Why Good People Do Bad Things in Mary Kay

Written by The Masked Commenter

Why do women are are seemingly "good people" do unethical and improper things while in Mary Kay? Here is some psychology that may explain it.

The two major psychological studies on the effects of obedience and authority, the ones that get cited in just about every discussion of atrocities, are the Milgram obedience experiments and the Stanford prison study. Both address the basic issue at hand in all cases of institutionalized wrongdoing: how and why do normal people end up doing things they would have previously considered wrong?

Milgram: What do you mean, screwing with people's minds will get me denied tenure

Beginning in 1961, Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist at Yale University, devised a series of experiments in response to the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. He set up a simple "learning study" with two volunteers, in which the "teacher" asked questions of a "learner" and then delivered a series of electrical shocks when the learner got a question wrong, ostensibly to study the effects of negative reinforcement on test-taking.

In reality, the "learner" and the observing "researcher" were actors, and the volunteer's electroshock panel wasn't actually connected to anything. The real goal of the experiment was to see how many volunteers would deliver electric shocks labeled as injurious or lethal. As the shock levels increased, the actor in the next room began to complain, started swearing, pounded on the wall, claimed to have a heart condition, and finally begged for mercy — before falling completely silent.

Sixty-five percent of subjects in the first study delivered three successive 450-volt shocks to a dead man because he wasn't answering the questions.

There were a lot of interesting variations of the experiment before Milgram got shut down for unethical experimental practices, but the basic conclusion was the same: people will do harmful things if an authority figure orders them to, with no indoctrination or brainwashing necessary. The belief that someone's "in charge" is enough.

Zimbardo: Hey Stan, why don't I take the pressure off by being even scarier than you

Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist at Stanford University, decided in 1971 to get down on the creepy psych business and set up a study on the effects of captivity on both prisoners and captors. 24 college-aged men were split at random into "prisoners" and "guards," given appropriate outfits and equipment, and placed in a mock prison in the basement of a building on Stanford's campus, so that Zimbardo could observe how both sides became habituated to the role.

The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks. It was shut down after six days of torture by the guards, including beatings, solitary confinement, forced exercise, attacks with fire extinguishers, denial of beds and bathroom privileges, and sexual humiliation. Zimbardo himself became so wrapped up in the experiment that he didn't realize how bad things were until his girlfriend showed up on day 6, demanded he shut it down at once, and presumably denied him sex for the next ten years. The conclusions were obvious: not only would normal people commit unethical acts under the guidance of authority, but when they are given the power for themselves, they become frankly sadistic.

And this has what to do with Mary Kay, please

Usually, the Zimbardo and Milgram experiments are used to talk about major atrocities and crimes: the Holocaust, of course, and Abu Ghraib, and cult activities like the Manson family murders, Jonestown, or the Branch Davidians. However, I think they also help us understand smaller-scale problems, like widespread corporate fraud, cults that don't end in murder-suicides, and of course, the behavior of people in MLMs.

Important points:

1. People's response to authority is triggered by external cues. Milgram was able to get more people to deliver electric shocks when he had a researcher wearing a white coat and holding a clipboard, holding the experiment in a building on Yale's campus. A researcher in street clothes, in a regular office building, had a much lower compliance rate. The prison guards in Zimbardo's experiment wore khaki uniforms from a surplus store and mirrored sunglasses, making them look like a cross between soldiers and state troopers, and thus were able to exercise authority effectively.

Similarly, Mary Kay invests a lot of time and money in projecting a business-like, successful, authoritative image. The closed-toe shoes, the red jackets and colored suits, act as cues for both insiders and outsiders. For insiders, the color-coding lets them know exactly what place everyone holds in the hierarchy; as for outsiders, we still regard closed-toe pumps and a skirt suit as more authoritative and "serious" than other outfits — look at how female politicians dress and tell me I'm wrong.

Directors rent training centers, and Corporate holds its events in large hotels, for the same reason. The outward appearance of prosperity and of "official" status projects an appearance of authority. Even the glossy brochures and magazines help contribute to the impression that this is a "real" company — many con artists have learned that it's easy to defraud people with the help of expensively-printed literature.

2. It's easier to hurt someone when they're in the next room. Milgram got his highest compliance rates when the learner/victim was in another room, not visible. If the teacher could see the learner's distress, compliance dropped sharply.

