The psychology of submission to authority

6 04 2009

What does not surviving a plane crash have to do with the “medicalisation” of childbirth? I would argue that they are both examples of how we are losing our ability to take our fate into our own hands.

When a plane crashes, some passengers die because they are waiting to be saved while those that act to save themselves are more likely to survive [1]. 

Why? Because when people hand control over of others, they find it hard to take it back again. 

So it is as you queue on the phone to buy plane tickets, you queue to check in, you queue through security, you walk down long corridors, you queue again.

To some real extent, this process is a bit like being brainwashed – it is a series of mental triggers that you are in a system, you are a subject, you are not in control. You have become a sheep.

This in itself is not a bad thing. It helps the systems to work if the people can be controlled, and certainly nothing sinister is intended; however it does mean that if the plane crashes we will be more inclined to wait for instructions than fight our way to the door.

A similar effect can play out during childbirth.  Mothers who undergo cesarean subjugate themselves to the system and in handing over responsibility, may well find taking the child back after it is cleaned-up more psychologically challenging, and are thus more likely to turn to authority (nurses, midwives etc) for help with routine things like breastfeeding and washing the baby, rather than assume responsibility; their confidence is thus eroded by the process of subjugation.

I propose therefore that both on air flights and in the maternity ward, we should do what we can to keep people in control – or at least thinking they are…

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[1] I read this claim in last week’s Sunday Times, but can’t find a reference online. However, this article hints at similar claims: 
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1053663,00.html