Situationism: Let’s Clarify Some Things

Samuel’s most recent post is phrased with the language of disagreement, leading me to believe that he does not fully understand the extent to which his post fully agrees with both my views on the Situationism of war and with Situationism in general.

He quotes Joseph Heath on page 336 of Morality, Competition, and the Firm. One page earlier, however, Heath cites the most famous and profound Situationist social psychology experiment of all time, the Milgram experiments. Heath writes (all emphases mine, throughout):

Arendt’s observations about “the banality of evil” generated considerable outrage when first published. The Milgram experiments, it is worth recalling, were undertaken with the goal of disproving Arendt’s hypothesis, although in the end they wound up providing its most powerful confirmation. All of this suggests that there is actually an element of wishful thinking in the idea that “bad people do bad things.” Since the people who say this typically do not conceive of themselves as bad people, adherence to this theory is a way of putting some distance between themselves and those who perpetrate such acts, and thereby of avoiding the disquieting suggestion that they too are perfectly capable of inflicting great suffering on others.

“Wishful thinking” is sort of like a self-delusion, isn’t it? couldn’t possibly do the wrong thing, because I’m not a bad person. The problem here is that, again and again, after controlling for many individualized psychological factors, researchers find that perfectly good people are willing to deliver lethal levels of electric shock to innocent strangers if someone in a lab coat (or, in later versions of the experiment, even without a lab coat) simply prompts them to do so.

Heath continues:

Yet while a single, general theory of criminal motivation remains elusive, we have managed, over the course of the twentieth century, to do an enormous amount of debunking. In particular, the idea that criminals “don’t know right from wrong,” or that they were “not raised right,” or that they don’t “share our values” have all been decisively rejected. Furthermore, these claims have themselves become the object of suspicion, because they all have the effect of “othering” the criminal, suggesting that there is some kind of an instrinsic or essential difference between criminals and law-abiding citizens. This seems more likely to be a motivated belief imposed by the social psychology of punishment than an accurate characterization of the underlying structure of criminal motivation.

In fact, Philip Zimbardo defines evil to be “knowing better but acting worse.” Zimbardo, Heath, Arendt, Milgram, and many others have reached the same conclusion again and again, that what causes evil is not part of a person’s disposition, but rather exposure to a particular kind of situation.

What Situationism Is Not

Situationism is not a way to deflect individual moral responsibility. Situationism is not a way to blame forces outside of our control. Situationism is not a method of saying “the system made me do it.”

Situationism is also not a means to ascribe all behavior to the surrounding environment, rather than the acts of individuals. Samuel leads me to believe that this is what he had in mind when he wrote,

Reading Ryan’s post, I was left with the sense that he sees a situation’s influence over moral decision as inevitable, possibly even deterministic…

The problem with this argument comes back to the eternal question asked by criminologists: Why isn’t there more crime than there actually is? Given the state’s limited enforcement capacity, society depends on most people, most of the time behaving morally, i.e. of following the rules. If self-delusion were truly the rule, rather than the exception, civilization would collapse under a crisis of endemic shirking.

It goes without saying that peer pressure can only affect a person during moments when that person is exposed to it. Absent that exposure, we couldn’t ever blame peer pressure for anything.

And so it is with Situationism. Society generally follows the rules because we seldom find ourselves in situations that severely undermine our ability to tell right from wrong. Those situations arise when we are cast into new environments, as when adolescents enter junior high school (a notoriously difficult time in the lives of most teens). The new-ness of the situation draws people out of their own identities and forces them to deal with new stimuli in new ways. Is it any wonder so many young people cave to peer pressure?

It is not sitting in an Introduction to Philosophy course in college that turns formerly well-behaved kids into reckless frat-party rascals, it’s the exposure to the fraternity’s calculated initiation procedures and package-deal social dynamics. Caught up in a new and stressful situation, far away from home, and hungry to find a “true” identity, young people “experiment” in ways that aren’t always positive (as the many allegations of “rape culture” etc. aptly attest).

So Situationism is not a description of how any set of circumstances at all are to blame for individuals’ bad behavior, and if this is what Samuel had in mind when he wrote his post, he can rest assured that I agree with him.

What Situationism Is

Instead, Situationism is a set of theories that offer explanations for exactly how and why good people do bad things. They still bear responsibility for their actions, but psychologists aren’t as interested in assigning blame and enforcing justice as they are in explaining human behavior. Thus, if psychologists conclude that identifiable situational factors consistently produce certain human behavior, that is good information to know.

