Friday, May 20, 2011

A Brief Discussion of Human Decision Making and Psychology

Human beings exist in one of two fashions either alone as an individual or in a group with others. Various psychological phenomena have been characterized to explain the different interactions certain individuals have within groups opposed to when they are by themselves. Although these phenomena can be associated with positive or negative influences, it is more interesting to question the negative phenomena because of their role in the evolution of society. Three specific phenomena that will be discussed in this blog post are the Lucifer Effect, Mob Mentality and Milgram Effect. These phenomena provide interesting analysis to how someone’s individual character can undergo a fundamental change when engaged in certain situations. Such change should be troubling to society, especially when considering how easy these changes seems to occur.

The Lucifer Effect was first coined by social psychologist Philip Zimbardo in 2004 in connection to his psychological experiment at Stanford University in 1971 which aimed to observe the behavior of students acting in the role of a guard or a prisoner in a prison environment. Unfortunately the two-week experiment was terminated after only six days due to the savage, even at times sadistic, behavior of the individuals role-playing as the guards against those role-playing as the prisoners in effort to maintain authority; these ‘guard’ individuals were previously screened to eliminate any obvious violent personality traits. Thus the question became whether the individuals that participated were changed by the experience or if these more malevolent traits were voluntarily suppressed and brought out by participation in the experiment. Basically did this guard/prisoner prison environment make these individuals 'bad apples' or were already 'bad apples' and just did not have opportunities to demonstrate such characteristics. The process of answering this question revolves around how one characterizes evil and whether or not each individual is capable of such action.

It is irrational to believe that a vast majority of the 'evil' actions in the world are being carried out by a small number of chiefly malevolent individuals (however the total weight of these ‘evil’ events may be attributable to a small number of individuals). Most of the 'good' and 'evil' actions in the world find origin in those that would be classified as neutral individuals, individuals that are routinely perform a similar number of good or evil actions. With such a small number of 'evil' individuals in the world, if there are any to begin with, it is difficult to statistically rationalize that all nine student guards in Dr. Zimbardo's study were 'evil', thus the former explanation appears more rational. However, that answer leads to another question. If these individuals are not 'bad apples' to start with, then what characteristics of the environment and/or of the individuals themselves allow for such a rapid conversion from moral and just person to cruel and savage oppressor?

It is difficult to reasonably conclude that any environment could establish a feeling or characteristic in an individual that is not already present in some quantity, basically create this characteristic from nothing. It is more reasonable to conclude that certain environments cultivate certain emotions and characteristics in an individual increasing the probability of certain actions. So what is it about certain environments that allow their influence to circumvent the moral center of the individuals? It stands to reason that society gives too much credit to the environment and makes too many excuses for individuals. Clearly if the environment does indeed augment certain behaviors, then the problem may be that the abusive and vicious behavior demonstrated in these specific environments underlie genuine personality traits within the individual in question. Why these traits are not expressed more often, something that would dissuade others from characterizing an individual as moral/good can be explained through two means, the previously mentioned enhancement of certain emotions/characteristics or the acquisition of resources that may not otherwise have been available to the individual.

Tackling the second rationalization first, what does it mean that a certain environment provide previously absent resources? Look at the Stanford prisoner example; perhaps the participants did not have previous opportunities where they would have a significant amount of power over other individuals without consequence. For the individuals that played guards, the experiment fostered an environment in which they were given significant power over another group of individuals and natural tendencies that were originally suppressed due to lack of power arose to the surface.

This reasoning is supported by the very fact that social standing or a class system exist; from a rational standpoint there appears little reason to designate individuals into different social class other than to characterize certain groups as better than other groups. Unfortunately the continued prevalence of social classes leads to the conclusion that some/many individuals need to look at themselves as 'better' than other individuals to validate their own existence. To support the class system as well as the prison system itself the student guards needed to continue to ensure that the student prisoners understood their role in the construct of this system, that the prisoners were less than the guards, less than human, a characteristic imbued into the student prisoners during the progression of the experiment. So part of the character change may be attributable to the social constructs that were already assumed by the participants before the experiment even began.

Despite the somewhat dark overtures regarding human nature, Nietzsche's "Will to Power" concept also finds some level of relevance in this discussion. The concept of "Will to Power" involves the drive of an individual to exert influence or control on some object as a means to express power, be it an inanimate object or another living thing. When such an opportunity occurs, the individual in control may attempt to exaggerate the administration of that control in effort to maintain it. Associate this concept with the rationality that one of the best ways to maintain power is to limit the ability and/or opportunity of the adversary to obtain power and subjugation as an exaggeration of this expression is understandable. Note that just because a specific behavior is understandable does not make that behavior correct or suitable. So in order to maintain this instinctively highly coveted sense of power, student guards ensured that the student prisoners would not have the resources or the opportunity to acquire enough of their own power to neutralize the power of the student guards.