Can you see into your downline's life? Nah, you're not supposed to be nosy and she's not supposed to share her problems, because that's negative. Negative information is discouraged because the less negative information you have, the easier it is to hurt someone. You can't see what that 450-volt shock is doing — or that $4800 inventory order — so it's easy to impose it. Of course you know it can't be good, it's perfectly obvious that the guy in the next room has had a heart attack and dropped dead, but hey, that guy with the clipboard's telling you to do it, so it must be okay. You know it's not a good idea to put thousands of dollars on a credit card, but hey, your director's telling you to do it, so it must be okay.

Interestingly enough, in a variation where the teacher had to physically force the learner to take the shocks, 30% still went through with it. Some people are just really motivated, you know?

3. Even authority figures play follow-the-leader. The situation in the Stanford prison experiment didn't start right off with guards beating prisoners over the head and all that. Someone had to start doing it. Once one or two guys got violent, and nobody stopped them, the rest of the guards saw that there were no consequences and began doing the same things, and then another couple of guys went to the next level, and it just kept building up. The real message seemed to be, for the cynical, that the only reason people don't go around beating the living crap out of each other on a daily basis is because they know someone will stop them. Once that restriction is lifted, it's every man for himself — but there's always someone at the forefront, testing the restrictions, pushing the boundaries.

Longtime Mary Kay consultants say that many of the abuses we see in the business now weren't happening when they were in — at least not as frequently — and, of course, we all know about the "new breed" of directors who frontload, make fraudulent charges, and wouldn't know how to do a facial if their Cadillacs depended on it. As with any other situation, it took a few brave, enterprising souls to see just how much they could get away with. When they realized that nobody was really paying attention to what they were doing, they started pushing hard — and, not only did they pass on their unethical practices to their recruits, they also influenced others at their level to start misbehaving, because their examples showed the lack of effective oversight in the organization. 'If they got away with it, so can we," they think, and even if they know it's wrong, they do it anyway because they know they're not running much of a risk.

4. It is nearly impossible to see corruption from the inside. Zimbardo was supposed to be in charge of the Stanford prison experiments. He was supposed to be the dispassionate observer who, among other things, was responsible for the safety and well-being of his experimental subjects. Instead, he became engrossed in the experiment's progress, making helpful suggestions to the guards and assisting them in their oppression of the prisoners. He was incapable of realizing that the system was broken and that his actions were ridiculous, because he had become part of the system and had accepted the violent, hateful terms on which it operated. Of all the participants and observers, only Christina Maslach, Zimbardo's girlfriend, didn't get sucked in — which probably explains why he later married her.

People basically figure out how to behave by observing people around them. The ability to read social signals and respond accordingly is hardwired into our brains — in other words, we're born knowing how to "fake it until we make it." Though most of our parents teach us a defined moral code when we're children, plus some good common sense, the power of our instinctive adaptation to situations can be much stronger, especially at first when we're ignorant and confused. When a new recruit enters Mary Kay, she begins to behave like her director and fellow consultants — superficially, by adopting scripts and tone and techniques, but also on a deeper level. If she sees her director pushing for recruitment and ignoring sales, she will do the same. If she was frontloaded, she will frontload her recruits. If she sees someone placing orders with others' cards or making up phantom consultants, she'll do it too, without realizing that it's wrong. When everyone around you is doing something, it becomes the norm, and people have a hard time believing that the norm can be wrong or counterproductive. If everyone else is doing it, there must be a reason, right? And they can't all be corrupt or stupid, right?

That isn't to say that nobody realizes what they're doing is wrong. As in #3, above, some people are only kept from doing wrong by the fear of getting caught, and once they realize they won't get caught, they just have a grand old time being horrible people. It's their example, though, that influences others — "oh, if they're doing it, it must be okay."

A woman's touch

Mary Kay's membership is almost entirely female. Milgram did a variation of his basic study with all-female subjects, and he noted that, while the compliance rates weren't significantly different, women reported a higher level of stress overall.

I don't believe that women are, as a whole, any better or worse than men. Some say that women are squeamish about violence — but then there's Ilse Koch, the infamous "B*tch of Buchenwald" who collected the skins of executed prisoners; Manson Family members like Squeaky Fromme, who tried to kill Gerald Ford; and Lynndie England, the woman who participated so eagerly in the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. If we're underrepresented in the history of atrocities and institutionalized crime, it's probably because men haven't been much inclined to let us in on any of their business, for good or for evil.

