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.

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