Heroes and Villains: The Contradictions Within Situationism
The "heroic imagination" is incompatible with an ideology of victimhood
Posted May 08, 2014
In part 1 of this post, I discussed the situationist analysis of the “banality” of evil and of heroism respectively. To recap, according to Phil Zimbardo and colleagues, both heroic acts and evil acts occur primarily in response to situational factors, rather than internal features of the person. However, on closer inspection, the situationist analysis provides inconsistent accounts of how each of these occurs. Evil actions are attributed to factors entirely outside the person, while heroism relies on the person’s inner qualities. In this post, I explore these inconsistencies in more detail and consider some relevant evidence.
The false dichotomy of dispositions vs. situations
In developing his situationist explanation of why “good” people do evil things, Zimbardo has drawn heavily on his analysis of the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), in which students recruited to act as guards in a mock prison engaged in abuse and mistreatment of students recruited to act as prisoners. Zimbardo has drawn many parallels between the SPE and the prisoner abuse that occurred at Abu Ghraib. In both cases, Zimbardo has argued that the horrendous behavior of those involved can be explained pretty much entirely as a result of external factors and that “dispositional” factors internal to the person are irrelevant. He states:
When you put that set of horrendous work conditions and external factors together, it creates an evil barrel. You could put virtually anybody in it and you’re going to get this kind of evil behavior. The Pentagon and the military say that the Abu Ghraib scandal is the result of a few bad apples in an otherwise good barrel. That’s a dispositional analysis. The social psychologist in me, and the consensus among many of my colleagues in experimental social psychology, says that’s the wrong analysis. It’s not the bad apples, it’s the bad barrels that corrupt good people. Understanding the abuses at this Iraqi prison starts with an analysis of both the situational and systematic forces operating on those soldiers working the night shift in that ‘little shop of horrors.’ (Emphasis added)
As can be seen from the foregoing, situationists explicitly reject what they call “dispositionalist” explanations that invoke personality traits to explain why people behaved the way they did in such situations. Supposedly, those who are inclined to a dispositional analysis want to pin all the blame on the “bad apples” involved, while ignoring the importance of the all-powerful “bad barrel” that is the real cause of all the horrendous things that were done there. As I noted previously, situationists pay lip service to the notion that behavior, including prisoner abuse is the product of the interaction between features of the situation and features of the person. (See this article by Zimbardo for example, where he responds to criticisms of situationism.) However, in practice he and his colleagues have expressed scorn for the idea that it might be worthwhile to consider the relevant personality traits of those who engaged in abusive behavior in the SPE and at Abu Ghraib.
The importance of self-selection
Specifically, personality psychologists have argued that self-selection played an important role in what happened both in the SPE and at Abu Ghraib. That is, people with certain personality traits that may predispose them to abusive behavior may be more likely than others to volunteer to either join a prison experiment or to work as prison guards respectively (Carnahan & McFarland, 2007). To test this, they conducted an experiment to test whether people who would volunteer for a prison experiment (“a psychological study of prison life) had different personality traits from people who would volunteer for a non-specific psychology experiment (simply “a psychological study”). (Neither one of the advertised "psychological studies" actually went ahead, as the real experiment was to see who would volunteer for each one.) Those who volunteered for the prison experiment were found to differ significantly from the control group on seven distinct personality traits related to aggressive tendencies. Specifically, the prison experiment volunteers were noticeably high on measures of aggression, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and social dominance, and also lower on altruism and dispositional empathy. Carnahan and McFarland argued that people tend to make choices to enter situations that allow them to express their personalities. Hence situations that lend themselves to abuse may be particularly attractive to people who are inclined to become abusive. The researchers were careful to point out that they were not denying the power of these situations to influence behavior. In fact, they argued that situations such as a prison where abuse is condoned act to reinforce and amplify pre-existing tendencies to be abusive (McFarland & Carnahan, 2009).
Do personal choices matter at all?
