Wrongdoing (and heroism) in context

December 31, 2009 by Howard Zehr

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.