25 May 2015

Duty to One’s Country

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, 1928, Excerpts

While they continue to write and talk, we saw the wounded and dying. While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger. But for all that we were no mutineers, no deserters, no cowards – they were very free with all these expressions. We loved our country as much as they; we went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished the false from the true, we had suddenly learned to see. And we saw that there was nothing of their world left. We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.

For us lads of eighteen, they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress – to the future. We often made fun of them and played jokes on them, but in our hearts we trusted them. The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs. They surpassed us only in phrases and in cleverness. The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces.

I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another. I see that the keenest brains in the world invent weapons and words to make it more refined and enduring. And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me. What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account? What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing; - it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of this?

Moral Disengagement

The Lucifer Effect by Zimbardo, 2007, Excerpts

Most people adopt moral standards undergoing normal socialization processes during their upbringing. Those standards act as guides for pro-social behavior and deterrents of antisocial behavior as defined by their family and social community. Over time, these external moral standards imposed by parents, teachers, and other authorities become internalized as codes of personal conduct. People develop personal controls over their thoughts and actions. They learn to sanction themselves to prevent acting inhumanely and to foster human actions.

Individuals and groups can maintain their sense of moral standards by simply disengaging their usual moral functioning at certain times, in certain situations, for certain purposes by:

·       Redefining our harmful behavior as honorable, creating moral justification for the action by adopting moral imperatives that sanctify violence.
·       Minimizing our sense of a direct link between our actions and its harmful outcomes by diffusing or displacing personal responsibility.
·       Changing the way we think about the actual harm done by our actions.
·       Reconstructing our perception of victims as deserving their punishment, by blaming them for the consequences.
·       Dehumanizing them, perceiving them to be beneath the righteous concerns we reserve for fellow human beings.

·       Ignoring, distorting, minimizing, or disbelieving any negative consequences of our conduct.

22 May 2015


The Lucifer Effect by Zimbardo, 2007, Excerpts

We conform first out of informational needs: other people have ideas, views, perspectives, and knowledge that helps us to better navigate our world, especially through foreign shores and new ports. The second mechanism involves normative needs: other people are more likely to accept us when we agree with them than when we disagree, so we yield to their view of the world, driven by a powerful need to belong to replace differences with similarities.

Pressures to conform are enormous, to be a team player, not to rock the boat, and not to risk the sanctions against confronting a system. Those forces are often coupled with the top-down power of authority systems to convey expectations indirectly to employees and underlings that unethical and illegal behavior is appropriate under special circumstances which they define.

Our sense of identity is in large measure conferred on us by others in the ways they treat or mistreat us, recognize or ignore us, raise us or punish us. Some people make us timid and shy; others elicit our sex appeal and dominance. In some groups we are made leaders, while in others we are reduced to being followers. We come to live up to or down to expectations others have of us. The expectations of others often become self-fulfilling prophecies. Without realizing it, we often behave in ways that confirm the beliefs others have about us. Those subjective beliefs can create new realities for us. We often become who other people think we are, in their eyes and in our behavior.

It is only by becoming aware of our vulnerabilities to social pressure that we can begin to build resistance to conformity when it is not in our best interest to yield to the mentality of the herd. Societies that promote individualism, such as the United States and other Western nations, overemphasize personality in explaining behavior while concurrently underemphasizing situational influences. An individual is constantly engaged in a two-way exchange with society – adapting to its norms, roles, and status prescriptions but also acting upon society to reshape those norms. All of the major Western institutions of medicine, education, law, religion, and psychiatry collectively help create the myth that individuals are always in control of their behavior, act from free will and rational choice, and are thus personally responsible for any and all of their actions.

21 May 2015

Role Based Actions

The Lucifer Effect by Zimbardo, 2007, Excerpts

People can do terrible things when they allow the role they play to have rigid boundaries that circumscribe what is appropriate, expected, and reinforced in a given setting. Such rigidity in the role shuts off the traditional morality and values that govern their lives when they are in “normal mode.”  To the extent that we can both live in the skin of a role and yet be able to separate ourselves from it when necessary, we are in a position to “explain away” our personal responsibility for the damage we cause by our role-based actions.

In addition to the power of rules and roles, situational forces mount in power with the introduction of uniforms, costumes, and masks, all disguises of one’s usual appearance that promote anonymity and reduce personal accountability. When people feel anonymous in a situation, as if no one is aware of their true identity, they can more easily be induced to behave in antisocial ways. This is especially so if the setting grants permission to enact one’s impulse or to follow orders or implied guidelines that one would usually disdain.