Returning to the issue of the initial character of the individual before the change. One reason for establishing The Lucifer Effect was to explain how normally good law-abiding people could become so different in certain environments. It was previously discussed that inherent psychological factors such as Will to Power and the social structure could influence this change in behavior when exposed to the environment acting as some form of catalyst. However, the most important issue is the character of the individual because it is in extreme situations where the character of an individual is defined. The most common reference regarding the response of an individual in an extreme situation is that one genuinely gains insight into one's character when faced with adversity or under duress because it is in these situations when the hard decisions need to be made. Although this analysis is true, that the facades created by individuals have greater potential to fall under adversity versus generic situations, Abraham Lincoln described an even more pertinent scenario, "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you really want to test a man’s character give him power."

Overall the responsibility to behave and act in a rational and appropriate manner lies with the individual and society cannot nor should not make excuses for an individual's behavior based on the environment or circumstance. Instead the actions taken by an individual under certain situations are merely specific aspects of that individual's character, not excuses that need to be made because that is who the person. Some could attempt to make the argument that the real reason the student guards behaved as they did was not because of conscious abuse of power, but instead they were immature or inexperienced when dealing with power because of lack of experience. This explanation does have some level of merit, but it can only be considered valid to a certain depth of abuse as once a certain point is passed immaturity cannot no longer be a valid explanation. However, realistically immaturity is just another excuse and like the old saying “ignorance of the law is no defense”, neither is immaturity, at least for those past a certain age.

Mob Mentality, also referred to as herd behavior although mobs tend to be characterized by violent behavior and not all instances of herd behavior is violent, was first explored by Wilfred Trotter in 1914, but French social psychologists Gabriel Tarde and Gustav Le Bon were the first to seriously study it. The very existence of mob mentality is troubling because of its cause and its use as an excuse. Individuals under the influence of a mob mentality appear to abandon the very thing that separates human beings from other animals, the process of rational thought. Instead of using rational thought to address the situation, these individuals rely on pure negative emotion. Clearly an individual has the ability to keep emotions in check or there would be a lot more crime and violence in the world. What is it about the mob environment that leads to such a change in priority?

Typically one could argue that the mob environment is highly saturated with emotion that grows exponentially overcoming any checks that the mob participants may have utilized previously to quash such action. So that is it, for all our boastful arrogance with regards to our opinion mattering and our uniqueness, is it reality that when push comes to shove our individuality is so frail that it is easily swallowed up in a crowd awash with emotion? Are humans inherently so scared of being different that they instinctively become just another face-in-the-crowd when the situation demands it? Although this emotion argument seems reasonable, another possibility may exist.

Perhaps the belief that an individual could abandons rationality in a mob is premature; when one enters a mob, rationality may be a driving cause. Almost every person can attest to having at least one specific issue that he/she is fiercely passionate about and feels the need to address it in a specific way. Emotion is a powerful, but specifically focused aspect of our personality; very few people have a significant emotional connection to all issues. Due to this connection typically a person will not protest for the sake of protesting because that would be viewed as a waste of time, but instead focus on protesting or attempting to change issues important to that individual.

Unfortunately some of these issues, however unjust in the mind of a certain individual, will not change easily which causes a person to lash out emotionally. However, for some people this emotion is controlled by the fear of any potential consequences when acting out all alone. For this particular individual a mob is an ideal environment because he/she is then able to release this emotion in a somewhat violent manner, yet be partially, if not entirely, shielded from consequence by the size of the mob. Both the size and the beliefs of the other mob members gives this individual the rational and psychological support required to lash out because other people feel the same way and other people are available to absorb a potential consequence. In some respects these individuals are piggybacking on the mob, using it as a conduit to express their own opinion when other avenues are not as appealing.

If this analysis is correct, then who initiates the violent tendency of the mob? This rational action entity that uses the mob for cover cannot start the mob to begin with because the formation of the mob cannot be guaranteed, thus this individual could act alone and receive full brunt of the consequence, a result he/she is trying to avoid. Instead the above person would rather enter the mob after its formation. Looking at the construct of the mob itself, there are two other individual characterizations that could start the mob.

