SAGE ADVICE: Stop the Experiment
Our changing world calls for intelligent and compassionate leadership
By Richard Rosser
One of the most famous social psychology experiments in history is called “The Stanford Prison Experiment” and some say we Americans are living in one now. In 1971, Philip Zimbardo tested 18 Stanford University students with a game of prisoners and guards. The students were to spend two weeks in a makeshift prison, each with assigned roles of power and powerlessness.
Zimbardo stopped the experiment after just six days. His theory was proven. When the proper group dynamics are present and a set of rules legitimize specific abusive behaviors, “normal” or “good” individuals will abuse or bully other human beings. He called it “social dominance behavior”.
The recent United Airlines flight where a doctor was forcibly removed from a plane to make space for a crew member needing a connecting flight is a tragic example. Whether the doctor was justified in refusing to leave is not the point today. It’s how the rules legitimized the behavior of the Chicago airport security while the United crew tacitly supported the action. The brutal behavior was seen as acceptable.
The U.S. Senate recently eliminated the right to filibuster Supreme Court justice nominations. Again, how we arrived at this point is not my debate today. The fact that this historic rule was changed should force each of us to reflect on where we are going. The civility of national and local elections has been declining for decades, each side blaming the other, rationalizing their latest attacks on who said, or did, something first. I stress: both sides are to blame, and both sides must confront the need to change.
We live during a time of enormous human advancement. Innovation and discovery in the fields of healthcare, technology, energy, communications and education are nothing short of stunning. On windy, sunny days the entire country of Denmark can run on renewable, free energy. Paraplegics are getting computers to operate their real, human legs so they can walk again. Diseases are being cured. And the pace of development seems to be accelerating. Yet leadership seems to be lagging behind with abuse and bullying rampant. Why?
I’m not a psychologist but I can see the “power and powerless” dynamic prominent throughout our society. Haves/Have-nots, black/white, gay/straight, men/women, north/south, liberal/conservative — the friction is everywhere, with each side often claiming they are the ones without the power or are the ones with justified power, even if it harms others.
Our leaders at every level should be like Dr. Zimbardo and stop the experiment. They should demand fairness, compassion and respect. They should exhibit the values of freedom, tolerance and civility. They should set the example, not lead the attacks from either side, which only escalates hostilities.
We all vote for “our guy” to “fight for us” in Tallahassee, city hall or Washington DC — our prison guard from the experiment as it were. We don’t need stronger bullies to fight. We need representatives to work together to find common ground. We need intelligent leadership: actual guardians of our way of life who are capable of finding solutions to enormously complex problems in a rapidly changing world.