Philip Zimbardo has a post up at The Situationist providing a quick review of his studies into the situational and contextual nature of our actions and the resulting evil that can result even from “good” people. Always worth considering in an Oprah, “God Don’t Make No Junk” age, but here’s his view that’s related to our corr sent arena:
This body of work challenges the traditional focus on the individual’s inner nature, dispositions, and personality traits as the primary – and often the 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 anti-socially, because most people 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, costumes, scripts, and stage directions from producers and directors. Together, they comprise situational features that can dramatically influence behavior. What individuas bring into any setting is important, but so are the situational forces that act on them, as well as the systemic forces that create and maintain situations.
Most institutions that are invested in an individualistic orientation hold up the person as sinner, culpable, afflicted, insane, or irrational. Programs of change follow either a medical model of rehabilitation, therapy, reeducation, and treatment, or a punitive model of incarceration and execution. But all such programs are doomed to fail if the main causal agent is the situation or system, not the person.
As a result, two kinds of paradigm shift are required. First, we need to adopt a public health model for prevention of violence, spouse abuse, 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.
Although much of The Lucifer Effect examines how easy it is for ordinary people to be seduced into engaging in evil deeds, or to be passively indifferent to the suffering of others, the deeper message is a positive one. It is by understanding the how and why of such deeds that we are in a better position to uncover, oppose, defy, and triumph over them. By becoming more “evil smart,” we build up resistance to having our moral compass reset negatively.