In their response to this study, Haney and Zimbardo (2009) attacked the authors for their supposed “dispositionalism” which they argued was an attempt to draw attention away from larger systemic factors that facilitated abuse while neatly blaming the actors involved, who were really just decent people caught up in terrible circumstances. Haney and Zimbardo blatantly parody the idea of self-selection, saying: “therefore, whatever extreme behavior people engage in is the product of their free and autonomous choice making, largely unencumbered by circumstance or context.” They go on to argue that most choices that people make are “highly situationally constrained” and determined less by personality than other factors such as economics. The idea that people’s choices must be ‘unencumbered’ or they have no real choice at all, seems to me to be a false dichotomy, much like the false dichotomy between “bad apples” and a “bad barrel”. Ignoring the role of systemic factors at Abu Ghraib, such as policies and practices implicitly condoning prisoner abuse, would surely be a mistake. But ignoring the role of individual differences and the capacity for individual choice would also be a mistake. A comprehensive understanding of the causes of things like prisoner abuse requires attention to all the relevant variables involved.
McFarland and Carnahan acknowledged that something like Abu Ghraib can indeed induce abusive behavior. However, they argued that a model based on “the power of the situation” is too limited because it overlooks the importance of self-selection and selection by others and treats individual differences as irrelevant (2009). McFarland and Carnahan also challenge Zimbardo’s claims that the abusers at Abu Ghraib, and people who have engaged in government sanctioned torture in Greece and Brazil, were just “ordinary, normal” people corrupted by situational forces. Although Zimbardo claimed that “virtually anybody” in the situation at Abu Ghraib would act the same way – a sweeping generalization for which little or no evidence is provided – there is evidence that at least some of the abusers at Abu Ghraib volunteered for duty and that they had predispositions to abusive behaviour. A psychiatrist who investigated Abu Ghraib concluded that both situational and dispositional factors played a role on the abuse, and cited “psychological factors of negativity, hatred, and desire to dominate and humiliate” (McFarland & Carnahan, 2009).
Who has what it takes to do evil?
McFarland and Carnahan also point out that although Zimbardo and colleagues have claimed that torturers in Greece and Brazil were just ordinary people, research on this topic has found that those who were recruited for this role were carefully screened and selected for personal characteristics such as sympathetic attitudes to the reigning military regime and for conformity and conventionalism. Those who passed the screening then freely selected to go through intensive training. They were further screened for blind obedience to authority and for their ability to endure beatings. They were hardly ‘ordinary’ in the sense of being fairly representative of men of their age. McFarland and Carnahan point out that these sort of attitudes are consistent with an authoritarian personality profile. If it were true, as Zimbardo claims, that “virtually anyone” could be made to do evil things under the right circumstances, why would those responsible for recruiting torturers go to so much trouble to select suitable candidates?
Double standards for doing good and evil
What I also find disturbing about claims about the power of the situation to overrule individual choices is that it seems to locate all moral responsibility for evil behavior outside the persons involved, as if the participants in this drama were utterly powerless to act any differently. Indeed, Haney and Zimbardo seem to imply that unless people are “unencumbered by circumstance or context” their personal ability to make choices has little or no relevance to how they behave. Yet when it comes to heroic choices, the picture presented is almost the complete opposite of this. Heroes turn out to be those who have cultivated a “heroic imagination” and who have had the courage to make difficult decisions in situations where they were under considerable pressure to turn a blind eye to wrong-doings in their environment.
Just how “banal” is heroism really?
Consider an example of the “banality of heroism” that occurred at Abu Ghraib, described in an article on Zimbardo’s website. (Scroll down to the last page of the document, and see the sidebar story, “The Prison Guard’s Dilemma” by Jason Marsh.) This describes the story of Sergeant Joseph Darby, a prison guard at Abu Ghraib who became aware of prisoner abuse and made a brave decision to report it instead of turning a blind eye. According to the article, Darby decided to act in spite of the culture of the prison which “persuaded everyone else to perform or accept prisoner abuse.” He did this because he believed it was his moral duty, even though it meant that for a month and a half he “lived in a state of perpetual fear” of retaliation by the other guards if they found out what he had done. Since then he has been hailed as a hero, yet vilified by others, and now lives in hiding after going into protective custody.
Here we have a case of a man who performed a very brave action that put his own safety at risk because he believed that it was the morally right thing to do. Yet this is described as “banal” because apparently he was just an “ordinary” man. (As opposed to what, a superman?) To my mind, the “banal” (i.e. common, ordinary) response in this situation would be to go along with the crowd and cave in to pressure to do nothing. Furthermore, far from being “unencumbered by circumstance or context,” he was under considerable situational constraint, yet still managed to resist the power of the “bad barrel” that corrupted many others who did not show his courage. It is far from clear to me how this example can be explained in terms of purely situational factors that pushed the man in question into acting heroically.
