Zimbardo answers questions in video “Stanford Office Hours”

Dr. Phil Zimbardo has uploaded his video response to the online office hour questions that were posted last week.

My question was based on his writing in “The Lucifer Effect” that any theory of evil must go beyond individual attribution and look at complete systems (he says it’s not about bad apples but rather about bad barrels). I asked “what makes the bad barrel makers make bad barrels?” (well, my question also included a bit more complicated wording about attribution and infinite regression but the idea is encapsulated in the shorter phrase)

his answer is here:

It’s about the first four minutes of the eight minute video.

My summary, hopefully fairly accurate, is here:

Zimbardo starts with the Stanford Prison experimention – as an example to convey how it is possible for people to break other people just with words and a situation of learned helplessness.

Knowing that this is possible, and has been demonstrated, but realizing that it’s not “bad apples” (the prisoners and guards were randomly selected from a group of very normal young men) he says that it has to do with ideology — those who commit evil or cause it to be committed often start out with good core beliefs. E.g. Leaders who say their job is to protect from some outside threat.  But as they take on that role of protector, what are the means to that end? We see that in some cases, it’s torture and genocide. The individual actor is in a social context and we have to understand the system that creates and maintains the situations. Systems are legal, cultural, historical… and the system is where the power is. To create change, individual-focused options like therapy or imprisonment are losing propositions because they don’t change the system.

[my note here, if he had stopped at this point, I would have felt that my question had not bee answered because I still wouldn’t have had a sense of how the environments get created]

Zimbardo then spoke of ethics in business as another example, referencing Bernie Madoff  and his particular brand of evil.  This part of Zimbardo’s answer looks at social psychology to help understand ethics. Once again his point is that the individual disposition framework alone doesn’t explain all… we need to understand details about the situation. What is the broader system behind the unethical behaviour? Is the system doing enough to discourage unethical behaviour or does it actually reward unethical behaviour?

[then something gets added that really helps me have an “aha” moment]

Christina Maslach (Zimbardo’s wife) has done research that show that its not overwork, but rather a sense of unfairness that leads to stress and burnout.  Perceived unfairness in the workplace is a mismatch between individual values and corporate values. This leads people to feel freer to engage in unethical behaviour as it somehow can be seen as correcting the mismatch. So Zimbardo’s final point here is that organizations need to take more responsibility to create conditions that do not promote unethical behaviour.

And here is my revised way of thinking about this, having heard Zimbardo’s answer.

– situations (not personal “badness” — there are no “bad apples”) are the reason for evil or unethical behaviours. Individuals act within the constraints of a system (the barrel), and a system, though in one sense created by individuals (the barrel makers), is also prone to embodying a set of values that can be a mismatch with the values of the individuals who exist within it (the barrel doesn’t meet the ‘needs’ of the apples). That’s when the stress of perceived unfairness can kick in, and the individuals may actually act against what their personal values would normally be, in an effort to correct things or reinstate perceived “fairness”.  The barrel makers wanted to make good barrels, but lack of understanding caused them to fail.

And this becomes an “aha” for me as I realize that all of it fits with something I’ve observed for a long time — when the watering hole gets smaller, the animals look at each other differently.

How I see this working is that the unmet needs and the unfairness of a diminishing “watering hole” will lead to stress, burnout and “animals” who stray from their basic values and ethical perspectives. No one wanted to deprive those animals of what they needed and nobody deliberately tampered with watering hole. But an uninformed system inadvertently creates unfairness. In fact it’s incredibly hard to create and maintain safe, fair environments, and often in trying to protect us from something unpleasant, the system (which *is* and *is not* us) generates consequences, perhaps not immediate, that ultimately expose us to things far worse.

So “the system” (a corporation, government, etc.) needs to know more about consequences, needs to understand what will be perceived as unfair and generally needs to be very very smart 🙂  — more education, information filtering and critical thinking perhaps…..

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