In his TED talk on the book and Subject of “The Psychology of Evil”, Professor Phillip Zimbardo Said, “Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He comes down and says, “I want to know, who is responsible? Who are the bad apples?” Well, that’s a bad question. You have to reframe it and ask, “What is responsible?” Because “what” could be the who of people, but it could also be the what of the situation, and obviously that’s wrongheaded.” The “What” Zimbardo is talking about is what psychologist and sociologist refer to as “Social environment” or rather “Environment” in many cases. Often times when describing a behavior such as addiction, obesity, homosexuality, and depression scholarly articles will explain something like, “Scientist and researchers believe that these behavioral traits are the result of both biological and environmental factors.” (Though many times they can name the environmental factors and the study that links them, but hardly ever the biological factors that stand up to any peer review.) The individual experiences make up a tree, a single event. All of them combined make up a living breathing unique “forest” that is the whole person. Most people believe their choices to be the result of their conscious deliberate efforts and telling them that “if you had been put in the situation of the people you criticize, with the same experiences, you would have done the same thing” draws the ire of cognitive dissonance. It is just hard for us to see how we could have “felt” and thus acted any differently. The fact that our senses report to our brains that can not, themselves experience directly the outside world, and through indirect interpretation, resolve to a reaction based upon past experiences. Those experiences are out of our control most often. If our brains are a “judge or jury” then our conscious desires would be the plaintiff and the social environment would be the defense. This post is about trying to make social environment more “graspable”. You can not find much about this topic, at least written in English.
Positive Environmental Movement: Stairway To Zen.
While Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment is a fine example and useful in explaining “group environment”, understanding the individual will is better demonstrated by Milgram’s “conformity” experiment or Skinner’s box. To use an analogy as an example of will being changed by immediate and present environment, let me start with this. Imagine you are a secretary sitting at the reception desk of a small office building. You have been assigned some logging and filing that you are doing in hopes of pleasing your boss and getting whatever rewards comes from that. Already, here we see your will is not your own. If it were, you probably would have stayed in bed this morning. But let’s imagine this environment changes in two very different ways. First in walks a man with a large bouquet of flowers and ask for “Molly”, the accountant. You recognize the guy as Molly’s longtime boyfriend “Joe” who has been to 2 Christmas parties. You were intent on, and left unobstructed, to be productive. However, this change in environment has your will shifted to warm interaction, and gleefully sharing in the pleasant joy of the flowers Molly is about to receive. Joe’s actions changed your will and actions. We could dig deeper and say that Molly’s actions from the night before, influenced Joes actions, which influenced your actions, which are about to have an effect on not only Molly, but the rest of the office staff. This is Karma in motion. There is now a living breathing environmental relationship with all those people in the circle of influence. How you react to your senses registering “Joe”, “Flowers”, his request, and your current priorities all have an effect on your behavior. Change your past experiences with any of the stimulus, or change the stimulus, and the behavior, predictably in most cases, change. In the negative sense, this is often called, “escalation”.
Negative Environmental Movement: Escalation To Hell
Let’s look at a negative example. Now suppose you knew that Molly and Joe’s relationship was on the rocks. Joe has a restraining order against him. Joe enters the building, and even if you were cold and uncaring about Molly getting flowers before, you now are moved by this presence relative to your knowledge. Then you see the gun and hear him say, “where is Molly!!?” I can guarantee you were not planning on cowering and hiding behind your desk when you left the house today. The stimulus you perceive at the change in this environment. There is nothing in the resulting behavior that is part of your chosen “will”. however, it is “predictable” and in fact, probably the intentions of somebody other than yourself. You chose to do that only because of Joe’s will and his actions. Like the other example, Molly’s actions from the night, weeks, ect. before have led to your being in this situation. Likewise, the whole office is affected by Joe’s action from this day forward. That is different than somebody getting flowers that will be quickly forgotten. If somebody was to start screaming or even introduce another gun to the situation, this environment could (and most likely would) quickly escalate. People who are trained hostage negotiators are trained to “deescalate” situations. Which means their will is to manipulate the will of the offender to be more relaxed, more open to less violent options. So what if the intent was of a group to grow larger, manipulate more people to join their cause and create “Social Pressure”. Once you join the cause, you now have inspiration to escalate. This is the root of group, gang, and mafia initiations. But here, in this analogy, your role of an afraid witness and “Joe’s” role of a crazed ex lover are locked in a much more direct relationship.