What Milgram's results suggest to me is this: the average woman may or may not be willing to cause pain at the behest of others, but she is more willing than a man would be to swallow her objections and ignore her instincts. Though what she's doing causes her stress and emotional pain, she goes along anyway, because she's been socialized to "get along" with others — don't disagree, don't make a fuss, don't question your betters — in a way that men just aren't. A cult or MLM that preys primarily on women is therefore just as dangerous, if not more so, than others; because women want to get along, to please people, and to avoid causing a disturbance, they are even more susceptible to the basic social and psychological influences that lead good people to do bad things.


  1. Philip Arlington

    This is all good stuff apart from the last paragraph which makes me wonder if you are living in the same century as I am. What I have seen in my life (I am English and was born in 1972) is that many, many women are now more aggressive, competitive, and stridently independent than the average man, and they are encouraged by feminists to behave badly with the justification that anything women do can be excused on the grounds that men did worse things at some point in the past.

    I would like to see an article about how Mary Kay utilises feminist rhetoric to exploit women. I believe that feminism is wide open to this form of misuse because of the militancy and vengefulness which fills the minds of its passionate adherents.

    1. Lazy Gardens

      “I would like to see an article about how Mary Kay utilises feminist rhetoric to exploit women. I believe that feminism is wide open to this form of misuse because of the militancy and vengefulness which fills the minds of its passionate adherents.”

      So write one and e-mail it to Tracy. She’ll publish it if it’s reasonably well written. Especially since you sound like you are hauling around a very large axe looking for a grindstone.

  2. Scrib

    Hi Philip! Glad to see you! 🙂

    Mary Kay culture does indeed exhibit a form of feminism, not the feminism that brings about positive change (such as fighting for the right to vote) but the sort of feminism that puts on a chain-mail bikini and a fur cape and stands on top of Mary Kay Corporate HQ down in Dallas screaming, “HEAR ME, O MAN! ALL SHALL LOVE ME AND DESPAIR!”

    Mary Kay culture is exceptionally sexist with regards to men. Oh sure, it’s not as prominent in official company literature, but page through the training documents of Mary Kay’s directors and upper leadership and it’s more widespread than rabies. Alan Farnham wrote a 1993 article for Fortune magazine titled “Mary Kay’s Lessons in Leadership” that describes how blatantly sexist Mary Kay culture is towards husbands and men:

    “At Seminar [Mary Kay’s yearly awards bash], husbands know, without being told, that they’re fifth wheels here and that their job is to be quiet and not get into trouble.”

    “In general, Seminar speaks to husbands with a candor that would get another company in hot water, were the sex roles reversed. A husband’s highest function, it’s implied, is to support his wife’s career If for some reason he can’t do that, he should get out of the way.”

    “One Seminar woman told a group of husbands, “Don’t put barriers in my way. Put the bags in the car.”

    Farnham’s right; you better believe women everywhere would be smashing glass storefronts and throwing pink paint onto passersby if the same situation existed but the roles reversed. Can you imagine a man telling his wife at the yearly company goat-rope, “Don’t put barriers in my way, sweet-cheeks; just put my bags in the car?” Good Lawd.

    There are countless other examples that prove sexism exists in Mary Kay; MK Men are expected to be good little lap dogs who don’t question their wife’s business yet are expected to support it and crow over it to friends. Women who join MK but wonder what their husband will say are strongly encouraged to go behind their husband’s backs and do it anyway, or that it’s “better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.”

    For a company that claims “God First”, I haven’t been able to find any verses in the Bible that support these disgusting and dishonoring practices, but hey, maybe I have the wrong Bible translation again. 😉

  3. Verity Rose

    Hello, Philip,

    I am likewise glad to see you, but I have to admit that I’ve been a bit puzzled by the comments you leave here. You seem to be focused a lot on how you find the discussion on Pink Truth to be lacking. Here, you’re taking us to task for insufficiently critiquing feminism. On another post, you accuse PT of missing the big picture by focusing on the independent sales force while ignoring the “real” scoundrels at Corporate. If you honestly believe that we are ignoring the malfeasance of Corporate, I suggest you keep reading the archives.

    Scrib’s comment raises an interesting point on feminism and MK, at least to me. Scrib often points out, rightly, that there’s some pretty nasty talk about men in general, and husbands in particular, at MK, starting with Mary Ash herself, and flowing down the line to individual SDs. At the same time, though, the MK “brand” is loath to describe itself as feminist, because many people still consider “feminism” to be a loaded word, and if you identify as a feminist, then you obviously hate men, hate marriage, hate motherhood, hate fashion and beauty (tools of the patriarchy, doncha know!), and probably have Crusty Feet and Hairy Legs as a political statement.

