21 November 2007

The Lucifer Effect - How Groups Go Bad [and How to Avoid It]

CZBZ, at her site Web of Narcissism , has shared an extremely valuable post regarding The Lucifer Effect.

This term was coined by Professor Philip Zimbardo, of Stanford, to describe the psychological de-evolution of human character, the shockingly swift conversion of previously normal, decent people into brutal abusers, that can occur in group settings - small or large, on any scale from chat rooms to nations - under the right conditions.

He first studied this dynamic in the well-known "Stanford Prison Experiment". Now Professor Emeritus, he has written a book about this process, exploring in detail both how normal human beings can come to behave like monsters, and how we can learn to recognize, and resist, the pressure to become less-than-fully-human beings.

There is a particularly trenchant exposition on Dr. Zimbardo's website regarding the incredible power of group norms to influence human behavior. The authors [Dr. Zimbardo and Cindy X. Wang] advise [bold italics mine]:
In our daily decisions, we should also examine whether our reasons justify our actions. In an unfamiliar situation, first ask yourself whether the actions you observe others performing [are] rational, warranted, and consistent with your own principles before thoughtlessly and automatically adopting them.

Similarly, in a situation in which you want to impress and be accepted by others, ask yourself whether the action conflicts with your moral code, and consider whether you would be willing to compromise your own opinion of yourself just so others would have a higher one of you. Ultimately, you are the only one who has to live with your actions. Also take a time out to find out the correct information.

To resist the powers of group conformity: know what you stand for; determine how really important it is that these other people like you, especially when they are strangers; recognize that there are other groups who would be delighted to have you as a member; take a future perspective to imagine what you will think of your current conforming action at some time in the future.
I am planning to spend a great deal of time reading Dr. Zimbardo's work... and being thankful, in this season, for the Internet, for people like CZBZ and Dr. Zimbardo, and for all the valuable websites such as theirs that shed light and offer validation to people who would otherwise be isolated and lost.

Without further ado, let me cede the floor to CZBZ and Dr. Zimbardo.

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