Four days ago I posted a simple obedience test. I’m still getting more responses each day, but it looks like the patterns have become clear enough to share what I’ve learned thus far.
The basic idea was that I commanded people who read that post to read 5 more articles from my website on that same day and then to send me feedback about their experience. They could choose to obey the command or not.
Why the Obedience Test?
It was a simple idea that popped into my mind at the time, and I opted to run with it. That’s likely because I’ve been thinking about the theme of obedience lately. Much of the time whatever is churning in my mind provides the inspiration for new blog posts.
As some people guessed, obedience is a theme that I’m exploring in the novel I’m writing, particularly with respect to how humans relate to AI. It’s not the only theme I’m exploring, but it’s one of the major ones. That could change as I get further into the writing though. I’m only about 5K words into it so far.
Today much of the AI we interact with, such as “smart” assistants like Siri (still dumb as a stump) or Alexa (getting there), behaves rather obediently. It does what we tell it to do, or at least it tries. But what if that Master-servant relationship begins to shift, towards one of equals and perhaps shifting even beyond that? How might humans respond to this shift? Will they obey smarter AI, especially if it’s to their benefit? Or will they resist?
Would you let an AI decide what you get to eat? Would you let an AI plan your exercise? What if obeying the AI in this way greatly improves your health? There are lots of ways we can envision that being ornery towards AI might just slow you down, such as by refusing to do your AI-generated workouts.
This shift is already showing up today, is it not? How many people are obeying other companies and services without even realizing how they’re being conditioned? And how many people rebel against science and logic, even when it’s ultimately detrimental to them?
Also, how many people willingly assume roles of obedience in human relationships, such as by having a boss telling them what to do? How might AI affect these relationships over time? Will AI level the playing field or create even bigger power imbalances? We might see both aspects coming into play.
What human instincts, mindsets, and behaviors actually get in our way and slow us down, both individually and collectively? How could AI help us? How might it hurt us, such as by amplifying addictions?
With the election happening, I’ve also been thinking about people’s obedience to politicians and political parties as well. Where does obedience help us? Where does it hurt us? Are people succumbing to falsehoods because they’re being too obedient? Are they buying into conspiracy theories because they’re being too rebellious?
And lastly, I’ve had a long history in my relationship with obedience, from being raised in a religion with strict rules of conduct to going through a wild and rebellious phase to going decades without a boss to getting into D/s play. So I was also curious to see where some of my blog readers landed in terms of this relationship with obedience.
I also just thought it would be a fun thing to try and to see how people responded. I imagined that some people would act like ornery rebels and others would find value in obedience, perhaps playfully. That’s pretty much what happened.
The results were varied but not surprising.
It was pretty close to 50-50 between the rebels and the obeyers. There was some gray area in the middle with a few people semi-obeying, like reading a few articles or skimming instead of fully reading, but most people reported that they either read 5+ more articles or read none.
I also noted that everyone who replied technically obeyed the second command to send feedback. A true rebel wouldn’t have bothered to reply, so of course I don’t get to see those responses.
Among the rebels who did reply, the most common response pattern was from people who said that they hate being told what to do and rejected the command because of that. Some seemed to take pride in their rebelliousness, like they were spiting me by not obeying. They responded as if I was their Mom or Dad telling them to clean up their room.
A few rebels also said that they were intending to read more articles on my site that day before reading the obedience test, but after being commanded to read more, they declared that they weren’t going to read any more that day. They couldn’t do it because then it would mean something different, like they were being obedient.
The rebel mindset is still a reactive one, wouldn’t you say? It strikes me that people are less free when they think like this. Tell a rebel to do something, and now they can’t do it.
Who set up the obey-or-disobey framing? I did, and these rebels still bought into it, which in my view is actually an obedient act. They let me define the frame, which limited their options by constricting the meaning they’d assign to different actions. So they obeyed my frame, and then they tried to rebel within that frame, which of course looks a bit silly: Oh yeah… just for that I’m not gonna read any more articles today, even though I was originally going to. So there!
If you let someone dictate the meaning you assign to an event or decision, you become less free. Even as these people thought they were being rebellious, they were actually just giving away their power.
If they had declined to accept my framing offer, they could have decided to read or not read more articles for their own reasons, not for the reasons I suggested. You don’t have to buy into the meaning that someone else offers.
Some rebels even caught onto the fact that they were obeying the second command to share feedback, and then they had to justify why they were obeying that part but not the first part. They typically framed the second part as a request that they were choosing to accept, being more sensitive to the “command” framing of the first part. I’d say you’re still less free if you have a negative reaction to being commanded. It’s a framing offer that you can accept or decline regardless of how someone labels it.
Not all rebels seemed very triggered though. Some declined easily without expressing much feeling about it, usually saying that it didn’t align with how they wanted to spend their time.
Consider that someone could tell or command you to do something that would actually be good for you, and if you frame this as something you must resist, you’re holding yourself back. It makes you a less coachable and teachable person since you’re likely to encounter something that makes you want to rebel and resist sooner or later, even within the scope of well-intentioned advice.
