Genocide, your office, and your teenager

September 4, 2006 at 10:36 am 10 comments

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Entry filed under: Parenting, Psychology, Save the world.

BEAM Robots–little insects made of recycled electronics How I will kill myself next summer

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. bloglily  |  September 6, 2006 at 5:46 pm

    This is very good thinking. I’m going to print it out and have it ready to give my pre-teen sons.

  • 2. veltis  |  September 7, 2006 at 11:38 pm

    Wow. That’s quite a compliment!

  • 3. lightcontrast  |  September 13, 2006 at 2:02 am

    I don’t think peer pressure has ever been a problem for me. I’ve always been the aloof observer, a little of a loner. But I can be friendly or sociable if I need to. I’m not without friends. I’m not a social butterfly. You know what I mean?

  • 4. veltis  |  September 13, 2006 at 5:13 am

    Yeah, I do–I think being a bit of a loner helps in terms of not always going with the crowd, because in essence, you do get to spend some time thinking by yourself. I think many of the most popular kids in high school have a hard time figuring themselves out as adults, because they’ve been defined by the adoration of others for so long.

    The only situations I think it doesn’t necessarily help with is when you could act but don’t–if you see what looks like an assault happening from your window late at night, do you call the police, or do you figure it’s someone else’s responsibility? If you haven’t thought this through, it’s likely you’ll just ignore it. Also even if you’re a loner, you might be very obedient to authority in an institutional setting, even if you are being asked to do something morally questionable, IF you haven’t made clear to yourself what your thoughts on the subject are.

    In the Milgram video there’s a guy who pathetically keeps repeating “I’m not responsible for this” as he keeps giving what he believes to be lethal shocks to a man who has told him he has a heart condition…he does it because he thinks he can’t be blamed, as long as the “authority” or experimenter has told him that the responsibility is not his. World War II was a recent memory at the time of this experiment, and yet this man had never considered the implications of the fact that the Nazis on trial at Nuremberg had said the exact same thing…

    Being alone sometimes and being comfortable with it is step one. Thinking in an organized way while you’re alone is the second step that I think is required in order to prevent the above. When your values aren’t clear and concrete, situations can catch you off-guard. I’m sure this guy, when asked, would have said the Nazis were pure evil. And yet in the right situation, he could easily have joined their ranks, because questioning authority was just not a part of his personal list of possible options.

  • 5. lightcontrast  |  September 13, 2006 at 1:51 pm

    If I saw an assault from the window, I’d call. In a law class I had before, I learned about an assault in Queens, NY that happened years ago, in the 60s…I don’t remember exactly when. People were watching so the guy left. But then he came back to finish killing her. They heard her screams, but no one called the police. I think that’s sick or just indifferent.

    As a loner, I think that’s why I’m more contemplative about things. I notice more things, how people interact with each other, how they behave…and sometimes I think that I think too much about things.

  • 6. veltis  |  September 13, 2006 at 2:12 pm

    Yep, that assault in Queens was the Kitty Genovese case I mentioned in my post..I think that case should be taught in high school as well. If you know human beings can act this way, I think you have more control over the way you personally act.

    There are also a number of serious domestic violence cases where nobody called the police even though they could hear screaming and objects breaking next door–I think it is a human tendency to shift responsibility to someone else, and I think only human reason and attention to its possibility can prevent it.

    I’m afraid that if people don’t realize that it was pretty ordinary people doing horrible things all through history, they will think it could never be them. I’m saying MAYBE it will never be you, but not to get too complacent about it–there are a number of incidents in history that prove the contrary.

    (by the way, when I say “you” I don’t mean you personally…I include myself in this very general “you”. )

    You’re right though, thinking too much can also be a problem.

  • 7. lightcontrast  |  September 13, 2006 at 8:30 pm

    I think it’s more about, every person who witnessed it, thought that another person would call 911. Person A thinks person B will call, B thinks A will call and so on… In sociology class one year, I watched this film called The Human Zoo. I found it was interesting when a person played dead in a busy city and in a rural village. In the city, people gawked but it took awhile for people to come over to ask the guy if he was all right. In the village, almost immediately, a few persons came over to see if he was all right.

    I don’t think I’ve ever been faced with peer pressure. Maybe I have, but I didn’t think much about it. I feel that I want to be my own person and not do what people want me to do. Though with parents it’s a little different.

    If I’m busy, I don’t think a lot. Luckily for me, I’m busy most of the time.

  • 8. veltis  |  October 4, 2006 at 5:07 pm

    Cool! Do you have a link for it? I tried googling it but got tons of hits and don’t know which one it is.

  • 9. lightcontrast  |  October 5, 2006 at 11:44 pm

    Hi. This is a link to the book, it has customer reviews, I found them interesting, I think the last comment on the page was good:

    About the tapes:

  • 10. veltis  |  January 6, 2007 at 11:04 am



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