The Cause of Human Cruelty and Injustice and a Possible Antidote
Section: Spin U
Human history is filled with acts of cruelty and injustice. Our headlines are filled with mass murder, war, starvation and torture. For personal profit, corporations risk destroying our world with climate change. Pollution is estimated to cause 160,000 premature deaths each year in the U.S. Worldwide, pollution is estimated to have caused approximately five million deaths in 2012 – 400,000 due to hunger and communicable diseases aggravated by climate change and 4.5 million from air pollution. Lack of health insurance in the U.S. kills an estimated 50,000 per year. Poor quality of care systems that increases profits kills far more. Estimates of the number of dead from the Iraq war vary widely (100,000 – 1,000,000). Cigarette smoking is estimated to cost Americans 460,000 lives per year.
Why People In Power Become Cruel
The social psychologist Phillip Zimbardo is credited with discovering what causes people with power to treat others cruelly. His famous Stanford Prison experiment showed that giving people absolute and anonymous power is frequently associated with extraordinary cruelty among people who were quite average. In fact, under conditions where a person feels that they are unaccountable he argues many people can very quickly develop ideas that cause them to act cruelly toward the powerless. He argues that all it takes is some authority figure making you feel that the mistreatment is acceptable and the authority initially requests only small mistreatments. Under these conditions, Zimbardo found that most people will engage in highly immoral and cruel behavior that includes a willingness to harm powerless individuals. Zimbardo refers to this as the Lucifer Effect. The short film (see above) gives examples and illustrates how these principles worked to cause the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. In Zimbardo’s famous Stanford prison experiment in which he asked students to participate in realistic role play where some students were guards and others were prisoners, beginning on the second day the college guards began engaging in acts of
“abuse, aggression, and eventually sadistic pleasure until degrading the prisoners became the daily norm. Within 36 hours the first prisoner had an emotional breakdown and had to be released.”
After only five days, the college student guards were attempting to sexually degrade the prisoners in ways similar to what occurred in Abu Ghraib but Zimbardo failed to recognize the problem. He only stopped after the assistant professor he was dating demanded that he stop.
Another leading psychologist, Robert Sapolosky, has observed the same behavior in male baboons. Male baboons organize themselves in rank hierarchies. They can exert power (move up in rank) over other baboons through physical strength or forming coalitions with other baboons. The more powerful male baboons often steal food and other resources from less powerful baboons. They randomly hit less powerful baboons when they feel frustrated which in turn leads to their victims hitting even less powerful baboons. Sapolosky discovered that one hormone accounts for levels of aggression displayed by male baboons – testosterone. In contrast, females are born with a rank and so these power games are played by females.
Conditions Where Peace Emerges
Bonobo males lack the testosterone and superior strength and size of other primates. In contrast to chimpanzees, baboons and rheus monkeys, Bonobo culture is a highly cooperative love fest to a degree that would make Hugh Hefer blush and the political system is a matriarchy. So is it really that simple. Is testosterone the problem?
No human, chimpanzee or rheus culture has ever been observed that has the lack of violence and peacefulness of the Bonobos. However, a lasting peaceful culture emerged in one savannah baboon troop after the most aggressive and least social (alpha-males) died after stealing food from a garbage dump. Dr. Sapolsky had been studying the troop for years so he could observe the changes that then occurred in the troop that had been left with less aggressive males and the females. Dr. Sapolsky found that unlike the typical murder and war making baboon troops he’d observed for many years, this troop settled into a social life filled with communitarianism, egalitarianism, and cooperative child-rearing. Males even began to groom one another which was something Sapolsky had rarely witnessed before.
Female savanna baboons spend their entire lives in the same troop. However males must leave to find a new troop when they reach puberty. Therefore, after twenty years the peaceful troop has lost about two-thirds of it’s members to natural causes and those losses have been replaced with new adult females and young male baboons who have entered the troop from the outside. Nevertheless, the troop has remained peaceful. When a new young male enters the troop, Sapolosky observed that the new baboon took about six months to learn that hitting was bad and that grooming was preferred. The video below by Dr. Sapolosky tells peaceful troop’s story.