All Influences Are Not Created Equally
Using this example, we have seen how one person, only loosely related to another, had various levels of influence upon each other’s will. There are some general truths about the effect of ones will and the strength and longevity of influence that can be predicted. (I will resist the opportunity to delve deeply into the effect of parenting, or lack there of, in our current society.) For example, a stranger has less effect on your will than somebody your know, respect, interact with routinely, and/ or “love”. Parents and/ or initial care givers have your respect and hold you as valid until the day you prove them to be false or in opposition. So if “will” is the result of how you assess and react to stimulus, these sources are those that introduce many of your “first impressions”. So strength, longevity, and validity of a “belief” is far more profound from a familiar source than an outside source. Likewise, if a person looks, sounds, or affirms that of people of sources you believe in, they can share in that strength of validity.
A person in the elevator says, “nice shirt” you feel uplifted, and an overall feeling of joy may contribute your mood. But it will be quickly forgotten consciously. Now, if it was somebody you found attractive, the compliment might even effect your behavior in the future when picking out cloths to wear in public. A spouse, a friend, or a family member all will have different lasting effects with the same comment. inversely, A stranger you overhear (intentionally or inadvertently) passing on the street saying something about your attire will last longer and have more of an impact than a criticism from some mild acquaintance you interact with on a daily basis. The later will have other opportunities to change that impression.
In the above example, it was pointed out that fear has a much longer impact than joy. You will remember the feelings and reactions associated with the day somebody came to your work place and initiated a fear response far longer than one of pleasant joy. A rape victim may have only spent hours or less with her offender, but the impact will be longer lasting and stronger than that of all those that try to comfort her. Every entity from marketers to politicians know that fear is a far greater motivator to get you to relinquish your will for one that they predict and can “value” than any other emotion. Partly, this is why we have evolved as far as we did. Because, if we didn’t have caution and remember that a rustling bush held a lion once instead of a raccoon, thus making us more cautious of moving bushes, then we would have met pretty rapid ends. But we remembered and formed an emotional response called “anxiety”. We eventually transferred that anxiety through stories, songs, writings, and media. This is why there are advertisements for “one day only!”, “while supplies last”, and “don’t be left out” type of commercials than there are any other type. This is also why no matter how strong the intent for a politician to “remain positive” and “not conduct a negative mudslinging campaign”. They always do. Because so long as their competitor is willing to do it, they have an edge the well intending politician can’t compete with. The whole point of a campaign is to motivate you to do something you otherwise would not have. This notion of “transferred anxiety” is the bridge between personal influences and personalities into one that makes a group predictable and the collective will more powerful than the individuals.
Moving The Group: Herd Mentality
Lots of discussion has been had recently about the actions of groups as a result of riots, demonstrations, and racial tensions. So how does incidents that seem mild and in fact common, swell into riots. We all belong to various “groups” and this is more true than ever before. Leaders are people who “tell stories”, “paint pictures”, provide a backdrop to a groups mutual beliefs.
This is where the understandings of the Stanford Prison Experiment come into this discussion. If you are not aware of the SPE and how it worked, I really suggest you look it up. The basics though is that in just 6 days 18 ivy league college students, randomly assigned roles, changed and did things that had their environment not changed, they would never have chosen to do. 9 of them assigned to be “guards” become torturous, belligerent, controlling monsters. A total of 10 (because one did request to leave) descended into being subjugated, repressed, and rebellious. They actually believed themselves to be prisoners. This was just after 6 days. The head of the experiment was Zimbardo himself who positioned himself to be the “superintendent”. Imagine living in an environment of poverty and crime. An environment where people who “make it” leave and the only leaders and influences are people who are committing crime and/ or are impoverished. Education is hard to come by. Examples of whole families are rare and far between. At this point in time, elders still remember the days of repression, mistreatment, and being considered second class citizens. This is a life long influence as they look into the eyes of those who would make up and enforce the laws. When they see these events the details they focus on are the ones that confirm the narrative they have been told and even experienced their whole lives. Lashing out, rage, riots are predictable. Thus the president of the US was on TV the moments before the verdict that they knew would incite the anger was announced.