In the Stanford Prison Experiment, the power that the guards assumed each time they donned their military-style uniforms was matched by the powerlessness the prisoners felt when wearing their wrinkled smocks with ID numbers sewn on their fronts. The guards had billy-clubs, whistles, and sunglasses that disguised their eyes; the prisoners had a chained ankle and a stocking cap to contain their long hair. These situational differences were not inherent in the cloth or the hardware; rather, the source of their power is to be found in the psychological material that went into each group’s subjective constructions of the meaning of these uniforms.

20 May 2015

Power of Rules

The Lucifer Effect by Zimbardo, 2007, Excerpts

Rules are formal, simplified ways of controlling informal complex behavior. They work by externalizing regulations, by establishing what is necessary, acceptable, and rewarded and what is unacceptable and therefore punished. Over time, rules come to have an arbitrary life of their own and the force of legal authority even when they are no longer relevant, are vague, or change with the whims of the enforcers.

Absolute ethics are embodied in communal codes of conduct. These codes are often based upon adherence to a set of explicit principles, as in the Ten Commandments or the Bill of Rights. Such absolute ethics allow no degree of freedom that might justify means to an end or circumstances that might qualify instances where the principle is suspended or applied in an altered, watered-down form. In the extreme, no extenuating circumstances can justify an abrogation of the ethical standard.

Some rules are essential for the effective coordination of social behavior, such as audiences listening to performers speak, drivers stopping at red traffic lights, and people not cutting into queues. However, many rules are merely screens for dominance by those who make them or those charged with enforcing them. Naturally, the last rule always includes punishment for violation of the other rules, and there must be someone or some agency willing and able to administer such punishment, ideally doing so in a public arena that can serve to deter other potential rule breakers.

19 May 2015

The System/Situation

The Lucifer Effect by Zimbardo, 2007, Excerpts

Over time, Systems come to have a historical foundation and a political and economic power structure that governs and directs the behavior of many people within its sphere of influence. At some point, the System becomes an autonomous entity, independent of those who initially started it or even of those in apparent authority within its power structure. The System comes to develop a culture of its own involving extensive networks of people, their expectations, norms, policies, and laws. The program, policies, and standard operating procedures that are developed to support an ideology become an essential component of the System. Ideology is a slogan or proposition that legitimizes whatever means are necessary to attain an ultimate goal.

System Power involves authorization or institutionalized permission to behave in prescribed ways or to forbid and punish actions that are contrary to them. It provides the “higher authority” that gives validation to playing new roles, following new rules, and taking actions that would ordinarily be constrained by pre-existing laws, norms, morals, and ethics. Such validation usually comes cloaked in the mantle of ideology.

Situations are created by Systems. If you are placed in a strange and novel cruel Situation within a powerful System, you will not emerge as the same person who entered that crucible of human nature. We all want to believe in our inner power, our sense of personal agency, to resist external situational forces. For many, that belief of personal power to resist powerful situational and systemic forces is little more than a reassuring illusion of invulnerability. Paradoxically, maintaining that illusion only serves to make one more vulnerable to manipulation by failing to be sufficiently vigilant against attempts of undesired influence subtly practiced on them.

The situational approach should encourage us all to share a profound sense of humility when we are trying to understand “unthinkable,” “unimaginable,” “senseless” acts of evil – violence, vandalism, suicidal terrorism, torture, or rape. Instead of immediately embracing the high moral ground that distances us good folks from those bad ones, the situational approach preaches that any deed, for good or evil, that any being has ever done, you and I could also do – given the same situational forces.

18 May 2015

Stanford Prison Experiment Mirrors Abu Ghraib

The Lucifer Effect by Zimbardo, 2007, Excerpts

The college students role-playing guards and prisoners in a mock prison experiment conducted at Stanford University in the summer of 1971 were mirrored in the real guards and real prison in Iraq of 2003. Not only had I seen such events, I had been responsible for creating the conditions that allowed such abuses to flourish. The experiment succeeded all too well in creating some of what is worst in real prisons, but the findings came at the expense of human suffering. Compared to the toxic and lethal nature of real civilian and military prisons, our Stanford Prison was relatively benign.

I realized watching some of these images made me relive the worst scenes; the nakedness; the sexually humiliating games. These comparable abuses had been imposed by college student guards on their college student prisoners. I knew that in the Abu Ghraib Prison, powerful forces had to have been at work. It was apparent to me that the System was now struggling mightily to conceal its own complicity in torture.

The primary lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment is that Situation matters. Some situations can exert such powerful influence over us that we can be led to behave in ways we would not, could not, predict was possible in advance. We undergo significant character transformations when caught up in the crucible of social forces. Social situations have profound effects on the behavior and mental functioning of individuals, groups, and national leaders.

Stanford Prison Experiment