November 27th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Self-Serving Explanations for the Psychology of Evil

In his publications, Dr. Philip Zimbardo posits a dichotomy between two different models of psychology, two different explanations for why human beings do the things that they do. It is, obviously, a false dichotomy in a way, because everybody in the field, including him, refers to the "equation" B = f(P+E) which is an abbreviation for "behavior is a function of personality plus environment." But if you tend to minimize the impact of environment over the individual and elevate the individual's ability to transcend environment, he calls you a dispositionist. If you believe that only unusual individuals have personalities that are capable of transcending environment, he calls you a situationist. And as someone who's done 30 years of research into what kinds of environments produce evil behavior in people with no observed prior dispositional inclination towards evil, he's an unapologetic situationist.

That is to say, he's not arguing that nobody can possible stay good in an evil situation, only that it's unreasonable to expect any one individual to do so. You may recognize this model of thinking in my writing, because I write similarly about the ability of people to transcend poverty. My metaphor is that just because Olympic athletes can jump 72 inches or more from a standing position, we don't build stairways with 72 inch risers. In Zimbardo's situationist psychology of evil, he uses the term "hero" for anyone who can transcend the transforming power of an anonymizing environment that puts alters people's appearance and then throws them into boring and mostly unsupervised contact with others that it dehumanizes and which comes with an expectation of diffusion of individual responsibility for actions. He's not saying that such heroes don't exist, only that it makes more sense not to create such environments than to expect everybody to be capable of being a hero.

But then he exhibits this example of personal humility about his own conclusions, by way of disclaimer, in "A Situationist Perspective on the Psychology of Evil:"
"This tendency to explain observed behavior by reference to dispositions, while ignoring or minimizing the impact of situational variables has been termed the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) by my colleague, Lee Ross (1977). We are all subject to this dual bias of over-utilizing dispositional analyses and under-utilizing situational explanations when faced with ambiguous causal scenarios we want to understand. We succumb to this effect because so much of our education, social and professional training, and societal agencies are geared toward a focus on individual, dispositional orientations. Dispositional analyses are a central operating feature of cultures that are based on individualistic rather than collectivist values (see Triandis, 1994). Thus, it is individuals who get praise and fame and wealth for achievement and are honored for their uniqueness, but it is also individuals who are blamed for the ills of society. Our legal systems, medical, educational and religious systems all are founded on principles of individualism. ...

"My bias is admittedly more toward situational analyses of behavior, which comes both from my training as an experimental social psychologist, and also from having grown up in poverty in a New York City ghetto of the South Bronx. I believe that dispositional orientations are more likely to correlate with affluence, since the rich want to take full credit for their success, while situationists arise more from the lower classes who want to explain away -- onto external circumstances -- the obvious dysfunctional life styles of those around them."
And unless it means that none of you read the article, I'm pleasantly surprised that none of you brought this up to discredit the situationist hypothesis.

But his observation that both perspectives are self-serving and ought to be judged against their results accords with mine. Over the years, I've read a lot of long and short autobiographies of successful, wealthy people, especially founders and/or CEOs of major corporations. And one thing that struck me was that they were all completely clueless as to what the source of their success was. They all thought that they knew why they had been successful, or else they wouldn't have written (or ghost-written) all those articles and books. But the thing that jumped out at me, after reading enough of them, was that the things that they attributed their success to were traits and actions that were shared, in equal measure, by an awful lot of non-wealthy and/or unsuccessful individuals. They were, in scientific terms, neglecting the control group. If your hypothesis is that A causes B, then you need to test at least three combinations of A and B, not just one. In addition to knowing how many A's resulted in B, you need to ask how many A's didn't result in B, and how many B's weren't preceded by A. But what all of these successful people had in common was insane certitude, unshakable conviction, that nobody else had done the same things they'd done or else those people would have had the same success. Only in Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway, the famous Oracle of Omaha, do we find enough humility to see him give credit to the facts that he also benefited from a better than average upbringing and education, extremely useful family and social connections that were given to him, not earned, and a mixture of social and political circumstances beyond his control that all broke in his favor.

One thing that this does, however, reaffirm my belief in is this. It has yet to be proven beyond all shadow of a doubt whether most evil is caused dispositionally or situationally. But without someone in the Ivy League with a personal reason to ask, someone with impeccable credentials and access to resources and authority, we were never going to find out. The question would have gone unasked. Remember my complaint about the MPAA's Film Rating Board the other day, that you would be hard pressed to produce a less representative assortment of "parents" to screen our films? I complained that to the MPAA only the values and concerns of one narrow subset of society were worth being addressed, that no other subset of society's values and concerns were seen as even interesting enough (let alone important enough) to ask for. The counter-example of guys like Zimbardo demonstrates to me what is part of the genius of America. The wealthy and powerful are never going to surrender enough of their power and privilege to create a totally meritocratic society, but for many generations now there have been openings in the upper, wealthier classes for a certain number of people to enter that world (via marriage or merit), who came from other circumstances, and who can then be heard by those deliberating policy and budget considerations. I think that to the extent America has been successful, that has been a major contributing factor, perhaps as powerful a contributing factor as our on-again, off-again commitments to the principles of civil society, rule of law, and entrepreneurial capitalism.