Another element to the rioters are the observers. A reaction to these misunderstood actions often leads to escalation and counterproductive banter. Eventually the fire just burns itself out, but the issues remain unresolved. I have endured endless banter of those who see the rioting as individual acts. People who have never walked a mile in the shoes of the people they are judging. People assume that the behaviors related to group will is the result of individuals first justifying their behaviors and then act upon them. The evidence (like that of SPE or Abu Ghraib) observes the opposite is true, that the actions are often subconsciously manifest and then consciously justified. Like a gambler trying to explain why he spent all his money or an adulterer explaining why he cheated, so it is with the actions once the explosion of a riot breaks out or any other group activity. These activities and justification can have such a powerful effect that they can have physiological changes. This explains the “power of prayer”. The observers can’t understand what they are not a part of.
Predictability Of Demographics
It is the goal of science to make predictions that come true. When those predictions are the result of our social groups, they are useful information. Marketers like to call these groups, “demographics” and they study them to determine and predict behavior. If we truly had “free will” this would play hell on being a marketer. By its very nature free will is random. Choices that are random are unpredictable and impossible to predict. But if a marketer knows what group you belong to, and can learn the “narrative” they can predict what you will value. Then it is a matter of offering you what you want. But, today, it is far less of an innocent passive arrangement. Marketers have found ways to write and manipulate that narrative. Thus the rise of high dollar sports and symbolism and branding. “Wear these shoes like everybody else in your group does, like your idol and leader does.” When these idols are media figures like musicians and actors who play up the stereotype and write lyrics and scripts that reinforce that narrative, it fuels the fire. I guess indirectly, just as our story of “Molly and Joe” had indirect influence over the secretaries will, so do marketers have indirect responsibility for the unrest. They can predict the behaviors of the demographic, some do and know that they play a dangerous game, yet they do it because there is money to be maid. And when it goes south, they can slink into the corners and say, “hey we had nothing to do with it, we all have ‘free will’.”
More And More Social Environment Matters
So that brings us to where marketing meets modern technology. In times before what we would now call “the modern world” the number and impact of our influences were far less random and disconnected from our geographically local environment than it is today. As short as a few hundred years ago, the people that influenced your will were first and most often your family. Then your community or tribe (extended family) had an impact. Lastly might have been your church or spiritual leaders. Nature itself had a much more profound impact on your chosen actions than it does in our very artificial world. Weather, local habitat, and a encounters with wild life were more often likely to influence a person’s “will” than today. As we modernized, influence came from radio, then TV, and onto today’s world of mass advertisement and social media. People can read this post from places around the world, in many different languages, and be influenced by my thoughts. My will is to change the way people see other people and find mutual likenesses. Social media has had monumental impact. We have seen entire regions of the world fall into revolution based upon the connections and influence of social media. In the past, people would have feared expressing open and in person discontent with a government or a system. But social media gives distance and mild anonymity. As people started expressing their desires, fears, and frustrations that they felt were individual, they became aware that they had numbers, and with numbers, the unlikely casting off of their oppressors became a likely possibility all based on the “relative will” of each other.
While regions still dominated by tribal and 3rd world ideologies found understanding of these influences, the modern communities of the west seem to play down or completely disregard the notion of “relative will”. They trumpet “free will” and preach self-responsibility as if it is an actual choice. Living on communes we call “communities” and call for liberty as if our actions stop at our person. The impact of social influence now extends and is more frequent based upon social circles. Today, as parent at young and younger ages, go back to the work force and their children are left to have their will shaped by people outside of the family. Their teachers and peers are more often a much more profound of an impact on what choices they make. Further, laws and social norms that shape the acceptance of the way we view sex, drugs, and violence have neglected the existence of “relative will” and promote the irrational notion of individual freedom of choice. Marketers have as much of an influence on the notions of sex, drugs, and violence than parents do. It isn’t that we are not crafting the will of the younger generations and their beliefs are random. They are being crafted, just by people looking to make money off of them, and not ones that care for their longevity.
