Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Ensuring That Disposition Trumps Situation

As I argue in a previous post, independent judgment, the ability and willingness to perceive facts as facts and to respond to them regardless of what situational factors—especially, other people’s approval— may dictate, should be a fundamental aim of parenting and teaching.

Independence means that one’s psychological disposition, i.e., one’s self-esteem, integrity, and courage, should be sufficiently strong to resist outside pressures for conformity. Instilling this trait in children and students is a large order for both parents and teachers to fill. And Philip Zimbardo’s 2007 book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil provides ample evidence that situations all too often trump disposition, leading too many people to conform to the requirements of the situation rather than to resist the external pressure and judge for themselves what the right course of action should be.

Zimbardo was principal investigator in the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, which had been scheduled to last for two weeks but was stopped after six days because of the frighteningly realistic submissiveness and depression of the “prisoners” and aggression and sadism of the “guards.” All participants were randomly assigned college students, tested to be “normal” on the psychological tests of the day.

The Lucifer Effect provides the most detailed chronicle to date of the events of that experiment. It also reviews the literature on the power of situation over disposition, including the Milgram obedience-to-authority experiments in which participants, at the request of an experimenter, repeatedly increased the voltage of electrical shocks to a subject. The book, in great detail, also discusses the unnerving similarities between the events and behaviors of the 2003 Abu Ghraib scandal (1, 2) and the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Zimbardo is a social psychologist, which means he emphasizes the power of situation over disposition, but it is obvious from the prison experiment and other examples of situational influence that some participants did strive to maintain their values and dignity. And Zimbardo acknowledges this, so in the final chapter of his book he does discuss techniques of resisting external pressures and provides examples of true heroes who did not allow situations to trump their dispositions. Alas, Zimbardo’s suggestions for resisting situational influence, such as “assert your identity and individuality,” do not go deep enough into the conscious and subconscious mind.

Now I am not claiming to have the solution to the problem of teaching disposition over situation, but the key to developing strong convictions and the willingness to act on them lies in our subconscious premises about ourselves, other people, and the world. An adolescent, for example, who believes deep down “I’m no good—I just want to get along with others” is ripe for influence from those others who say, “A few beers won’t affect your driving” or “This drug will help you loosen up. Come on. I want to help you.” And such an adolescent may appear on the surface to be healthy and even independent in a conventional sense. In later years, working in business, the situational pressure may become, “Tell ‘em the order’s on the truck; what the client doesn’t know won’t hurt ‘em!”

The appearance of ordinariness is a point much emphasized by Zimbardo in both prison cases and in all of his examples of situational influence. But it is the pressures of the situation—the outside influencers—that tap into the adolescent’s (or adult’s) premise of wanting to get along, thus crumbling any chances of resistance.

An alternative premise of self-worth and confidence to make one’s own decisions without caving to external pressure would lead to a different outcome. Such premises, or conclusions, about oneself, others, and the world are formed in our earliest years and reinforced frequently thereafter. The challenge for parents and teachers is how to encourage the formation of correct premises and how to uncover and correct false or harmful ones. This puts psychology, specifically psychological self-awareness and the art of introspection, at the center of education (1, 2, 3).

To ensure that disposition will triumph over situation, introspection as a scientific method for acquiring data of reality—inner reality—needs to be welcomed back after its one-hundred-year exile from science. Further, logic, the method by which we assess the mental processes used in perceiving the outer world, needs to be recognized as an introspective art. It also needs to be acknowledged as the method by which we assess the mental processes for perceiving our inner world. The conclusion “I’m no good” or “I want to get along with others at all costs” is a logical fallacy and should be corrected as much as the conclusion “The earth is flat.”

Disposition consists of conclusions we have made over the years and hold in our minds, usually subconsciously. If the conclusions are correct, that is, logical and free of fallacies, self-esteem, independence, integrity, and courage will develop. If the conclusions are not logical, but contain falsehoods and fallacies, then varying amounts of situational influence will take hold. And strange or harmful behavior may result, even though such a person outwardly may appear completely ordinary or normal.

Such is the power of the subconscious to influence conscious behavior. The successful parent and teacher will find a way to nurture better subconscious premises.

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