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.

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