The situational factors: compliance, personality and charachter

I’ve recently come across a new blog the Situationist and have just read a three part article by the famed Phillip Zimbardo (who has conducted the Stanford prison experiments) titled Situational sources of evil.

In the part I, he discusses Stanley Milgram’s compliance experiments wherein under the authority of a professor, subjects were forced to apply outrageous electric shocks to the confederates. This experiment was a classical one in social psychology and showed how under the situations of authority, normal individuals can be made to do evil deeds in the laboratory. Milgram also did a number of variations of this experiment to find out what factors facilitated compliance and which factors enabled resistance to authority.

In Part II, Zimbardo discusses how these laboratory results can be extended to the real world phenomenons like the holocaust/ palestentain suicide bombers/ suicide cults and how most of the perpetrators are very common people (banality of evil).

In part III, Zimbardo outlines 10 learnings from Milgram’s experiments and I find then worth summarizing here –

Compliance can be increased by :

  1. A pseudo-legal contract that binds one to the act (which may not be construed as evil, a priori, but becomes evil while actual execution). also the public declarations of commitment force cognitive dissonance and make people stick to their ‘contracts’.
  2. Meaningful social roles like ‘teacher’ etc given to the perpetrators. They may find solace under the fact that their social role demands the unavoidable evil.
  3. Adherence to and sanctity of rules that were initially agreed upon. The rules may be subtly changed, but an emphasis on rule-based behavior would guarantee better compliance.
  4. Right framing of the issues concerned. Insteada of ‘hurting the participant’ framing it as ‘improving the learners learning ability’. Regular readers will note how committed I personally am to the framing effects.
  5. Diffusion/ abdication of responsibility: Either enabling the responsibility for the evil act to be taken upon by a senior authority; or by having many non-rebelling peers diffuse responsibility similar to the bystander effect.
  6. Small evil acts initially to reduce the resistance to recruitment. Once into the fold, one may increase the atrocities demanded from the perpetrator.
  7. Gradual increase in the degree of the evil act. Sudden and large jumps in evilness of the acts are bound to be resisted more.
  8. Morphing the Authority from just and reasonable initially to unjust and unreasonable in the later parts.
  9. High exit costs. You cannot beat the system, so better join it! The system can beat you up, so better remain in it!! also, allow dissent or freedom of voice, but suppress freedom of action!!!
  10. An overarching lie or framework or ‘cover story’ that gives a positive spin to the evil acts (in good terms)..’this experiment would help humanity’ , ‘Jews are bad/inferior and need to be eliminated’ etc.

Zimbardo is hopeful that by recognizing these factors that normally help in compliance to unjust and irrational authority, one can have the courage and acumen to resist such authority. The two traits he picks up are taking responsibility for one’s own acts and asserting one’s own authority.

The word character is normally frowned upon, and rarely used, in psychological discourses nowadays, but like Zimbardo I would like to highlight Eric Fromm’s works like Escape from Freedom in this regard, which posit that one can overcome the natural tendency to escape from one’s freedom and sense of responsibility and make a positive character or habitual behavioral tendencies that takes full responsibility for the self.

There is another related debate to which I would like to draw attention. Normally it is posited that we are composed of temperaments or personality traits ( the most famous being the Big Five or OCEAN traits) and much of our behavior is a result of our inherent tendencies.

A dissenting voice is of Walter Mischel , who claims that the concept of personality is vague and much of behavior is due to situational factors. I’m sure the truth is more towards a middle ground and like genes and environment, both personality and situations affect a behavioral outcome. Not stopping here I also see a role here for acquired propensities or habits or character that can overcome both the underlying propensities and the situational factors. Even after taking character into account our acts may not be totally non-deterministic or free or non-predictable, but could be free in a limited sense that we, ourselves, incorporated those habits/ character traits. We may still behave predictably, but that would not be due to our conditionings or situational factors; but because of an acquired character.

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