Tit for Tat doesn’t work: Systemic disobedience through situational awareness

The Stanford prison experiment made it very clear how good, honest, and kind people can be influenced by situations to commit atrocities when they bury themselves in an assigned role and lose their sense of personal identity.

For people in power and authority, obedience can be influenced by taking away the individuality of people through subtle means or force.

Culturally accepted semiotics plays a huge role in psychologically influencing people to make sense of the world around them- which also includes obeying the authority of people and systems through group pressures.

Our society is built on obedience and we are subject to this since childhood. In the developmental years of children, they are expected to follow the rules laid out by their parents and teachers without resistance. The display of this behavior is rewarded to comfort them as they make peace with their lack of freedom, not being taken seriously, and lack of responsibility from being active participants in the community.

In most cultures, children are not allowed to be independent thinkers. In contrast, young children in Japan are encouraged to commute by themselves, look after their school, and be outstanding citizens of their community.

Would allowing children to exercise their freedom of speech and respecting their opinions help them question authority at later stages of their lives?

In 1970, Phil Zimbardo published a monograph entitled “The Human Choice: Individuation, Reason, and Order Versus Deindividuation, Impulse, and Chaos.”, listing conditions that increase the chances of deindividuation: anonymity, diffused responsibility, group involvement, sensory input overload, physical involvement in the act, among others.

Zimbardo proposed that, when taken together, these factors can lead to deindividuation — a state in which behavior is relatively unrestrained, and sometimes potentially violent.

A system built on conformity and obedience makes rules for a deindividuated society while using the people’s beliefs and emotions for politics to ensure obedience to the prejudiced rules.

This is apparent in the current scenario of protests around the world.

Both sides playing out the roles set by authority are victims of the system we have created. A system for which obedience has been ingrained since childhood.

We need to hold people accountable for the violation of human rights, we also need to change the system we’ve created to ensure a better future that is built on abundance & celebration of differences.

Perhaps apart from just blaming people’s disposition, it’s time we also consider situations and look at a system-level change that starts with the developmental years of children to the governing bodies.

We need to guard ourselves against situational factors that can lead us to behave in destructive ways.

The Fundamental attribution error is also largely responsible for our problems. Attributing someone’s behavior to their personality or disposition over the situation can restrict and bias judgment.

I believe that people are 100% responsible for their actions and must be held accountable for them with the appropriate punishment as dictated by the law.

At the same time, we need to look at how powerful the situations created by the system are that nurture the tolerance of these repetitive atrocities and rely on psychic numbing to bury it under the metaphorical carpet that the age of information overload provides.

In the Stanford prison experiment, the guards were influenced by the power of authority where their impulse to be sadistic emerged as they deindividuated the prisoners who were innocent college students just like them.

At the same time, instead of viewing the guards as victims of the situation, the prisoners committed fundamental attribution error in their judgment which led to dissent contributing to the sadistic impulses of the guards. As their dissent died down, they accepted the authority and the sadistic nature of the commands as the new normal.

People behave in a certain way from the thin-slice judgments they make about others. With the judgment in context, They behave with others in anticipation of confirming their expectations about them which eventually does occur. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As Dr. Zimbardo puts it, “the study makes a very profound point about the power of situations: that situations affect us much more than we think..human behavior is much more under the control of subtle situational forces — in some cases very trivial ones, like rules and roles and symbols and uniforms — and much less under the control of things like character and personality traits that we ordinarily think as determining behavior.”

System change is important but what can we do to win back our individuality in the face of deindividuation today?

We cannot control situations, but we can control how we react to them.

A tit-for-tat response only aggravates the situation because projecting expectations only amplifies the chances of confirmation.

Here are three ways you can help bring change to the system:

1. DON'T BE THE PERPETRATOR

To prevent being a perpetrator, it is essential to think about the consequences of your actions and the effect they would have on real people before you take a harsh step.

  • Is it an act that has to be done because it comes from an authority figure?
  • Who are the real people it could potentially impact and how?
  • Does the act go against your beliefs as a human?

2. DEFY WITH DIGNITY

To gain back their identity, victims can find ways to preserve their dignity within the situation where they face deindividuation.

Whether it works on the perpetrator or not, it inspires others who watch from the sidelines to participate and lets them know the best way they can go about it because dissent from a few can still dramatically reduce the pressure that other people feel to conform.

3. DON’T FORGET THE REST

No minority can be forgotten as we focus on another. Everyone should have a voice and deserves to be heard. The powerful seek to provide a distraction to carry out their real motives. As the world seems to burn, they are building another that temporarily satisfies the conditions demanded from the previous one while working to make the power of authority even more invisible but much stronger than the one before.

Systemically influenced situations cannot be viewed in isolation to one cause. They have to be viewed as exactly what they are- a system problem.

A system that survives on obedience to build a capitalistic economy that thrives on scarcity, greed, and egocentricity.

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Design researcher, strategic designer, and an avid bird watcher on a quest to find connections between human and bird societies. twitter/@vaishnavikumarr

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Vaishnavi Kumar

Vaishnavi Kumar

Design researcher, strategic designer, and an avid bird watcher on a quest to find connections between human and bird societies. twitter/@vaishnavikumarr

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