    Whereas at MK, it’s not “feminism,” it’s “enriching women’s lives!” It’s “sharing the opportunity!” It’s “bee-lieving in yourself!” You can get rich and still have a husband and children, and not upset the balance of power in your household! Why, even Mary Kay herself said she understood that as of 7 p.m. every night, she “was expected to be Mrs. Mel Ash,” and to put her husband first! And it wasn’t those mean, unshaven feminists who were giving women this opportunity. It was Mary Kay, Inc.

    Of course, as Scrib points out beautifully, Mary Kay Ash sure sang a different tune when it came to married men getting in the way of her company profits. Then it was all “men are the fifth wheel at Seminar, and they should just keep quiet.” Then it was “load the car for me or get out of the way.” Then it was “Children are a reason, not an excuse.” All of this, while still singing a bastardized tune about “empowerment” and “enriching women’s lives.”

    At first glance, it seems counterintuitive. Mary Kay certainly *seems* to be making all the appropriate noises about feminism, which would suggest a feminist company. At the same time, MK also makes all the appropriate noises about God first, family second, career third, and about adhering to certain traditional ideals about feminine dress and comportment. So which is it? Is MK an example of Applied Feminism or not?

    I’m going to argue that it’s not, and here’s why. MK’s overarching mission is to maximize profit within the confines of its archaic, money-losing business model. MK accomplishes this by engaging in very culturally precise social engineering. As far as MK is concerned, if the company actually enriches women’s lives, that might be lovely for women, but it’s entirely beside the point for the company. What the company needs is women continuing to buy in to the company, via massive purchases of inventory and a contract that strips them of any authority to run their businesses with true independence. But what happens when their inventory doesn’t sell and they discover that they’re not really CEOs of their own business? That’s when the selling of the “dream” really kicks into high gear.

    Not long ago, we had a discussion about a new NSD, who told a local business magazine that she wanted to create a place “where women felt empowered.” Not where women actually WERE empowered, just where they *felt* like they were. I would argue that this is an antifeminist position: don’t give the women in your unit any actual power, because then they might ask questions about their contract, or about exactly how Ms. New NSD became so rich, and who had to go broke to make that happen. No, just give them the illusion of power, buoy them up with false platitudes, and tell them there’s something wrong with them if they’re not feeling their power. Oh, and by the way, your husband should be more important than your career, and you should be Mrs. Husband, the way that Mary Kay was Mrs. Ash every night at 7 p.m. But your husband is holding you back, and should just shut up or get out of the way.

    This is not feminism. This is Psy-Ops in the service of a money grab.

  4. Estellene Minghini Ferrel

    All of these hateful opinions are just that, hateful, full of jealousy and wrong…
    Sounds like a bunch of losers bad mouthing a company that has been around for a long time enriching people’s lives.
    Mary Kay is a great product also by the way…..
    And a great company. My one regret in life is that I myself didn’t become a Mary Kay Director.

    1. TRACY

      Losers, you say? If only you knew how successful I am with my REAL business.

      MK has enriched a small handful of people by victimizing millions. The company is a predator.

    2. BestDecision

      What is it we were taught in MK? “Don’t take advice from those who haven’t been where you want to be.” I was a Cadillac Director with offspring, Estellene, so I’ll accept your statement that you never were a Director and remind myself that you haven’t been in my shoes, seen what I’ve seen, and, therefore, can’t possibly grasp how bad things are in the company.

      $70 sheet masks and Christmas wreaths as Star prizes, Estellene. Those 2 facts alone say a lot.

    3. Didn’t, or couldn’t? The system is so simple and easy to follow – you must have done something wrong. It’s your fault you never made it to Director, you lazy loser.

      Normally, I would feel sympathy for a victim of MKult, but your blast of MKult induced thought terminating clichés really rubbed me the wrong way today.

      1. Poisonberry_Sparkle

        When there are comments posted like that, I remember what Tracy has said before: the TRUTH isn’t NEGATIVE or POSITIVE. It’s just the TRUTH.

        Those still in the fog can call it hateful and bitter all they want. It still doesn’t make it FALSE. Because it’s not. We who left MK behind know that. NOW.

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