There are financial scandals implicating executives from Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, Arthur Anderson, Tyco, and Merck. There are statistics showing that 10% of American households steal cable television, that 70% – 75% of students have cheated in school, and that lying is a normal part of social interaction.
There are the prisoner abuse scandals that point to sadistic behavior by seven American military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq with follow-up accusations against European troops and against the California National Guard at a separate incarceration facility north of Baghdad.
Are these “questionable” acts indicative of the genetic or moral flaws of “a few bad apples,” or is there a particular social climate or situation that paves the way for certain types of behavior? Is Shakespeare right in that “all the world is a stage,” and this stage can transform a law-abiding citizen into a crook, an ethical person into a dissembler, or a pacifist into a sadist?
Numerous experiments have investigated this question and found that a person’s behavior is often drastically altered by those around him and by his overall circumstance, rather than by inherent personality traits or professed individual values.
At the Princeton Theological Seminary, two psychologists conducted a study in which seminary students were asked to relate the parable of the Good Samaritan into a tape recorder at a nearby building. A “victim,” feigning physical distress and needing help, was positioned en route. The instructor warned half of the students that they were late to the recording and asked them to hurry to the proper location. He told the other half that there was no need to rush, but said they might as well head over to the building early. Of those in a hurry, 90% walked around the injured “victim” or stepped over him to get to the destination. Of those with time to spare, 63% assisted the man in need. The context of the situation proved essential. The desire to obey orders and to conform to the perceived time limitation played a significant role in the seminarians decision as to whether to be a Good Samaritan.
Social psychologist, Solomon Asch, conducted his own experiments in 1951. He wanted to see if an ordinary person would conform with a group decision when it was clear that this decision was erroneous. An unsuspecting subject was placed in a classroom with seven actors who agreed, one after the other, that two lines were equal in length when there was in fact a huge discrepancy: one line was short and the other was long. Then the subject was asked for his opinion; only 29% of those questioned deviated from the majority, thus establishing the power of conformity and authority. Those who answered correctly reported feeling uncomfortable when doing so. If the decision-making had been related to ethics or aesthetics, rather than the empirically verifiable length of two lines, experts agree that compliance with the group decision would have been even higher.
Asch’s work was inspired by Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist who wondered if people would execute strangers if they were simply told to do so. Milgram was fascinated with the Nuremberg trials and wondered if Eichmann, a high ranking official of the Nazi Party, was inherently evil or had just followed orders in such a way as any person would.
Milgram invited ordinary Americans whom he labeled “teachers” to give electric shocks to a stranger whom he called the “learner” when the latter was unable to provide the correct response in a supposed memory test. Of course, there were no real shocks and memory was not being tested, but each teacher was unaware of this. The learner screamed with pain and continually begged for the teacher to release him from his straps. The testing device was labeled from level 0 to 450. 100-150 delivered mild shock while higher levels were labeled “very strong,” “extreme severity,” danger, severe shock,” and finally “XXX” (or fatal). Milgram had asked accredited colleagues in advance to guess what they thought the outcome would be; they hypothesized that no one would go above 150 volts with the exception of the rare sadist who would push the lethal 450 lever.
The actual results were quite different: 66% of the teachers “executed” the victim, merely because they were told to do so by the authoritative figure: the psychologist. Of those who refused to go to 450, no one stopped before reaching 300 volts; and nobody helped the victim, thus proving to Milgram that part of the human condition is blind obedience.
For 25 years, Milgram’s obedience experiment was replicated by numerous researchers in the United States, Australia, South Africa and several European countries. There were similar results. In a German study, over 85% of the subjects administered a lethal electric shock to the learner.
Abuse was also the result of a study conducted at Stanford University by Philip Zimbardo in 1971. He created a mock prison, and average university students were drafted to be prisoners and guards. They passed mental and physical exams, and coins were tossed to see who was to assume which role. The authoritative impact of the guard uniform with the accompanying nightstick and mirrored sunglasses converted these previously docile students into increasingly violent enforcers. And the inferior status of the convicts—reinforced by their low ranking garb, prison numbers (rather than names) and confinement to tiny cells—transformed them into victims. Formerly active prisoners became passive; healthy ones became sick.
Both sets of students said they lost their identities and forgot they were a part of an experiment. The illusion became a reality. The two week study was called off after only six days because the treatment of the prisoners became too brutal and humiliating. The photos revealing the Abu Ghraib violations are astoundingly similar to the video footage taken of the Zimbardo experiment.
There are studies that show how lying, cheating, and stealing are also the product of circumstance rather than character. Two Yale University psychologists, Hugh Hartshorne and Mark May, secretly gave approximately 10,000 children the opportunity to lie, cheat, or steal on various academic tests, sporting competitions, and other projects. The children’s personal values were evaluated during this study. Seventy-one percent of the kids exhibited “unethical” behavior, and it was concluded that “honest or dishonest behavior is largely determined by circumstances,” not moral beliefs.
In another incident, computers at a Manhattan credit union failed and mistakenly permitted customers to withdraw unlimited funds over their available balances. Rather than inconvenience its customers, the union decided to trust the patrons not to overdraw their accounts with their ATM cards.
Four thousand customers took advantage of the error. Some stole as much as $10,000 from the financial institution. In the end, $15 million remained missing, and the authorities had to be called to make arrests.
There are countless other studies about how external factors are highly predictive of so-called “moral” behavior. It may be disheartening to learn that people are generally conformists, blind followers of authority, and highly influenced by circumstance rather than character and values, but there are reasons to be uplifted by these findings.
First, this behavior can be explained: people are genetically predisposed towards conformity and ethnocentrism because these traits aid in survival. We cannot live without the assistance of others, and this type of societal cooperation requires some adherence to established rules. Cultural group selection is certainly essential in the same way that natural selection is.
Secondly, political leaders, reformers, revolutionaries, creative thinkers, innovators, public policy developers, and anyone with a different slant or position on an issue should rejoice. Why? Because implementing change is much more promising. Situations are fluid and malleable unlike internalized moral beliefs, which are often rigid.
The recent debate over gay civil unions is a case in point. When Massachusetts and San Francisco began challenging the status quo, polls revealed that most Americans were against the legally recognized pairing of homosexual couples. However, in the course of the past year, statistics have radically changed. It may be the pervasive news coverage, the compelling arguments in favor, the open national debate, or all of the above, but external factors have clearly contributed to a shift in perspective. In a CBS nationwide poll conducted in May 2004, the percentage of people who favored civil unions was up to 56% from 39% in November 2003, and those opposed was down to 40% from 53%.
The ability to change a situation, a political climate, a law, or a collective conscious is indeed possible without a heavy-duty hammer. Reform is not at war with genetics. To a great extent, the real obstacles are more flexible, external factors, such as whether there are cameras in the prison to monitor prisoner abuse, whether teachers are vigilant about plagiarism and cheating, whether corporate America prosecutes its white-collar criminals, and whether a credit union shuts down its ATM rather than naively trusting its patrons. Perhaps “The Bad Seed” of circumstance is not so bad after all.
Published in June 2004