Furthermore, it’s not just “good to know” for the sake of our intellectual curiosity, it’s good to know because it provides us a means for avoiding evil in the future. If you know in advance that you are going to experience a certain kind of situation, you are better prepared to resist Situational influence. Furthermore, it is your moral responsibility to do so.

Ignorance of Situationism’s theories isn’t an excuse, of course, but once you have the knowledge that war means rape (to cite just one example), you  no longer have a moral justification for not applying influence-resisting techniques to situations you face.

This is part of what Dr. Zimbardo means when he says that Situationism does not excuse evil, it democratizes it. You, the reader, are now aware of Situational influence. You, the reader, are now morally on the hook for recognizing bad Situational influence when you see it, and resisting it.

It Can Happen To You

Samuel closes his most recent post with the following:

The upshot is that we shouldn’t stop holding people accountable for their actions just because the situation they somehow found themselves in made shirking their moral duties the path of least resistance. Indeed, just the opposite. Employing techniques of neutralization, as a self-serving behavior, should itself be an object of social sanction.

Moreover, it means there’s a chance we can preempt our techniques of neutralization by being aware of them, and by training ourselves in strategies that undercut self-delusion. That’s essentially what Joseph Heath argues business ethics courses should look like, rather than tired lessons in the history of moral philosophy. But in general it’s probably the sort of moral education we should all be subject to, starting as children.

Notice how similar his prescription is to mine (and Zimbardo’s).

There is, however, one key difference: Samuel’s perspective is still highly colored by dispositional reasoning. That is, for him, “neutralization” and self-serving behavior is a personal problem that we must be trained to overcome. It’s a flaw in ourselves which can be stamped-out with proper moral training.

My nitpick here is that this sort of reasoning leaves open the door for any moral analyst to say, “Well, Bob did a bad thing because he never trained himself to do good things.” This way of looking at things still provides an avenue for blaming bad apples rather than recognizing bad barrels. But a pivotal revelation of Situational analysis is that the same apple may be good or bad, depending on the barrel.

In Chapter 14 of The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo provides a full background history on Ivan “Chip” Frederick, one of the soldiers found guilty of abuse during the Abu Ghraib scandal. For decades, Frederick was the model of moral behavior. He was an exemplary civilian prison guard, beloved by family and friends alike. There was never a hint throughout his entire life of being the sort of person who would harm another human being, even despite his position as a national guardsman and a prison guard. He was a decorated and beloved soldier who was assigned to work at the Abu Ghraib prison precisely because of his record.

Once exposed to the conditions at Abu Ghraib, however, Frederick (like virtually everyone in that hell-hole) quickly fell apart. Absent of clear rules and chains of authority, Frederick no longer had a cohesive structure on which to fall back during times of intense stress. He raised this issue with his superiors, along with many others, to no avail. Absent any outside support, he who was once precisely the kind of person who excelled as a prison guard quickly deteriorated into the worst kind of guard imaginable.

It was not his weakness that caused his decline, nor was it his propensity to explain away his behavior internally. It’s doubtful that most people fully understand the conditions inside Abu Ghraib prison circa-2003. There was no indoor plumbing, and the outhouses were literally overflowing with raw sewage. The prison was not just over-crowded, it was over-flowing and impossible to manage. The prisoners – many of whom were innocent civilians imprisoned for no reason at all, including adolescents – staged frequent, violent riots and escape attempts. The prison suffered mortar attacks on a daily basis. Guards raped prisoners. Prisoners raped prisoners. Non-government contractors “interrogated” (read: tortured) prisoners to extract confessions from them. Clothing shortages and instances of self-harm resulted in a large number of prisoners being naked constantly.

The point here is that, if we take time to really try to understand that place and that situation, we will quickly understand that if we were there, we likely wouldn’t act anything like ourselves any more than Chip Frederick did. This is the horrible power of negative Situational influence.

Resisting Negative Influence

In reading Zimbardo’s book, I have been struck by some of the small, seemingly insignificant ways we can resist negative influence.

One of the interesting things to come out of the Stanford Prison Experiment was the observation that the prisoners, when not in the presence of any prison guards, only ever spoke to each other about the prison. They never talked to each other about who they were in real life, their families, their interests, their hobbies, and what they planned to do after the experiment ended. They only ever spoke to each other about prison conditions, the guards, and so on.

So, think about it. How often do you talk about your non-work-related interests and activities while you are at work? Most of us have been in employment situations that started to dominate our lives. We check in from our personal computers at home, even when not required to do so. We get involved in the office politics. We start to see Bob From Accounting as Bob From Accounting, rather than Bob Smith Who Coaches Soccer On The Weekends. You can be certain that, in those situations, people see you as Bob From Accounting, or Jane From Legal, or whatever the case may be.