First, there is the individual that considers him/herself a martyr for the cause. This individual would have no trouble starting the mob if he/she believed that stagnation of change had advanced to the point where radical action was required to force attention on the particular championed issue. The martyr aspect of this person’s personality would have no trouble accepting the consequences that may arise from starting the mob action; heck the individual may welcome the consequences as a means to generate even more attention on the issue. Second, there is the individual that has very little emotional control. Although emotions themselves can be regarded as positive or negative, typically in a protest environment the emotion tilts heavily towards negative because of the lack of something that the individuals participating in the protest want. Therefore, it is not unreasonable that an individual with little emotional control could reach a state of frustration when they initiate violent action creating a mob.

So how does any of this really correlate to the existence of a mob mentality? Realistically it appears to mitigate the very existence of one. If it can be said that the chief participants in a mob can be characterized as a martyr, a short-fuse or a piggy-backer, then where is the mob mentality? Clearly the martyr understands the depth and consequences of his/her actions because of his/her sacrificial mindset. That mindset is not emotional, but rational as they act in a mob because they view it as the most direct way to initiate change because of the limitations that have been set on other avenues. It was previously discussed that for the piggy-backer the driving force behind their beliefs may be emotional, but the decision to participate in a mob is rational so far in that the choice is made to avoid direct consequence, in essence to have cake and eat it to. Finally it is difficult to argue that the short-fuse can be associated with a mob mentality because the lack of self-control is an inherent characteristic not one catalyzed by the mob itself.

Overall regardless of whether or not a mob increases the probability of action in an individual there must be a greater than zero probability that the particular individual would commit the action on his/her own. A mob cannot induce an individual to commit an action when there is no underlying desire to commit the action in the first place, just like exposure to a catalyst cannot start a chemical reaction lacking appropriate reactants. Therefore, if one were to believe in a mob mentality it would be defined as the ability of a mob to increase the probability of a certain action by an individual against the probability that the individual would otherwise commit the action. Using this definition there is no reasonable argument to using a mob mentality for the defense of any violent behavior that an individual engages in while a member of a mob. It is the responsibility of an individual to control his/her emotions if those emotions would result in violent or unlawful behavior. If this control is not maintained then it is the responsibility of society to generate the appropriate consequences for a lack of self-control. An individual should not be able to escape these consequences by hiding behind a mob or other emotionally charged circumstance. The very fact that someone with a straight face can claim to be absolved of responsibility for his/her actions because of a mob is rather pathetic.

The Nuremberg War Tribunals formally introduced a new defense for those embroiled in unlawful action or misappropriation, 'I was just following orders'. Although the track record for this defense at Nuremberg and in other situations does not exude confidence in its use, the fact that this defense even exists deserves questioning. Other than Nuremberg, the 'just following orders' concept is most known due to the work of Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram. The Milgram experiment was designed to measure how willing an individual was to comply with the request of an authority figure or superior by committing an action that should conflict with their personal beliefs and morals in an attempt to better understand this defense including when it was offered by Adolf Eichmann (who was actually tried in Jerusalem).

Milgram described and summarized his experiment as followed: "[determining] how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation."

So what really is the explanation for such behavior? First, it must be acknowledged that the participants in the experiments at times did express reservations about continuing after certain points, but only 14 of the 40 participants actually stopped (original experiment) and none of them stopped until well into the experiment. Each concern by a participant was met with the supervisor expressing the importance of the work imploring the participant to continue and absolving the participant of responsibility for the consequences. Such a simple statement was enough for most participants to continue the experiment without further reservations. There appeared to be neither need nor request for additional information pertaining to the importance of the experiment or no suggestion to an alternative method.

The fact that many individuals were uncomfortable when completing the experiment is a moot point because the individuals completed the task despite these uncomfortable feelings. When one claims to have morality, yet not adhere to it, it is akin to not having morality at all. For most of the participants as long as the organization conducting the experiment/employing the individual was creditable the orders of the superior were followed.

One can try to explain the behavior of the participants as ignorant agents in the experiment. They are informed by a superior individual that they are to carry out a specific job and given the necessary details required for the job. However, the probability that the individuals are made aware of all of the relevant information is low, especially if the task itself or a product from task completion is used for an immoral or nefarious purpose. Without this additional information the participant has no inherent reason to believe the task is immoral.

In addition this lack of information can retard the moral judgment of the individual as when they have questions it may be difficult to extract the correct information to answer those questions. With that said it seems reasonable that an individual not engaging in what could be considered a morally irreprehensible act should not be implicated in the misdeeds and scandal of their superiors even if the individual's work allowed the action to occur. It is not the inherent responsibility of an individual to ensure that all action in the hierarchical structure that he/she is a part of is moral and legal, just the work of the individual, but the individual must be vigilant in understanding the circumstances of the work he/she is doing.

