This article first appeared at The Behaviour Guy.
You might have heard of Zimbardo.
His Mephistophelian countenance has graced nearly every psychology textbook for the past 40 years, primarily alongside a passage, page, or even chapter about his (in)famous experiment.
The Stanford Prison Experiment
You can find details a great documentary here and I won’t rehash the details. The Wiki page also has loads of details to satisfy your curiosity.
Now if you’ve ever done a Psych degree, read a book on psychology, or otherwise spent five minutes with someone who knows something about psychology then you’ll have heard the near apocryphal tale about the Prison Experiment and how it proves one, simple thing; Our endless capacity for evil.
Indeed Zimbardo wrote a book on the whole thing, titled The Lucifer Effect. It’s a great book. Worth a read.
Now many people in the behavioural community are sceptical about this experiment. And there are some worthy criticisms out there but I don’t want this post to be a criticism.
Rather a re-evaluation.
What if the Prison Experiment actually suggests that people play the roles we give them.
This recent post at bSci21 makes a similar point in relation to something called Behaviour Plans. Briefly, the blog post discusses how starting from a negative makes people act negatively.
Ask yourself the following question; when you see an accusatory sign “We’re watching you”, or a prevention campaign that assumes your innate stupidity how do you feel? Do you feel empowered to not behave badly – or do you feel like you’re being taunted. Like you want to lash out in order to prove them wrong?
People respond to expectations
People respond to our expectations of them. We act according to a set of rules and heuristics associated with a role. This helps explain why some people become caricatures of a stereotype.
When we want to reduce certain behaviours in public treating people like criminals and threatening them for their behaviour is highly ineffective. In the world of linear logic it makes sense. A punishment is a deterrent, right?
Yet, in the world of behaviour change and persuasion there is something else going on. We are being told, on an almost unconscious level, that we should act in a certain way because that’s who we are.
I’ll leave you with a final example
Imagine you are starting a new job in a new career. You are unskilled, nervous, unsure of yourself. In our first example lets say you start and the receptionist rolls her eyes at your stuttering explanation, “Newbies go report to HR” she says, dryly. “A..and where exactly…” you stammer, “Follow the signs” she says and pointedly turns to her computer screen.
You arrive at HR and are forced to watch a 20 minute presentation about all the things you can get fired for “…and don’t even think about stealing from the stationary cupboard, we just put a reinforced lock on that door and the only person with access is Mark and he has a 20 point form you have to fill in to prove you need it. Too many people have lied about that…” and on it goes.
You’re whole day basically becomes this presentation. Everyone you meet telling you exactly what not to do. About how newbies suck. About how it’s a pain to train people up. About how if they knew then what they knew now they’d have gone into their parents cupcake bakery business and not this crap place.
You know the drill. Right? We’ve all had some experience of this kind of job. Sucks, right?
So lets flip our universe inside out and have a different day altogether.
You arrive to work, still nervous, and the receptionist smiles, she points you in the direction of HR.
The HR director greets you warmly, “The dept. heads agree you’re a great fit for this place” he enthuses. “We value honesty”, he says, “and hard work”. He smiles at you again. “We treat our staff with respect and expect the same back”.
You leave his office with a firm handshake and reassurance that it might take a few days to find your feet, but don’t worry about it. The first person you meet, Daisy, is head of a small team. She’s been assigned to train you and she’s read your CV. She’s excited to get to know you, she says. “It’s been a while since we’ve had someone as interesting as you”, she exclaims.
That day you spend being introduced to everyone by Daisy. You shake a dozen or more hands. All smiles. At the end of the day Daisy tells you it’s time to leave, you pack your things and shake her hand. You’re excited to come back tomorrow. “Oh, one last thing” she says, you look back at her, “Stationary cupboard is over there, we keep it unlocked though – no ones stolen anything in years!” and she happily turns back to her work.
Hopefully you can see why reality B is preferable.