When Don't We Buy What Research Is Selling?

Most of us buy into "research shows..." messages when the evidence links negative health outcomes to our everyday actions. Smoking declined when it became clear that smoking caused lung cancer and other ills. Diets changed when sugar, salt and trans-fats were exposed as implicated in obesity and diabetes. We buckled up more when we became aware of greater auto accident fatalities without seat belt protection. However, we are more likely to accept and act on such information about our physical health than on research-based messages related to our mental health. Why?

There seems to be powerful silent barriers to dealing with new truths emanating from psychological laboratories and field experiments that tell us things about how the mind works, which challenge our basic assumptions. We want to believe our decisions are wisely informed, that our actions are rational, that our personal conscience buffers us against tyrannical authorities, and also in the dominating influence of our character despite social circumstances. Yes, those personal beliefs are sometimes true, but often they are not, and rigidly defending them can get us in trouble individually and collectively. Let's see how.

Many important decisions of all kinds, from financial to social to political, are often based on mental shortcuts, simple heuristics, like more true if familiar, or right if easily available to recall. Nobel Prizewinner, Daniel Kahneman, has been telling that to us for decades (and now in his best seller, Thinking, Fast and Slow) -- but we don't heed his advice to think slow and surer. Then when we make a bad decision, cognitive dissonance takes over to justify and rationalize essentially irrational decisions. (Solution in six magic words: "I'm sorry. I made a mistake.")

When we discover two of three ordinary American citizens administered extreme electric shocks to an innocent victim on the relentless commands of a heartless authority, we say, "No way, not me." Milgram's obedience to authority research has been in the public arena for decades, yet we ignore its message of the power of unjust authority in undercutting our moral conscience. Similarly, the Stanford prison experiment research made vivid the power of hostile situational forces in overwhelming dispositional tendencies toward compassion and human dignity. Still, many who insist on honoring the dominance of character over circumstance reject its situational power message.

In 2004, people around the world witnessed online photos of horrific actions of American Military Police guards in Iraq's Abu Ghraib Prison against prisoners in their charge. It was portrayed as the work of a "few bad apples" according to military brass and Bush administration spokesmen. I publicly challenged this traditional focus on individual dispositions by portraying American servicemen as good apples that were forced to operate in a Bad Barrel (the Situation) created by Bad Barrel Makers (the System). I became an expert witness in the defense of the Staff Sergeant in charge of the night shift, where all the abuses took place. In that capacity I had personal access to the defendant, to all 1000 photos and videos, to all dozen military investigations, and more. It was sufficient to validate my view of that prison as a replica of the Stanford prison experiment -- on steroids, and my defendant, Chip Frederick, as a really Good Apple corrupted by being forced to function 12-hours every night for many months in the worse barrel imaginable. My situation-based testimony to the military Court Martial hearings helped reduce the severity of his sentence.

What is special about the The Stanford Prison Experiment movie is the way it enables viewers to look through the observation window as if they were part of the prison staff watching this remarkable drama slowly unfold, and simultaneously observe those observers as well. They are witnesses to the gradual transformations taking place, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, and guard-shift-by-guard-shift. Viewers see, what readers of my Lucifer Effect book account can only imagine. As these young students become the characters inhabited in their roles and dressed in their costumes, as prisoners or guards, a Pirandellian drama emerges.

The fixed line between good, like us, and evil, like them, is relentlessly blurred as it becomes ever more permeable. Ordinary guys soon slip into doing extraordinarily bad things to other guys, who are actually just like them except for a random coin flip. Other healthy guys soon get sick mentally, being unable to cope with the learned helplessness imposed on them in that unique, unfamiliar setting. They do not offer comfort to their buddies as they break down, nor do those who adopt a "good guard" persona ever do anything to limit the sadistic excesses of the cruel guards heading their shifts.

Finally, the movie also tracks the emotional changes in the lead character -- me -- as his compassion and intellectual curiosity get distilled and submerged over time. The initial roles of research creator-objective observer are dominated by power and insensitivity to prisoner suffering in the new role of prison superintendent. The six-day process of transformations in the original experiment is crunched down to two hours, but the magic of the movie's acting, directing and editing psychologically expands that time frame's full force.

We feel the power of social situations dominating personalities; as viewers are encouraged to ponder:

What kind of guard would I be?
What kind of prisoner?
What kind of superintendent?

And would I have blown the whistle to end this drama sooner, or not?

My hope is that this movie can do what my writings about this special research into human nature have not been fully able to do. Perhaps now viewing and reliving this adventure will enable the general public to better appreciate the value of what "research shows" about mind, behavior and the pervasive power of situational forces.

I should add that my new mission in life has been to empower everyone to wisely resist negative situational forces and evil by becoming Everyday Heroes in Training. Our non-profit Heroic Imagination Project (HIP) teaches ordinary people how to stand up, speak out and take effective actions in challenging situations in their lives.

Working and learning together, we can create a new generation of ordinary everyday heroes who will do extra-ordinary deeds of daily heroism in their families, schools, businesses, and communities.