Wrongdoing (and heroism) in context

Philip Zimbardo’s 2007 book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, provides an in-depth description and evaluation of his 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. To study the dynamics of prison, this famous experiment randomly assigned college student to be guards or inmates in a mock prison. Within a very short time the project had to be terminated because it had become too real: “guards” were becoming abusive and “prisoners” were experiencing the traumas of real-life prison. However, Zimbardo’s book goes far beyond the Stanford experiment. He extends his data to include the abuses and torture that occurred at Abu Ghraib prison – he was an expert witness in one of the resulting legal cases – and explores the dynamics that shape human behavior in extreme circumstances generally.

This book explores how oppressive and authoritarian systems – prisons, but also other hierarchical and totalitarian-leaning structures – tend to result in abuses. His conclusion: put in the right (or wrong) situations and systems, all of us are capable of such abuses.

The key to avoiding this, he concludes, lies in cultivating an attitude of responsibility and resistance. In Chapter 16 he offers “A Ten-step Program to Resist Unwanted Influences.” These include learning to take responsibility, acknowledging errors, valuing personal identity and integrity as much as group acceptance, and cultivating an ability to distinguish between just and unjust authority.

This is an important book for understanding the impact of prisons on the psychology and behavior of those involved in prisons – the keepers as well as the kept – but that is not my main focus here. Rather, I will focus on some implications for how we understand and respond to wrongdoing in general.

Zimbardo points out that western institutions of medicine, education, law, religion and psychology are invested in an individualistic, “dispositional,” view of human behavior.  Both wrongdoing and heroism are seen as reflections primarily of individual choices, qualities and dispositions.

But individual disposition is only one factor that shapes human behavior; just as important – and in certain circumstances, more important – are situations and systems or structures.  (Cf pp. vii, 7, 211-212, 320)  Behavior is strongly affected by situations, and situations are shaped by systems and structures (p. 226).  Placed in the wrong situation and structure, all of us are capable of terrible things.  In the “right” situations and systems, all have the potential for heroism. Zimbardo does not deny individual choice and makeup, of course, but individual disposition is only one side of a three-sided triangle (dispositions, situations, systems) that shapes human behavior.

Individual decision and disposition are fundamental to western legal systems. The overall context that might have shaped behavior is largely irrelevant to decisions of guilt and responsibility. If space is made for such factors to enter into the legal process, it is usually near the end – for example, in the sentencing phase of a death penalty trial where mitigating and aggravating factors may be submitted to the court. The legal system takes actions that have complex motivations and causes – many of which are connected to social and economic structures – and interprets them as individual choices. (For one explanation of structural violence and how it translates into individual behavior, see Gillian, Violence:  Reflections of a National Epidemic, cited in an earlier blog post.)

I sometimes use the metaphor of a telephoto lens (surprise, surprise) to characterize the legal system. Like a telephoto lens, the law has a limited depth of field and a narrow field of vision. Like a telephoto lens, it brings a very sharp focus to a narrow definition of reality. I like to think of restorative justice as a wide-angle lens with a greater depth of field and much wider field of vision. In a restorative justice perspective, more dimensions of people’s lives and stories are considered relevant in seeking resolutions.

However, critics have rightly pointed out that restorative justice practices such as victim offender conferencing are liable to duplicate the fallacy of the legal system. That is, they may take behaviors and situations that have roots in social/economic structures – including racism, classism, poverty and the resulting shame – and treat them as conflicts and wrongs purely between individuals. At best, then, restorative practices may amount to a band-aid on the injuries in our society.  At worst, it may be helping society to maintain unjust structures.

To practitioners and advocates of restorative justice, the interpersonal dimension – often ignored by the legal approach –  is vitally important but we need to find ways to increase our awareness of these other realities and to incorporate them into practice.  (CJP graduate Dave Dyck, in Contemporary Justice Review, has laid suggestions for including this in the training of practitioners. I will add this reference after the holiday.)

