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The Narrator Changes the Story

aybala50's picture

As human’s weclassify people as good, bad, and even evil. What most of us don’t realize isthat most of us are capable of all of these emotions. Any random person on thisplanet, put in the right situation, can act in complete evilness in theirtreatment of other human beings. Many psychological problems such as AntisocialPersonality Disorder are studied widely with the purpose of figuring outwhether environment or genetics creates the unwanted aspect of behavior.Although it has been proven that genetics or even chemical imbalances producecertain behavior in people, there is also evidence showing that situationspeople are put in can drastically affect their behaviors. This can be seen invarious places including the way members of the Nazi Germany army followed theorders of a man like Adolf Hitler, in Stanley Milgram’s experiment, and inPhilip Zimbardo’s experiment.

            Itis well known that during World War II Adolf Hitler led a Nazi Germany into thecountless murders of a Jewish people. Though many agree that Adolf Hitlerhimself was evil, it has been widely argued about why the regular German peoplewho were a part of the Nazi army committed such gruesome acts. Regular everydaymen fought on the side of Hitler, whether by choice or not, and behaved in suchways that is considered inhumane or even evil. These soldiers spent most oftheir time amongst people like themselves, but at the end of their shift wenthome to their wives and children. These soldiers were ordinary people whosomehow accepted the role they were placed in. Why did these soldiers committhe torture and murder of so many people, without as much of a second thought?It is not because they were evil it is because of the situation they were putin. Many aspects of the conditions during this time played a role in thispuzzle. Their leader, Adolf Hitler, though now considered evil, was in theposition of power. He knew how to use his words to persuade others intobelieving his thoughts and beliefs. He was good at what he did and because ofthis the soldiers chose to follow him. Their life was a part of a story and thebrain that belonged to the body who was unsatisfied with the acts beingcommitted altered the story to be more pleasing. The soldiers were able to keepliving their regular lives, whether with some guilt or not, because their minddenied complete responsibility which was given to another source, possibly Hitler.After the events of World War II there were several studies with the purpose ofdiscovering the reasoning behind such irrational behavior.

            StanleyMilgram was a psychologist at Yale University that conducted Social Psychologyexperiments. He was interested in the events of World War II that involved theNazi soldiers and how Hitler made ordinary people commit such evil acts. Theexperiment was conducted to see to what extent the participants would obey anauthority figure, which was a person in a lab coat. The experiment includedthree people: the learner, the teacher, and the experimenter. The teacher was asubject and the learner as well as the experimenter were a confederate to thestudy. Milgram measured how far the ‘teacher’ would go in obeying the person inthe lab coat (experimenter) even if it meant hurting the other confederate(learner). This study was the first conducted after World War II that showedthat regular people are capable of inhumane acts. In this study 65% of thesubjects rendered shock levels of 450 volts to the learners. Hence 65% of theregular people who participated in this experiment gave the greatest amount ofshock level that was possible even though they believed that the learner was ingreat pain that could even be fatal.

            Milgram’sstudies show that a reason why the Nazi soldiers obeyed Hitler was because hewas in a position of authority. As humans we are programmed to followauthority. We are also programmed to accept the role we are put in. We aremeant to survive, our brain tells us that we have to survive and if survivalmeans behaving in certain ways that you usually wouldn’t then so be it.

            PhilipZimbardo’s study was similarly aimed at human behavior when put in certainsituations. Zimbardo’s subjects included college students. In a simulatedprison in a basement, Zimbardo’s subjects were randomly assigned the role ofeither a prisoner or a guard. The prisoner’s job was 24/7, they were to remainin the prison. The guards however were assigned shifts and had the opportunityto leave and go home during the experiment. The study, very quickly, showedthat the subjects accepted their roles and started acting their parts. Theguards started treating the prisoners cruelly with the purpose of humiliatingthem. The prisoners were forced to clean toilets with bare hands, amongst otherthings. The same acceptance of role was visible with the prisoners. None of theprisoners reacted in a way that made it clear that this was purely anexperiment. None of them refused what the guards were making them do. Some ofthe prisoners even had breakdowns and were forced to leave the experimentprematurely. This experiment, similar to Milgrams shows that regular people canbehave in cruel ways when put in the right situation, just as the guards andNazi soldiers did. The study, unlike Milgrams shows the aspect of being put inthe role of a prisoner.            

            Inthe study, the subjects who were placed in the role of prisoners lost all hope.These people, unlike the prisoners in concentration camps had the freedom ofleaving. This study, to them was just a simulation of a prison. At no pointwere their lives in actual danger. Hence it can only be assumed that theirreactions to the situation are nothing compared to those prisoners in Naziconcentration camps. The devastation and fear the fake prisoners portrayed werevery real. Zimbardo’s study shows the effect being put in a weaker role has ona regular human being. Hence, while as humans we are all capable of evil acts,we are all also capable of becoming creatures of fear and humiliation.

            Zimbardo’sstudies support the idea of human need for a leader. There are all sorts ofdifferent people, but when it comes down to it, human’s search for a leader tofollow. This happens especially in a hopeless situation. In my opinion, beingin a place like war, or in the position of a teacher in Milgram’s experiment,people don’t want full responsibility. Our brain tells us that followingother’s orders creates a ‘diffusion of responsibility’. With this the feelingof guilt that would normally arise from such torturous behavior goes away.People feel less guilty and almost like a victim. They were forced into this.They trusted their leader, they believed in him, and they were tricked. Theyare the victims.

            Asdiscussed in class our brains control our behavior. If a behavior we commitdoesn’t make sense to us, then our brain makes up a story for us. In SocialPsychology there are many theories about what happened in the situation ofWorld War II with Hitler and his army. These theories have been well studiedand are supported with empirical evidence. However, it is important to realizethat our brain predicts our behavior. Whether people are aware of it or not,our brain tells us how to behave, and when the story is unsatisfactory, thebrain comes up with a new one. 



Paul Grobstein's picture

people being people; can the brain help?

"being in a place like war, people don’t want full responsibility"

How can we change the story?  Is the solution to persuade people to accept "full responsbility" or to try and prevent people being put in such places, or .... ?