Psychology and the theory of authority

It is important to note that propositions about human behavior, in so far as it is rational, do not ordinarily involve propositions about the psychology of the person who is behaving. Let us explain this rather paradoxical statement. In a given situation, and with a given system of values, there is only one course of action which an individual can rationally pursue. It is that course which under the given circumstances maximizes the attainment of value. Hence, psychological propositions, other than descriptions of an individual’s value system, are needed only to explain why his behavior, in any given instance, departs from the norm of rationality.

Likewise, propositions about the behavior of members of an organiza- tion, in so far as that behavior is governed by the system of authority in the organization, do not ordinarily involve propositions about the psychology of the person who is behaving. That is, in so far as a person is obedient to the decisions of another, his psychology has nothing to do with his behavior. Hence, psychological propositions are important for determining the area within which authority will be respected, but have no significance for determining what behavior will be within this area.

It should be added, of course, that in many cases it is very difficult for the superior to control the interpretation and application that is given his orders by the subordinate, and in so far as this is true the attitudes of the latter are of very considerable importance. Apart from actual insubordination, an order may be carried out intelligently or unintelligently, promptly or slowly, enthusiastically or grudgingly. The statement of the previous paragraph might be more cautiously restated: Psychological propositions are important for determining the area within which authority will be respected, and the degree to which the intent of the order-giver will actually be carried out; but in so far as the authority is actually accepted they have no significance for determining what the subordinate’s behaviors will be.

For illustration let us consider the literature on military psychology. This literature is concerned with one central problem—how to enlarge the area within which the soldier, when faced with the dangers of battle and the hardships of campaign life, will obey his superiors.21

If the obedience of soldiers were perfect, then military operations would be limited only by the soldiers’ physiological endurance-—their marching endurance, and their vulnerability to the effects of bullets. A unit could fail in an attack only through the physical extermination of its members by the enemy, and the only data needed in planning operations would be statistical information on the effects of fire under different conditions.66

Actually, however, before a unit is exterminated, it will usually reach a point where its members will refuse obedience. They will refuse to advance when ordered to do so, or they will surrender to the enemy. The real limiting factors, then, in an attack, are the psychological factors which determine when the soldiers will refuse further obedience to commands. To be sure, behind disobedience or surrender will lie the fear of extermination, but the actual amount of destruction necessary before morale fails varies within wide limits under different circumstances.67

Psychology, then, enters into administration as a condition, just as physiological, physical, or other environmental factors may enter in. It is part of the technology of administration, rather than a part of the administrative theory itself.

Source: Simon Herbert A. (1997), Administrative Behavior, Free Press; Subsequent edition.

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