Psychologist Philip Zimbardo has a strange article at CiF:
Over the last three decades, my research and that of my colleagues has demonstrated the relative ease with which ordinary people can be led to behave in ways that qualify as evil. We have put research participants in experiments where powerful situational forces - anonymity, group pressures or diffusion of personal responsibility - led them blindly to obey authority and to aggress against innocent others after dehumanising them.
My recent book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, describes the radical transformations that took place among college students playing randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison created at Stanford University. In 1971, I wanted to understand better what happens when you put good people in a bad place, like prison. To do so, it was necessary to conduct a controlled experiment, to select a group of volunteers who were ordinary young men with no history of crime or violence, and then assign them to play the roles of prisoner or guard in a two-week experiment in which we could observe and record everything that happened.
Those assigned to be prisoners lived in their cells and on the prison yard all the time; the guards worked eight-hour shifts. The experiment had to be terminated after only six days because nearly half the prisoners had emotional breakdowns in response to the extreme stress and psychological torments sadistically invented by their guards. The situational forces had overwhelmed many of these good, intelligent college students.
I posted a while back on Zimbardo and his notorious Stanford prison experiment. It's worth quoting a passage from Zimbardo's book to get some context about exactly why the experiment had to be terminated:
Dozens of people had come down to our "little shop of horrors," seen some of the abuse or its effects, and said nothing. A prison chaplain, parents, and friends had visited the prisoners, and psychologists and others on the parole board saw a realistic prison simulation, an experiment in action, but did not challenge me to stop it. The one exception erupted just before the time of the prison-log notation on Night 5. About halfway through the study, I had invited some psychologists who knew little about the experiment to interview the staff and participants, to get an outsiders' evaluation of how it was going. A former doctoral student of mine, Christina Maslach, a new assistant professor at the University of California at Berkeley, came down late Thursday night to have dinner with me. We had started dating recently and were becoming romantically involved. When she saw the prisoners lined up with bags over their heads, their legs chained, and guards shouting abuses at them while herding them to the toilet, she got upset and refused my suggestion to observe what was happening in this "crucible of human nature." Instead she ran out of the basement, and I followed, berating her for being overly sensitive and not realizing the important lessons taking place here.
You get the picture. Zimbardo had set up his "little shop of horrors", and managed to get one set of students to comprehensively - under his guardianship - humiliate and mistreat another set of students: "prisoners lined up with bags over their heads, their legs chained, and guards shouting abuses at them while herding them to the toilet". All part of his little experiment, and hey, he's finding out some important stuff here, and not incidentally making a big name for himself in the world of psychology. And he simply can't see what's happening under his nose; he can't see his own responsibility for the nightmare that he's created. He even thinks it's a good idea to bring this woman down - a woman he's trying to impress - to have a look. He's proud of what he's done. It's not until she points out some home truths that he starts to think that maybe the experiment should be stopped:
"It is terrible what YOU are doing to those boys!" she yelled at me. Christina made evident in that one statement that human beings were suffering, not prisoners, not experimental subjects, not paid volunteers. And further, I was the one who was personally responsible for the horrors she had witnessed (and which she assumed were even worse when no outsider was looking). She also made clear that if this person I had become — the heartless superintendent of the Stanford prison — was the real me, not the caring, generous person she had come to like, she wanted nothing more to do with me.
And now here we are, over 35 years later, and he's still living off the name he made for himself back then - and still believes he discovered some important truths. Not about himself, of course, not about about how individuals, in the name of scientific research and of furthering their careers, can subject a group of young people to the most traumatic and humiliating experiences - "half the prisoners had emotional breakdowns" - and think they're doing something praiseworthy. No no, that's not how psychology works. It's about them, the subjects, and How Good People Turn Evil. That's the students who turn evil of course - not the psychologists.
It's a collection of banalities, though. Back to his CiF article:
This body of work challenges the traditional focus on the individual's inner nature and personality traits as the primary - and often sole - factors in understanding human failings. Instead, I argue that while most people are good most of the time, they can readily be led to act antisocially because most are rarely solitary figures improvising soliloquies on the empty stage of life. On the contrary, people are often in an ensemble of different players on a stage with various props, scripts and stage directions. Together, they comprise situations that can dramatically influence behaviour.
Most institutions invested in an individualistic focus hold up the person as sinner, culpable, afflicted, insane or irrational. Programmes of change follow a medical model of rehabilitation - therapy, re-education and treatment - or a punitive model of incarceration and execution. But all such programmes are doomed to fail if the main causal agent is the situation or system, not the person.
So....people can be led to act antisocially because of peer pressure? - because of their social milieu? And we're to believe that this is a challenging new viewpoint that brave pioneering psychologists have just recently discovered? Rather than, say, a statement of the obvious with which anyone who's studied human behaviour for more than ten minutes would readily agree.
Two kinds of paradigm shift are required. First, we need to adopt a public health model for prevention of violence, bullying, prejudice and more that identifies vectors of social disease to be inoculated against. Second, legal theory must reconsider the extent to which powerful situational and systemic factors should be taken into account in punishing individuals.
Oooh, paradigm shifts! That first one should be no problem at all: "we need to adopt a public health model for prevention of violence, bullying, prejudice and more that identifies vectors of social disease to be inoculated against". Right. It's a wonder that no one's thought of this before. All we need to do is identify vectors of social disease, and then inoculate against them. What could be more straightforward?
The second one - well, this is perhaps not quite as revolutionary as Zimbardo seems to believe. Legal theory already takes into account "situational and systemic factors". But in general, and contrary to the thrust of Zimbardo's argument, it's considered a good idea, in liberal societies, to preserve some notion of personal responsibility.
At the end, he talks of heroism:
I propose a situational perspective for heroism, just as I do for evil: a situation that can inflame the hostile imagination and evil in some of us can inspire the heroic imagination in others. We must teach people to think of themselves as "heroes in waiting", ready to take heroic action in a particular situation that may occur only once in their lifetime.Heroism, though, does rather depend on the exercise of personal responsibility: indeed it's predicated on the idea that people take responsibilty for their own actions. Which isn't quite what he's been arguing for. Maybe he wants people to take responsibility for their good actions, but blame all their bad actions on "situational and systemic factors". Well, it's a common enough viewpoint.
[Norm has posted on the same article.]