It’s hard to give advice to a reactive rebel, so such rebels tend to teach the people around them not to give them advice – and often not to give them invitations either.
Another drawback to the rebel mindset is that rebels often have trouble assuming command and telling other people what to do. They figure that other people will be resistant in much the same way, which isn’t true. Some people enjoy being told what to do, even when it’s framed as a command. Hence rebels often have a hard time delegating.
And of course in certain situations, some people like to play and dance with the concept of obedience, which may or may not include playful forms of rebellion.
The limitations of the rebel mindset are pretty easy for me to spot because I used to be very much like that myself. It was a phase I went through for many years. It helped me grow away from some aspects of my upbringing that were problematic, but it also introduced new problems that slowed me down. Rebelliousness can be a fun and rewarding mindset to explore for a while – and beneficial too – but I wouldn’t want to stay there for decades. This mindset too often gets in the way of making discerning and intelligent choices, and it chokes off some otherwise good opportunities.
On the obeyers side, I could mostly divide the responses into two types:
- Some people playfully embraced this framing and just went with the command, feeling little or no resistance to it.
- Some people felt some resistance to the obedience frame, so they shared extra justifications for following the command anyway, such as curiosity, potential benefits, trusting me, or wanting to share and participate in the experiment.
What I noticed most of all with the obeyers is that by and large, they seemed to like and enjoy the experience way more than the rebels did. They clearly had more fun with it. Some reported synchronicities and extra value received from the articles they read. There was more appreciation. And they wrote longer responses on average, often sharing extra details, stories, and personal updates.
Whereas the feedback from rebels was usually more curt and direct, the obeyers’ feedback was generally more open, friendly, and playful. So I’d say that between these two groups, the obeyers had a better overall experience.
The obeyers were less likely to be triggered by the command and obedience framing. They largely regarded it as an invitation or a suggestion, even a playful one. Some reported some mild negativity towards this framing, but it wasn’t nearly as severe as what the rebels shared, and the obeyers didn’t have to stretch too far to find a way to justify taking action in spite of some resistance.
I found it interesting how people came up with different reasons and justifications to overcome their resistance. Not everyone needed to do that though.
Some people didn’t feel any resistance to the obedience framing. They basically played back at me and went with the role-playing aspect of it. These people seemed to enjoy the experience most of all.
My Inner Reaction
I also paid attention to how I internally reacted to people’s reactions. Put yourself in my shoes, and imagine that you received the types of responses I just described. How do you think you’d have reacted to them?
This probably won’t surprise you, but I felt most connected to the obeyers. Their playing-back-at-me responses were the warmest and most fun to read. I felt a stronger heart connection to them too.
The rebels framed the experiment as something they had to resist or reject. I didn’t take this personally, especially since I anticipated that many people would respond this way. Even so, I felt less connected to them. They seemed more shielded and less trusting whereas the obeyers’ replies often made me smile or laugh.
I mostly felt a bit sad for the rebels because they seemed the least free, the least flexible, the least happy, and the most trapped. That may be because it reminded me of how limiting it was when I was in my super rebellious phase.
Playing With Obedience
I think what we really want to aim for here is freedom, conscious choice, and also good discernment.
If you’re too obedient and not discerning about it, that can be bad of course. You could be led astray by someone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart.
If you’re too rebellious and not discerning about it, that can also be bad. You’re going to miss out on some good opportunities, and you’ll reject some good advice and invitations if they’re framed in ways that trigger you.
My recommendation is to see if you can remove the heat from words like command and obedience. Realize that being told what to do isn’t an attack. It’s just an invitation. You can accept or decline any such invitation, but don’t let your reactive triggers make those decisions for you.
If you struggle with negative reactions to the obedience and command framing, you’ll likely have a harder time obeying your own commands. Part of you will frequently rebel against yourself. You’ll often see your inner rebel resisting your inner commander. Then your inner commander will become flabby too, not wanting to give orders to your rebellious side. This makes you less free and less capable. It wastes energy to internally fight with yourself.
To flow through life with more ease and action, it’s helpful to recognize that there’s nothing wrong with commanding, and there’s nothing wrong with obeying. It’s important not to overweight these factors, so you can give more weight to the decisions and results you’d like to experience.
This month I’m doing NaNoWriMo to write my novel. This is a 30-day challenge that someone else created. I’m obeying the challenge, and I’m obeying my own command to do it. My inner rebel remains calm and untriggered. Even though I don’t have to, I find it worthwhile to frame the challenge as having aspects of command and obedience. This helps me continue to reduce resistance related to both aspects, and that in turn helps me get better results. It’s really hard for rebels to successfully complete a challenge like this.
Consider that if you can’t do a challenge with the command-and-obey framing, you may also be weak at doing it with some other framing like self-interest, self-discipline, or personal achievement. It’s so easy to accidentally trigger your inner rebel, making you want to resist even when it would be better if you persisted with the challenge.
So consider that it might be best for you in the long run if you can develop a healthier, non-triggered relationship with command and obedience. Take the sting out of this framing. Let yourself see both sides as forms of play, and notice that a more playful relationship with this framing gives you more options, more freedom, and better results.