want to rob that store, I had to,” “I don’t care if you buy the extended warranty, its company policy.”  When the personal sense of responsibility is low, and a powerful external identity is present it becomes frighteningly easy for people to engage in actions they would never be capable of under different circumstances.

“I was just following orders,” is a useful and ready reasoning to fall back on when being held accountable, the question is, how much of it was orders and how much of it was real?



Grabbing The Bull By The Horns

Today we’re going to look at different coping mechanisms that people use to deal with problems that arise in their day-to-day lives. In general there are two types of coping styles, problem-focused, and emotion-focused both of which come with their own pro’s in con’s.

Pro’s and Con’s of Problem-Focused Coping

When taking this route a pro would be eliminating or reducing the issue, a bonus, for those of you who are action oriented people is the feeling of doing something, and getting something accomplished. Whereas a con for is that you may come off as insensitive to others, or take a course of action that does more harm than good.

Pro’s and Con’s of Emotion-Focused Coping

For those out there who are more in tune to their emotions and the emotions of others this tends to be a preferred method of dealing with issues that arise. A pro is that you become more aware of how the issue is affecting everyone on an emotional level, as well as, strengthening social bonds and achieving some measure of personal growth. The con’s however are that if your attempts to resolve the issue fail you may be overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness, you also run the risk of alienating yourself from those who want to do something about the issue.

Problem-Focused CopingWhat’s It Like

The simplest example of problem-focused coping is confronting the issue as soon as it arises, also known as confrontation. An example would be if you live in an apartment complex and have neighbors that are extremely loud, all the time. You might go over to them and ask, or tell, them to keep their music and noise down, and your neighbors, may or may not comply.

A more advanced and effective version of confrontation is going with a planned solution. Instead of demanding that your neighbors keep it down, you can come up with a plan of action on how to reduce or eliminate the noise problem. This could involve contacting the land lord and informing them of a noise violation.

Both of these solutions have faults. In the confrontation solution you run the chance of escalating the situation to something more by aggravating your neighbor, by coming off as insensitive or rude.

In the planned solution not only do you run the chance of aggravating the neighbor, but you also run the chance of falling out of favor with the land lord who, depending on how you present the problem, may come to see you as a demanding tenant who will be difficult to have.

Emotion-Focused Coping: What’s it Like

Using the above example of the loud neighbor there are a few ways to approach it from an emotion-focused point of view. The first of which, and the least effective, being wishful thinking which is essentially hoping that the neighbor will eventually stop or get tired of their own music. Adopting this route will only cause you more discomfort as the issues persists, you may even confide in friends about the issue which would give you so measure of relief but ultimately does not resolve anything and may lead to your friends becoming frustrated with your complaints.

Another form of emotion-focused coping is reappraisal. Which is to change how you view the issue, this can be extremely useful in certain situations and is most commonly called looking at the silver lining. The issue with this is that some issues, such as an overly loud neighbor may not have enough silver lining to permit a successful reappraisal.

So What Can I Do?

The key is to be flexible, there are a number of different types of problem and emotion-focused coping styles that people use everyday without even being aware of it. Those with the most success are the ones who combine both problem and emotion-focused coping and are able to adapt it to any situation.

In our example, a way of combining the two would be to adopt the planned solution style of problem-focused, and combine it with the reappraisal style of emotion-focused coping. By changing how you view the situation you may glean some possible insight into why your neighbor is creating so much noise in the first place.

Chances are they are really bored and need something to do, or they don’t realize how loud they are. The planned problem-focused coping comes in handy by, under your new frame of reference, allowing you to think up possible solutions to the problem in which everyone is happy.

One such solution may be to go over and find out if your neighbor really is bored, and perhaps befriending them. If they aren’t, or they aren’t someone you would like to be friends with, you can still go over and in a non-aggressive way let them know how loud they are.

You can also always have them come over when their music is playing so that they can hear just how loud they are. There aren’t many people out there who aren’t willing to compromise, especially when approached in a way that doesn’t immediately put them on guard.

Coping is something that we use everyday, and almost all the time, although people don’t pay it much attention until something drastic like a death or a big break up occurs. The best way for anyone to go about coping is to first figure out what they primarily are, problem-focused, or emotion-focused.

Once you’ve become aware of you’re particular type of coping, you can tweak it to address its weaknesses and adopt it to various situations. and tweaking it to address its weaknesses, and becoming flexible enough to adopt other coping methods when necessary.

Remember not everything can be resolved with a punch, or with a kind word, sometimes it takes a bit of both.

So tell me, how do you cope with things?