Sciency Words: Agentic State

Sciency Words PHYS copy

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


Hey, do you want to write a Sci-Fi/Fantasy story about mind control powers?

Mr05 Autonomous Writer

Yes, you do.

Mr05 Agentic Writer

Well, here’s a term—a real life psychology term—that you might want to incorporate into your story. Though I must warn you: this term has a disturbing history.

The agentic state is a state of mind. A person in the agentic state essentially surrenders their free will and acts as an “agent” of another person who is perceived to be in a position of authority.

A series of experiments in the 1960’s demonstrated how easily we humans will do as we’re told. I won’t describe these experiments in full (you can click here to find out more, if you want). The basic idea can be summed up with these questions:

  • Would you inflict pain on another human being because someone in a position of authority told you to?
  • Would you continue inflicting pain, even as your victim screams for you to stop, because an authority figure insisted it was necessary?
  • Would you torture a person to death because you believed that this authority figure would take responsibility if anything went wrong?

According to the experimental results, the answer to all three questions—for the majority of us, at least—is yes.

Why were these experiments conducted? Because of some very famous words. Words that come to us from a dark period in modern history. Words that I’m sure you’ve heard before: “I was just following orders.” It seems that those words and the mode of thinking they represent are deeply engrained in us all. Telepathic mind control powers hardly seem necessary.

Fortunately, this is not all there is to say concerning this line of psychological research. To quote Frank Herbert, “One cannot have a single thing without its opposite.” The opposite of the agentic state is called the autonomous state. Without delving too deeply into philosophical questions concerning free will, I think we can define the autonomous state as a state of mind where you are making your own decisions rather than allowing authority figures to make them for you. At the very least, you’re not blindly following orders that violate your own conscience.

I don’t know about you, but I find it somewhat reassuring to think that while we may be capable of entering one of these mental states, we are also capable of entering the other—provided we’re aware of what is happening to us.

2 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Agentic State

  1. One of the things that’s interesting about the social sciences, is that when an effect is discovered, documented, and widely promulgated, it can change the effect. (This is especially problematic for economics.)

    Prior to learning about the Milgram experiments, I’m not confident that I would have been in the minority of people who disobeyed an authoritarian order to commit harm. But now that I’m aware of our tendency to surrender our moral agency to authority, I like to think I’d be more resistant.

    Of course, those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, as are those who ignore social science.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve always liked to think that I’m a bit of a rebel. Even so, I’m not sure how I would have performed in these experiments either. I watched some archive video of the original Milgram experiment. You can see the test subjects’ sweating and panicking over what they’re doing, and yet they keep doing it. It’s really hard to watch. Especially because it’s so easy to imagine yourself into their shoes.

      Liked by 1 person

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