Can we go even further? Can restorative justice become what some have called transformative justice, providing a way to raise awareness of and address larger social injustices? Should it? If so, how do we proceed? Can it be done within current practices or are new approaches required?  These are issues that need further discussion in the restorative justice field.

I highly recommend Zimbardo’s book, and not only for those interested in prisons or justice. It is a sobering picture of how our lives are shaped, especially but not only in extreme situations. If we are to avoid succumbing to these forces and even to rise above them, the kind of awareness this book offers is important for all of us.

6 comments on “Wrongdoing (and heroism) in context”

  1. Very compelling. I do wonder what a legal system would like if it took dispositions, situations, and systems all into equal consideration in the process of arriving at a verdict of guilty or not guilty. Could there be a 40%, or 85% guilty verdict, for example, where those percentages represent the individual’s responsibility?

  2. Bonnie Price Lofton says:

    I cannot think of a topic of greater importance to our understanding of so-called evil and evil-doers in the world. Leaving aside people who are obviously mentally ill for genetic or chemical/hormonal or other reasons, most of us (to my mind) are capable of doing great wrong or at least of acquiescing to it, especially if everyone around us seems to think that whatever is happening is okay. It is very uncomfortable to be a dissenter from the status quo within one’s institution or even within one’s larger society. Such dissent may even cost us our jobs, security, peace of mind, and so forth. As a result of our natural reluctance to openly hold unpopular or minority views, I think most of us bear some culpability for what is wrong, hurtful and unjust in this world. I have often wondered if I would have had the courage, integrity, emotional strength, and intellectual acuity to have resisted the Nazi movement if I had been in Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s. What am I not resisting today — or failing to advocate for — that I ought to be? That is the question that I am not sure I want to answer.

    So, Howard, if we “take responsibility, acknowledge errors, value personal identity and integrity as much as group acceptance, and cultivate an ability to distinguish between just and unjust authority,” will we be on the way toward opting out of the loop of wrong-doing? Zimbardo’s Ten-Step Program does sound like a good place to start, good steps to post on our refrigerator, good reminders as we move through the various compromises that all of us must make (while weighing which ones should we refuse to make) … Thanks for making this your message for New Year’s Day 2010.

  3. Sarah Henkeman says:

    Professor Zehr, This is very creepy – I just finished reading Philip Zimbardo’s book in early Dec and have also read Dyck’s article earlier in the year and I have similar questions about the transformation of society! I am in the process of phd fieldwork where I seek to answer the question ‘do contemporary forms of rj contribute to long-term peacebuilding in unequal, transitional societies like SA. I am in the early stages of fieldwork and Zimbardo’s book provides me with a solid reference for the direction I am taking. What a coincidence that you should write this blog now – what a pity that the connection I have already made might now look unoriginal 🙁

  4. Samuel Baddoo says:

    Thanks Howard, The metaphor of the telephoto lens was quite a good one showing

    how narrow the focus of the current criminal justice system is. I would like to know

    however if would be fine to deduce from your post that the type of system currently

    in place would only have the effect of pushing us as a society to act in a certain way

    i.e. individualize crime and hence not only supporting the institutionalization process

    but rather demanding for it! If so one of the main tenets of restorative justice would

    be not only to affect the criminal justice system but essentially to affect or help

    change the societal behaviour to one that looks beyond the individual elements of

    crime and also has the ability to empathize with the victims. I say the restorative

    justice movement has a duty to affect the societal mindset because other than that

    as already critiqued(in paragraph 9 of your post) the restorative practices such as

    victim offender mediation and family circles will suffer the same ‘telephoto’ view of

    the crime or offence committed.

    This brings me to my question . Howard to what extent does the general societal

    mindset/ attitude have the ability to either make restorative justice successful or

    break it. Put in another way can the society’s attitude dramatically mar the goals of

    restorative justice? In that instead of restoring justice as its name implies, it

    perpetuates societal inequalities?