Another case of heroism cited by Franco and Zimbardo illustrates the ability of individuals to make conscious choices to resist situational forces in order to uphold moral values. Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese consul official in Lithuania in 1940, assisted more than 2,000 Jews to escape the Nazi invasion, in spite of direct orders by his government not to do so. Franco and Zimbardo point out that not only was this a difficult decision for him, but it was one that he thought about carefully over a long period of time. Discussing Sugihara’s personal history, they point out that:
These incidents suggest that Sugihara already possessed the internal strength and self-assurance necessary to be guided by his own moral compass in uncertain situations. We can speculate that Sugihara was more willing to assert his individual view than others around him who preferred to “go along to get along.”
Franco and Zimbardo therefore acknowledge that internal features of the person such as “internal strength and self-assurance” are needed to make moral decisions in difficult situations. This is in direct contrast to Zimbardo’s statements implying that heroism is a result of external circumstances and is unrelated to internal qualities of the person.
The importance of character
Franco and Zimbardo acknowledge that they do not actually know what prompts some people to take action when heroism is called for. They even consider briefly that those who do so may be more conscientious or they may be less risk averse. Conscientiousness and risk aversion are personality traits, so it seems that “dispositional” explanations are no longer completely off the table. However, they spend much more time discussing the importance of the “heroic imagination” and ways in which it can be nurtured so that ordinary people can learn to become heroes. They define the heroic imagination as “the capacity to imagine facing physically or socially risky situations, to struggle with the hypothetical problems these situations generate, and to consider one’s actions and the consequences.” They then go on to enumerate a number of steps a person can take to foster this. These steps amount to developing the willingness to hold to a code of ethical conduct and act with integrity even when under pressure rationalise inaction or justify evil deeds. Additionally one must be able to “transcend anticipating negative consequences associated with some forms of heroism, such as being socially ostracized.” To my mind, these things sounds much like what lay people would call developing “character,” the inner strength to act with integrity and the courage of one’s convictions. In other words one must develop the ability to resist external situational forces and follow an internal moral compass. Ultimately, Franco and Zimbardo state that there must be “a hero’s willingness to accept any of the consequences of heroic action—whether the sacrifices are physical or social.”
I find much of what Franco and Zimbardo are saying about heroism to be commendable, particularly the concept of willingness to accept the consequences of one’s actions. However, now I need to ask how this is compatible with the view that when people do evil it is because they are the victim of circumstances and forces outside of themselves? If ordinary people have the capacity to become heroes who take a stand against injustice, then surely they are responsible for their actions when they choose instead to do evil. If ordinary people can develop the strength of character to resist situational forces, then does not this imply that those who do not so resist are of weak character? Why not hold evil-doers and heroes alike to the same moral standards of accountability for their actions? I do not mean to imply that situational forces that act upon a person should be disregarded. What I am arguing is for a balanced perspective which takes into account the nature of the person who responds to these forces, including their capacity to make responsible choices. Personality psychologist David Funder (2006) has argued that situationist accounts appear to condone an ideology of victimisation in which people are not to blame for their actions because the real causes lie outside themselves. He contrasts this with a more person-centred approach that favours being true to oneself and the human capacity to develop a consistent self that seeks to control one’s destiny rather than remain a pawn of situational forces. An ideology of victimisation is also incompatible with the development of the heroic imagination.
© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.
Photo of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Frodo Baggins by sykaaa at DeviantART
Carnahan, T., & McFarland, S. (2007). Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment: Could Participant Self-Selection Have Led to the Cruelty? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(5), 603-614. doi: 10.1177/0146167206292689
Funder, D. C. (2006). Towards a resolution of the personality triad: Persons, situations, and behaviors. Journal of Research in Personality, 40(1), 21-34. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2005.08.003
Haney, C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2009). Persistent Dispositionalism in Interactionist Clothing: Fundamental Attribution Error in Explaining Prison Abuse. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(6), 807-814. doi: 10.1177/0146167208322864
McFarland, S., & Carnahan, T. (2009). A Situation's First Powers Are Attracting Volunteers and Selecting Participants: A Reply to Haney and Zimbardo (2009). Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(6), 815-818. doi: 10.1177/0146167209334781
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