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?



Having CD And What It Means For You

Studies show that one million out of one million people have, continue to have, and experience CD, a state of distress also known as Cognitive Dissonance. CD can occur at any point in life and is not  dependent on age, race, health, social economic status, marital status, or pet ownership status. CD can occur at any time, anywhere, there have even been instances of CD occurring in sleep during dreaming.

Signs include:

Experiencing various levels of anxiety and distress depending on the degree of CD

Tightening around the eyes and mouth


Ruffling of the hair

Bouts of anger

And other distressing behaviors

What causes CD:

CD is caused by a misalignment between what someone believes, and what they do. For instance, say you go shopping with the intention of not spending more than sixty dollars since you need the rest to pay off a pending bill. At the end of your shopping day you’ve spent one hundred and twenty dollars, twice the amount you intended. The subsequent feelings of anxiety, distress, and maybe disappointment are all manifestations of CD.

However, there are defenses against experiencing CD, and techniques that can be used to decrease the amount of CD experienced. The simplest is to view your belief from a different perspective, or to even modify your belief. Viewing from a different perspective is akin to looking at the silver lining, instead of ruminating on the fact that you’ve spent twice what you were allowed, you can instead focus on the value of the items purchased and how they will help improve your life.

If this doesn’t help then it’s probably a good idea to return the items before it’s too late.

Modifying your beliefs: This is a bit more energy intensive with the amount of energy needed to do so varying depending on how deeply held and fundamental the belief is to your identity. If for instance you believe that car brand X is the best, purchase a car from brand X and then within a month that car develops an unforseen problem. It is easy to say, well car brand X may not be the best, but they are one of the best.

This takes relatively little energy to do, and can be made easier by keeping the admission private. However, if you hold strong beliefs against same-sex marriage, and a close family member, (your child perhaps) wants to have a same-sex marriage you will find yourself experiencing an extreme amount of dissonance as two fundamental beliefs collide. The first being your belief/wish for your child to be happy and have the best life possible, and the second being your stance against same-sex marriage.

If the first belief wins you will have to invest a considerable amount of energy into changing not only how you think and feel about same-sex marriage, but also behaviors that express your dislike for it, such as facial expressions, body stances, gestures etc.

CD is a fundamental aspect of life that occurs dozens of times throughout someone’s day whether its having cereal instead of the intended eggs for breakfast, or lying to your significant other or spouse when you normally tell the truth. It can also have varying effects on our psyche, and body language. While in some instances it is easy enough to keep one’s thoughts to oneself, subtle clues in body language reveal things that we aren’t even aware are being revealed.

Cognitive Dissonance is experienced by everyone, and being aware of it and what causes it can help us to be that much truer to ourselves, and can also help reveal beliefs and stances that we may not have been previously aware of.