  5. Sarah Henkeman says:

    Prof, thanks for the response – it is an exciting turn of events that you – an icon in the field, are thinking along the same lines!

    I was hoping to read more articles by Mr Dyck and others, along the lines of how structural violence can be brought into the frame by CR practitioners (in practice, not only during their training), but cannot seem to find any. This is why I am trying to understand how one can intervene AND attempt to cast a light on structural violence without being regarded as biased by any one of the parties. To date I have not found peace about the matter and I have simply stopped mediating in our context because i needed time to examine my role as peacebuilder. I concentrate now on training and other peacebuilding roles and I am attempting to answer questions about the structural aspects through my research.

    I wonder if others have similar inner conflicts about mediating in unjust and unequal contexts.

  6. Federico Reggio says:

    Hello Howard,

    As always I find deep and challenging questions in your blog, and any of them suggests me plenty different thoughts and ideas. I’ll try to stay coherent to the final questions of this post, though.

    Yes, I do agree: western legal culture has tended to widely underestimate the inter-personal characterization of human behaviors and institutions (and, therefore, of legal rules as well). In my understanding of the problem, such a tendency is mainly due to a highly individualistic anthropological model and to a (deeply connected) rationalistic attitude to knowledge.
    One of RJ’s main and most important contributions to the debate on justice lays right in this: showing how crime deeply impacts personal and interpersonal dimensions, and how these are vital both in the genesis and in the resolution of conflict. RJ helps remembering that persons and relations are not ‘over-structural’ to law: rules are conceived for persons and relationships, and not the opposite (precious suggestions by this way come both from the sociological-communitarian ideas and from the humanistic approach of the ‘classical’ and Christian tradition).
    For the highly formalistic and technicistic world of legal theory RJ represents – no doubt – a revolution, and a challenge which is worth to be taken.
    (By the way what did Jesus say about saturdays? Was humanity made for saturdays, or were saturdays made for humanity?)

    This said, I tend to be slightly suspicious to transformative approaches, since I fear that they might induce us to forget about personal responsibilities in favour of social ones.
    This would become – poles inverted – the same mistake of modernity: forgetting that personal and interpersonal dimensions are related and co-implicated. Still, they are different.
    Moreover, social and structural problems are certainly important and should be addressed, but I wonder whether this is the goal (and justification) of criminal justice. I mean: is this what CJ is meant for? Wouldn’t it be instead the field of political and social action?
    Behind a transformative approach I see the risk of widening the net of control of CJ-systems, so, in the end, the risk of betraying much of RJ’s important criticism to the unacceptable extension of CJ’s net of control in western countries.

    And.. how about each person’s free-will?
    Yes, there are certainly many factors that influence human behavior and being conscious of them helps preventing from embracing a naive view of human choices: this does not mean, anyhow, that personal choices are not relevant and that – at the parting of the way – we are all someway called to choose a direction (back to the Gospel, although we all know how crowds and mass-movements can influence personal behavior, we also know that when Pilatus asked the people, not everybody shouted ‘Barabbas’, but some shouted ‘Jesus’.. and the meaning of their words was pretty much different, as well the consequences of them).

    Final question, connected to the lenses example. Could ‘widening our view’ have side effects, as, e.g., neglect important details, or make us blur the over-all picture? Out of metaphor, what if we ended to forget about real victims and real damages? (Just an example: yesterday at Padua station a young man from Morocco was arrested for attempting a robbery against an old woman. We might likely learn from this man’s biography that he has been himself quite a difficult situation, but this does not mean that what he did can be justified. I mean: his personal story is not irrelevant, it should be taken into account, it should never serve as a justification for what he did). Still, social action and social assistance are surely relevant for crime prevention: but it is not criminal justice).
    I cannot forget, in facts, that here in Italy, for instance, much of the marxist approach to CJ (especially during the ’70s) tended to depict criminals as ‘victims’ of social inequalities. Maybe this is the reason why it took 40 years to make our first, shy steps in starting to talk about the victims of marxist-oriented terrorism.

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