Genocide, your office, and your teenager
It all comes down to the same thing. Stupidity and lack of autonomy increases as groups of people gather together. We all know this. It’s called peer pressure, mob mentality, if-your-friends-all-jumped-off-a cliff-would-you (you would), and many other things.
What I’m proposing is a solution: Active, regular preemptive thought.
Don’t kid yourself; no matter how “intellectual” you think you are, no matter how inclined to kindness and reason, no matter how normal you consider yourself to be, it will happen. You’ll be part of a group that must make a decision, or is in fact making a decision for you, and you will be weak, you will do something otherwise unfathomable, and utterly unlike what you believe yourself to be. You will capitulate without question, or not act when you should have, and only later wonder why you behaved that way.
Psychologists have provided us with some really interesting specific examples:
- Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority study, where Milgram had subjects administer ever-increasing electrical shocks to another participant, simply by asking them to.
- Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment, where “volunteers played the roles of guards and prisoners and lived in a mock prison”. The situation quickly escalated out of control, and the experiment had to be discontinued.
- The murder and rape of Kitty Genovese, which introduced the concepts of the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility, or how it’s possible for someone to be killed in front of a bunch people who watch but do nothing.
Milgram’s study shows how simply the aura of authority can cause ordinary people to commit atrocities. Stanford shows how putting on a uniform and being part of a group with power can make you unusually cruel. Diffusion of responsibility comes down to the fact that no one likes to be the one to make a decision, and few people like to stand out because with that comes responsibility, and having to explain yourself, which requires a very strong sense of self indeed.
I think these examples should be required reading in every school. But knowing of their existence is not enough. How can we apply what we’ve learned?
We must learn to actively, on a regular basis, revisit our own personal belief systems in detail, and memorize them as concrete rules for later.
Our brains switch into idiot-mode when we’re around other people. So it’s best to make important decisions when alone, and then apply them in the face of all other influence later, even when we are also questioning them. I tell this to all my young relatives just entering into teenage life, to keep them out of trouble. Before you go to a party, decide with your reasonable brain what you will and will not do. When you’re at the party and uncertain about something, refer back to the rules your reasonable brain decided on, even if your idiot brain is tugging you elsewhere.
The point is not to give teenagers a pre-fab set of rules for them to ignore, but instead give them the benefit of the doubt that they know what is good for them and what isn’t. Instead, train them to think for themselves. They just need to have it all clear enough that when the time comes, they can remember what it was they had previously decided to do, and act accordingly. Some guidelines for this:
- Be alone. This should not be done anywhere within the vicinity of anyone else, or any institution. Not in church, not even necessarily at home. Somewhere as far from any outside influence as possible. This is not to say you cannot have a religious belief system; by stepping outside its influence for a moment, however, you can truly claim it as your own.
- Be concrete and specific. Don’t think to yourself, “I should try to be a good person.” What is that? Can you lie in certain situations? What kind of situations? Why?
- Anticipate likely scenarios. You’re going to be sent to Iraq, and might be asked to do things which are difficult. What exactly are you willing to do, and where is the line you will not cross? If you don’t decide before you go, you’ll be drowning so deep in the influence of the situation that you might do something you’ll later regret.
- Remember you can change your rules, but only once you’re alone again. In your actions, stick to the rules you’ve decided on until the next time you have some peace and quiet to really think. If you decided not to sleep with person X on the first date, you don’t get to change your mind during the date. There was a reason you decided not to. You can rethink this decision when you get home, and then sleep with this person on the second date IF your reasonable brain has approved your idiot-brain request.
- Allow other ideas to visit your belief system: Consider opposing points of view. If they turn out to be right, you develop as a person. If they’re wrong, the belief you already had becomes stronger. But you must be honest about this. A knee-jerk rejection isn’t real consideration. See yourself having that point of view, and see how it feels for a moment or two. Then step back and look at it again.
When you get in the habit of doing this more often, you will also find it easier to say more often what you really think, behave more often the way you think is right, and decide things with greater certainty in general because you’ll not only know what you believe, but why. And instead of being a mosaic of what everyone else has told you to be, you’ll be you more often.