Asking questions about any moral, ethical or logical concerns regarding an individual’s work is the duty of the individual. There are only a few instances when the superior should have valid cause to refuse to answer a worker’s question when the question is reasonable. Two situations that come to mind are those when information is sensitive and in short supply and during a crisis. It is respectable and allowable for a government agency to deny certain pieces of information to its employees based on lack of security clearance because of concern over the sensitivity of the information. In such a case the question-asking individual can either step-down or continue work. In a crisis situation, time is typically essential and decisions need to be made and executed quickly leaving little time to assuage any moral concerns of those working to execute a given strategy. Instead it is suitable to defer to the assumed expertise and knowledge of those in superior positions to make the proper decisions to neutralize the current crisis and advert future crisis. However, in the Milgram experiment or during Nazi control of Germany neither scenario is relevant.

One could argue that it is wrong and insubordinate of the worker to question the motivations of the superior and that a good worker will just do his/her job, but this belief is naïve and inappropriate. One of the chief responsibilities of those in positions of superiority is to ensure that their workers have no ethical dilemmas when conducting their work. The work does not need to change in accordance to any moral concerns from a single worker, but any concerns must addressed. As mentioned above the Milgram experiment did not contain any classified information or was not a crisis situation, so why did so many people refuse to ask questions about the true nature of the experiment?

Why are people afraid of asking questions in general? One long held belief is that people are wary of being characterized as stupid because they ask a certain question. A well-known quote by Benjamin Franklin could exemplify this concern: "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool and to open your mouth and remove all doubt." The problem with this mindset is that it seems to lump all questions into this 'fool' trap. The chief purpose of asking a question is to eliminate misconceptions and confusion for an individual and/or group. Even if other individuals privy to the questions believe certain questions were unnecessary because of previously distributed information, how can an individual willing to understand something better or address his/her concerns about the accuracy or righteousness of an issue be characterized as a fool? Everyone should focus on this learning characterization of a question asker whether the individual in particular is the one asking the question or simply present when another asks.

Intimidation may also provide a reason that people may be hesitant to ask questions. A subordinate may not have the necessary confidence to question the character or knowledge of a superior. This feeling needs to be discarded because one of two things occurs when asking a question. The question is successfully answered and the theory or action holds up to scrutiny and the questioner learns something or the question is not successfully answered and the theory or action now has an identified problem that needs to be addressed. Either way the outcome is positive as long as both individuals handle the question and answer session in a mature and respectful fashion, so any possible intimidation should be a moot point.

Another possible reason for the participants’ continuation in the experiment could be the lack of responsibility for consequences pertaining to the action. Typically the individual with the overall control of a given task is the individual that accepts the praise for success and the consequences for failure. It is reasonable to suggest that for a criminal if there is no certainty of consequences for violating the law, the criminal will always commit a criminal action if there is a benefit to be had.

The same thought process could be attributed to subordinates. If the supervisor of the project absolves the subordinates of responsibility then the subordinates are more likely not to question their actions because if they are wrong they will not have to bear the consequences. Oddly enough the possible removal of any tangible consequences by an outside party also may have a negative effect on the moral standing of the individual with regards to the action at least to the point where one's morals have trouble overcoming the lack of responsibility.

Moving beyond the Milgram experiment there could be situations where an individual understands the immorality and/or illegality of an action and still not act to rectify the situation. What stops this individual from acting in accordance to his/her morals? Unfortunately the reality of our society is there are very few protections for or programs that encourage whistle blowing (even with the periodic emphasis on correcting this reality), so individuals committing action against their morals only have two options, continue to work for a paycheck against their moral judgment or quit and hope to find another job.

Clearly neither is an attractive choice and unfortunately there is little tangible or even intangible benefit from a societal perspective to select the latter option. Therefore, it is essential that governments and companies provide support to individuals that report immoral and/or illegal behavior by their workers because in the end it is important to remove those workers that are unwilling to emulate the ideals of the corporation they work for or the country in which they reside. Of course such a statement has been made many times and more than likely will be made many more times and yet there still remains little shelter for the whistleblower.

In the end everything that occurs in an individual's existence is directly tied to the decisions made by that individual thus any individual of sound mind must bear the responsibility for the consequences, both positive and negative, of the events that occur in his/her life. Some may say it is unreasonable or even unfair to make such an assertion, but those individuals would be incorrect as all decisions are the products of the unique characteristics that comprise a given individual. Regardless of outside forces each decision will result in a set of probabilistic consequences that each individual must be willing to accept. Therefore, the party chiefly responsible for the consequences of each decision, of each action in one's life is the individual because it is that individual that has the final input in what decision is made. So in short, the environment and those in it simply 'open the door', whether or not to step through the door is still up to the individual regardless of whatever type of psychological condition apologists want to concoct to make excuses for such behavior.

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