Phillip Zimbardo believes that people can create utopias like the baboon or bonobos and it doesn’t involve killing off all the alpha-males. However, limiting their power might be a good idea. According to Zimbardo, you need to create cultures and laws that limit people’s exposure to cues that are associated with aggression and violence. For example, you need to reduce circumstances and spread out the power structure so that people know they will be held accountable for their cruelty. You also need to create non-competitive and collaborative educational and work environments where people learn non-aggressive strategies to solve problems. People rise through the human hierarchies by showing their willingness and ability to help others which is consistent with Dr. Martin Luther King, jr’s ideas about leadership:.
Cruel Leaders May Be Obsessed With Control
Anthropologists and psychologists have found that when people are placed in positions of power they frequently begin to believe that they must gain as much control over their subordinates as possible. For example, leadership experts such as Douglas McGregor have noted from the very beginning of research on leadership that most managers believe in Theory X, which is the intellectually bankrupt idea that staying on top of workers represents quality leadership. Theory X can be viewed as a rationalization of someone who has been made too powerful. Someone that has fallen under the spell of believing that greater control will solve their problems.
The misguided principles of Theory X are
“1. The average human being has an inherent dislike of work and will avoid it if he can …
2. Because of the human characteristics of dislike of work, most people must be coerced, controlled, directed, threatened with punishment to get them to put forth adequate effort toward the achievement of organizational objectives …
3. The average human being prefers to be directed, wishes to avoid responsibility, has relatively little ambition, wants security above all"
Douglas McGregor, The Human Side of Enterprise. New York:McGraw-Hill Book CO., 1960 pp. 33-34
McGregor developed Theory Y as an accurate account of actual human behavior relating to the integration of human and organizational goals
“1. The expenditure of physical and mental effort in work is as natural as play or rest. The average human being does not inherently dislike work.
2. External control and the threat of punishment are not the only means for bringing about effort toward organization objectives. man will exercise self-direction and self-control in the service of objectives to which he is committed.
3. Commitment to objectives is a function of the rewards associated with their achievement. The most significant of such rewards (e.g., the satisfaction of ego and self-actualization needs, and redirect products of effort directed toward organization objectives. )
4. The average human being learns, under proper conditions, not only to accept but to seek responsibility. Avoidance of responsibility, lack of ambition and emphasis on security are generally consequences of experience, not inherent human characteristics.
5. The capacity to exercise a relatively high degree of imagination, ingenuity, and creativity in the solution of organizational problems is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.
6. Under the conditions of modern industrial life, the intellectual potentialities of the average human being are only partially utilized. "
In a second part to this story, tomorrow I’ll review a documentary that outline has people with power such as the military, police, politicians and corporations tend to follow a familiar pattern when they are not held accountable for their actions and they frequently justify their behavior in terms similar to Theory X. For example, they tend to believe the solution to a high crime rate doesn’t involve figuring out why people are committing the crimes. Rather, the first thought is to force conformity through increasing the size of the police force or increasing the length of sentences. That is, instead of attempting to help those with less power, their first thought is to increase control over the less powerful. The same ideas also lead to wars. Instead of attempting to resolve conflicts, leaders frequently attempt to dominate their adversaries with military build-ups. Instead of demanding human rights for the less powerful, their is a tendency to allow the powerful to exploit the less powerful. Similarly, blame for problems is pointed out the less powerful. For example, teachers are to blame for poor educations as opposed to poor policies, poor administrators and underfunding.
These patterns suggest that individuals in leadership positions should be trained to not succumb to Theory X-like thinking and that appropriate safeguards should be put in place to insure that people who believe in Theory X are not given power and that people are removed from power when they begin to act as if they believe in Theory X. Professor Zimbardo believes that we should instead encourage creative heroism that involves seeing through the destructive dynamics of situations that elicit cruelty and step in to stop the power games.
by Todd Miller
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