This is Situational influence that is rather easy to resist by simply placing your identity outside of work in the forefront of your mind. Remind yourself, and others, who you really are. Talk about your family or what you did on the weekend. This one, small act can make a big difference if the Situation is volatile, and negative.

At, Zimbardo offers twenty “hints” for resisting influence. These simple pearls of wisdom can go a long way toward helping a person keep sight of their moral compass in stressful situations. They’re good tips, but in order to really prepare oneself for resisting this influence, it’s even better to understand the basic principles of social influence and how they are used. The website offers a good introduction to that process here.

I Sympathize With Adam

Adam’s story resonated with me, because I have a similar one of my own.

Many years ago, I befriended a number of my work colleagues. On one occasion, a small group of us headed over to my apartment for some drinks, intending to head out to a club a little later. We got to talking, casual conversation turned deep, and eventually one of my colleagues recounted a story of being physically abused – she said “beat down” – on a crowded public beach. The crowd did nothing to stop the abuse. Even when the beating was finished, no one came to help her even clean herself up.

No one did anything.

I learned later that my colleague was describing a very tragic and personal experience with what social psychologists call the bystander effect. When others are present, we are unlikely to help the victims of an attack. The more people present, the less likely we are to help. Sometimes we struggle to understand how innocent people can be hacked to death in the streets in front of literally hundreds of onlookers without anyone stepping in to help. The bystander effect explains this phenomenon.

At the time, I said to my colleague, “I can’t believe no one did anything.”

She chortled and said, “Nobody does anything.”

“I would have done something,” I said.

“Yeah, you say that,” she replied, “but when stuff like this happens, nobody ever does anything. You might think you’ll do something, but you won’t.”

I thought about that for a moment. Then I made a promise to her: “Because you said that, I’m going to make sure that I do something if I ever see something like that.” She didn’t believe me, but said she hoped I would.

I have not yet had the chance to fulfill my promise to my friend. However, our conversation made a permanent impact on my life. I am not certain that, when the time comes, I will indeed do what I promised to do. If I don’t, that failure will haunt me to my grave.

It wasn’t until I started reading The Lucifer Effect that I learned that the promise I made is one of Zimbardo’s recommended strategies for actually doing what I intend to do. He writes:

We also want to believe that there is something IN some people that drives them toward evil, while there is something different IN others that drives them toward good. It is an obvious notion but there is no hard evidence to support that dispositional view of evil and good, certainly not the inner determinants of heroism. There may be, but I need to see reliable data before I am convinced. Till then, I am proposing we focus on situational determinants of evil and good, trying to understand what about certain behavioral settings pushes some of us to become perpetrators of evil, others to look the other way in the presence of evil doers, tacitly condoning their actions and thus being guilty of the evil of inaction, while others act heroically on behalf of those in need or righting injustice. Some situations can inflame the “hostile imagination,” propelling good people to do bad deeds, while something in that same setting can inspire the “heroic imagination” propelling ordinary people toward actions that their culture at a given time determines is “heroic.” I argue in Lucifer and recent essays, that follow here, it is vital for every society to have its institutions teach heroism, building into such teachings the importance of mentally rehearsing taking heroic action—thus to be ready to act when called to service for a moral cause or just to help a victim in distress.

The best I can do is try. Until then, I argue that become better-equipped to recognize and deal with Situational influence is the best and most reliable means to prevent evil from happening, to overcome situations, and – with some hard work – overturn the systems that keep these situations intact.


2 thoughts on “Situationism: Let’s Clarify Some Things

  1. Jeffrey S.


    Well, we will have to agree to disagree about what exact situations lead to evil; that said, this was a very good and thought-provoking piece. I think it echoes a lot of what this article says in relation to the original Milgram experiment:

    My only quibble would be that I wonder to what extent someone like Zimbrado looked at religious background/ethical worldview as a factor in helping people overcome bad situations? When I think about the heroic efforts of people to do good in the face of long odds or in bad situations, I think of deeply religious people who have an ethical worldview informed by their faith.

    1. Jeffrey, you know me to be an atheist, but you might be happy to know that Philip Zimbardo is a devout Catholic, and he believes religious moral foundations are critical for human happiness and morality. (I hope I haven’t mischaracterized his views – that is my impression of having read some of his work.)

      If you follow the links in the blog post above, you’ll see that part of Zimbardo’s Lucifer Effect website is called “The Lucifer Effect Theology Blog.” (Find it here: )

      So, at least for the Zimbardo strain of social psychology, there is plenty of room for believers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.