philip_zimbardo's picture
Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University; Author, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil
Psychologist, Stanford University; Author, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

The Situational Focus

When trying to understand human behavior that violates our expectations about how people are supposed to act, there is a learned tendency to "rush to the dispositional." We seek to explain behavior in terms of personal qualities of the actor, or agent of the action in question. In individualistic cultures this means searching for genetic, personality, or pathological characteristics that can be reasonably linked as explanatory constructs. It also has come to mean ignoring or giving insufficient weight to aspects of the behavioral context—situational variables—that may in fact be significant contributors to that action. Dramatists, philosophers, and historians, as well as clergy and physicians, all tend toward the dispositional and away from the situational in their views of human nature.

Social psychologists have been struggling to modify this bias toward inner determinants of behavior by creating in a large body of research highlighting the importance of outer determinants of behavior. Roles, rules, responsibility, anonymity, role-playing, group dynamics, authority pressures, and more have been shown to have a dramatic impact on individual behavior across a variety of settings.

Milgram's classic demonstration of blind obedience to authority established that the majority of ordinary American citizens would follow the path laid down by an authority even if it led to severely harming an innocent person. My Stanford Prison Experiment extended this notion of situational power to reveal how institutional settings, like prisons or schools or businesses, could exert unimaginably strong influences over human behavior. Nevertheless, the general public and even intellectuals from many fields still buy the dispositional and sell short the situational as merely minimal mitigating circumstances.

I am optimistic that this mental bias will get a rebalancing in the coming year as new research findings will demonstrate how the situational focus is to an enhanced public health model as the dispositional is to the old medical model when trying to understand and change behavior of people in communities. The focus of public health on identifying vectors of disease can be extended to systemic vectors of health and success, in place of individual ambition and personal failure and success.

This analysis will be important in meeting the challenges posed by international terrorism through new efforts to build community resilience rather than focusing on individual coping. It will also change the blame game of those in charge of various institutions and systems from identifying the"few bad apples" to actively trying to understand how their barrel had soured and was corrupting even good apples. I have shown how this dispositional thinking operated in analyzing the causes of the abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib Prison by the military and civilian chains of command. It is no different than the search for evil by developing a Witch Identification and Destruction program during the Inquisition.

Although the foundations of dispositional thinking run deep and wide in most of us, I am optimistic that we will start to seep into that biased thinking to construct a more balanced perspective on how good people may turn evil, and how bad people can be guided to turn good.