Leadership and Will
I have always wondered, and even with this understanding still wonder, “what made so many Germans follow a madman such as Hitler?” The things that were done to the Jews as well and the willingness of so many men to fight as his soldiers is just perplexing. Something got that social environmental snowball rolling, and there was nothing that slowed it down. Not until the leader was destroyed, and then it was like they just woke from their haze. Likewise, I assert that I believe I could have saved millions of lives and averted a world war with a hug (or many hugs) if I could have just met Hitler at a much younger age and gave him attention and direction. He could have, with the right environment, been the source of much good. However, Hitler’s charisma and offering of an idea that many wanted to believe, he was able to start that ball a rolling.
Later in that TED talk Zimbardo said, “Heroism as the antidote to evil, by promoting the heroic imagination, especially in our kids, in our educational system. We want kids to think, I’m the hero in waiting, waiting for the right situation to come along, and I will act heroically. My whole life is now going to focus away from evil — that I’ve been in since I was a kid — to understanding heroes.”
What is a hero? A hero is a leader who changes the direction of a social situation. He/ she re-writes the narrative. They gain respect of their demographic, their group. They are people who reject the pressure of their own will if it would lead them to do something wrong, dysfunctional or most pleasurable. They instead run into fire, stand up to the bully, join the revolution against a repressive regime. With their voice, that proverbial snowball has nothing to slow it down. Whether the change is good or bad is often a matter of perspective.
Creating Heroes and Leaders
Fear is often caused by ignorance. AKA “fear of the unknown”. Fear can most easily hijack the will of the ignorant and weak minded. Understanding that our wills are relative to the wills of those we encounter leads to conclude some truths. The more educated, enlightened, knowledgeable a person or society is, the more they have the benefit over controlling not only their own, but the will of others. (Studies have shown that the more educated a woman is the more likely she is not to get pregnant until after she is married and financially self sustainable.) These strong and fearless personalities can shape the way of the world in this globally influenced communities. The downside is that provides validation of that line from Spider-man, “with great knowledge comes great power, with great power comes great responsibility.” Children are not born into this world to end up criminals, degenerates, or even homeless and unproductive. Sure, we are responsible for our own choices. However, with this understanding, we cannot absolve ourselves as a society of the part we have played in creating the individual, in shaping his or her personality, in controlling their will with our own.
Conclusion And Thoughts
This is certainly a harder concept for us in the west to understand. In my area a pizza delivery man was killed by an addict for less than $40. One of my pro gun acquaintance said, “this is why I carry”. The problem with this belief is that it discounts the fact that, as with any environment, any change a single person makes is subject to the “butterfly effect”. First, if a delivery guy is to be ready for the rare addicted psychopath, he would have to have gun drawn on every customer as they answer the door. Which will reduce not only his tips he needs to survive, but the number of pizzas ordered for delivery. But, the influence wouldn’t stop there. As addicts learn that pizza delivery guys might be carrying, the ones that would have just robbed and ran away, will find the option of shooting first and taking the money and maybe even a gun, more “pleasurable”. The act of simply a few delivery guys successfully thwarting their robberies would send stories and change the behavior of future robbers.
If there is one thing I would like the reader to take away from this post, it would be this realization. Over sexualizatoin on TV, sports, and media, the legalization of self medicating substances, the honoring of men and women with great regard whose job is to blindly follow orders and kill people at request, all of these “influence” the will of our people. Whether you think these are “Rights”, “good or bad”, or functional, they are not devoid of influencing the will. If you support and promote these ideas, then you must be willing to accept that there are adverse consequences that lead people to believe and thus act in ways that are clearly not good, healthy, or socially functional. When a person ends up in prison, homeless, or prematurely dead, it is a failing of their choice. But it is also a failing of their parents and it is also a failing of our systems. We should not just absolve ourselves of the responsibility of these failings.