23 November 2007

The Lucifer Effect, Part Two - "Official Excuses"

In my previous post, I referred - thanks to CZBZ - to Dr. Philip Zimbardo's Web site, and to his noted Stanford Prison Experiment.

This link will take you directly to a slide show on the Experiment. Dr. Zimbardo has provided the accompanying text, and does not flinch from describing how he, himself, was drawn into the culture of abusiveness that developed among the 'guards' in the simulation. Nor does he seek to excuse his behavior. Rather, he has spent the past 36 years [the experiment was performed in 1971] seeking to understand his own unintended complicity and the group dynamics of the situation, and to transform this understanding into a message that others can use to protect their own sanity and integrity in similar cases.

One part of the puzzle that Dr. Zimbardo explores on his site is the role of 'peer pressure' in coercing otherwise decent individuals to behave abusively. In effect, cultural norms within a group often furnish 'official excuses' for mistreatment of certain individuals or subgroups.

I have found an excellent discussion of 'official excuses' in an article written by psychologists Kenneth Pope, Janet Sonne, and Beverly Greene. This article is available on Dr. Pope's website, which is well worth exploring. In respect of his copyright I will discuss it in the context of a review, but will not directly quote the material. You can find the full text here.

When you follow the link, you may be surprised to discover that the overt focus of the article isn't group dynamics and scapegoating, but rather, excuses [called 'cognitive strategies' in the article] that might be used by professionals to justify unethical behavior - with regard to their clientele, their colleagues, etc.

These include
- appeals to authority [i.e., the APA (AMA, etc.) has not directly prohibited a specific shabby behavior, or some other authority has actively requested it],
- evasive strategies [impersonal reference to errors in judgement or mistakes, no personal assumption of responsibility],
- legalism [whatever is not illegal is assumed to be tacitly permitted, whether ethical or not, and the legality of a specific behavior is assumed to be the only relevant issue],
- herd behavior [all my pals do it], and
- dehumanizing the target / double standards [the prisoners were criminals! the people being scapegoated insulted us or cast aspersions on people we favor! and my personal favorite, the target was impolite to his abusers after they abused him.]

This will all seem hauntingly familiar.

It should be obvious that the excuses described in this article are similar to, in many cases identical with, the reasoning patterns used by individuals and groups in general to justify perpetrating or enabling abusive behavior. I strongly encourage you to follow the link; 21 different types of excuse are explored.

Dr. Pope and his colleagues also note that these ethical fallacies are rarely discussed or considered in discussions of professional ethics within his profession - such discussions, indeed, are kept well away from any contact with 'real world' situations. It is tacitly assumed, in other words, that "certainly none of us would ever do such things". As a degreed professional in a separate [but not unrelated] field, with considerable supervisory and other organizational experience, I can also state that these fallacies have never been discussed or considered in any official setting I've known, even when morale problems were obvious within a particular organization, or serious ethical quandaries needed to be faced. In fact, in my experience, attempts to discuss these fallacies are overtly, even strenuously, discouraged; and the intensity of the resistance to discussing them seems to be directly proportional to the magnitude of the ethical problem the organization wishes to avoid seeing.

As with all rejection of self-awareness, the refusal to consider these things as possible simply makes them more probable. Denial is no respector of persons, and wears doctor's bars as readily as hard hats.

The article by Dr. Pope et. al. thus dovetails very neatly with Dr. Zimbardo's discussion, on more than one level. The Prison Experiment was terminated after six days when Dr. Zimbardo abruptly realized that he had been drawn into a group dynamic that resulted in his inability to see and prevent the psychological harm that was being acted out against the prisoner group by the guard group among his study subjects. Indeed, to his horror, he perceived that he was enabling it.... as a man of conscience, he has done everything possible since then to address, understand, and make amends for this. Dr. Pope and his colleagues discuss precisely the cognitive distortions that can lead to such an outcome, in any group that is being split and polarized - regardless of group members' level of education or awareness.

As you read, remember this. These ethical evasions do not apply only to rarefied circumstances. They apply to deacons, prison wardens, shop foremen, staff sergeants, ladies of the club... to anyone in any group that is slouching towards scapegoating one or more targets for any reason.

That is the point that Dr. Zimbardo urgently wishes to make.

His experiment was not a failure. It was all too unfortunate a success.

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