Magazine

A Point of View: Why people give in to temptation when no-one's watching

  • 20 September 2013
  • From the section Magazine
Apple bite

Why are apparently good people tempted to commit evil acts, asks novelist AL Kennedy.

I spend a lot of time in hotels. They offer many temptations and although, like most people, I believe I'm more than averagely honest, nevertheless temptation does prove, on occasion, tempting. Well, it would.

These days, mini-bars are often left both warm and aggressively empty to circumvent thefts, but since I have no interest in any mini-bar's contents I feel this bespeaks a hurtful lack of trust. And I wouldn't - unlike some acquaintances - steal a towel, no matter how snowy, or unscrew a light fitting and take it home. But in a hotel corridor, if someone has happened to leave a room service trolley unattended and the biscuits in my room are horrible and there are all these packs of Bourbon creams just lying there and they are for guests and I am a guest and I would even bring the bloody fruit Shrewsburys that were in my room back (and I'd point out they're not fruit Shrewsbury, they've got some currants, they're mummified and sparse fruit corpse Shrewsburys) and I would possibly swap the Shrewsburys for the Bourbon creams which would be fair, but I know that, yes, my biscuit appropriation is still technically stealing… And I have helped myself to Bourbon creams, which is to say, stolen them. Once or twice.

I did wrong. Because I was unobserved. No one was watching me.

And I'm not alone in behaving badly when I know I'm unobserved. When psychologists test how people behave with and without oversight, it becomes depressingly clear that if we think nobody's looking, we don't even remotely always let our conscience be our guide. And this means we do bad things, sometimes extremely bad things. And our doing of bad things and how preventable this is has fascinated me all my life.

We inhabit an age when the complaint, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" is often voiced. It's a question I find slightly pointless, because perceived goodness is no defence against physics. How could it be? And because sometimes other apparently good people are making the bad things happen.

After World War II showed our species just how many hells on earth it could create, a whole generation of researchers devoted themselves to what I find a much more vital question. "Why do apparently good and normal people do abnormal and appalling things ?" Interestingly, those post-war researchers - psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists - found answers to that question. They found reliable, repeatable results which offer a map we could follow to better places, a guide we could offer to children everywhere, as necessary as instructions on how to cross roads safely - how to be human safely, how not to behave like a sociopath.

Image caption The trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann spotlighted how "normal people" might carry out horrendous acts

But in fact, much of the research has been forgotten or misunderstood and we continue to put human beings into desperately toxic situations which can make them go astray. If, for example, we remember Stanley Milgram's name at all, we associate it with an experiment that apparently proved one person can be persuaded to electrocute another with horrifying ease, sometimes even beyond the level at which shocks would be fatal. Of course, the allegedly instructional shocks Milgram had volunteers administer were fake and their recipients only pretended to be in pain. He was testing how obedient volunteer "teachers" would be to an authority figure's instructions, even when being told to carry out apparently immoral acts.

Controversially, he and his team found that even very normal, pleasant people can delegate their morality to other people who appear to be in charge, even of bizarre and disturbing scenarios, in fact especially then. When we're in unfamiliar and stressful circumstances, we very often turn to authority figures. This human tendency wouldn't set us up for all manner of dark falls if all of our authority figures were saints. But they're not. And unfortunately no one is putting Milgram on the national curriculum any time soon.

Milgram also experimented to see how affected we were by other people's pain and found - comfortingly - that someone screaming through an intercom would upset us less than someone writhing in agony next to us. So, in a way, he proved we're moral, but easily misled - compassionate, but easily dissociated. And you might think governments and institutions in every sane country would take these two factors into account in order to help us treat each other well. But they don't. We distance ourselves from each other and take important decisions about people we don't know, can't identify with, or treat fairly. We defer to all manner of authorities, no matter how unhinged, and we do not prosper as a result.

Philip Zimbardo, who designed the Stanford Prison Experiment, is also often misunderstood. His experiment arbitrarily gave volunteers positions either as guards, or prisoners in a clearly fake prison and then watched how they behaved. Very quickly, the guards behaved like guards and the prisoners like prisoners, the fake set became a real and dangerous world of escalating cruelties. Experimenters watched their prison come to increasingly ugly life, but their assigned task was not to intervene. In the prison, stress was high and guidelines unclear.

Any sense of a moral world outside slipped away. Abuse of power, humiliation and small tortures began to blossom - not within months, but within days. Both scientists and volunteers became locked in a dark spiral, descending. Only an outsider intervening - a sensible lady whom Zimbardo later married - prevented perhaps serious wrongdoing by reminding the researchers they could abort the experiment. But Zimbardo and the others were doing what many of us tend to - fitting in, behaving like cleverly social animals, repeating and reinforcing the behaviour we see around us. We tend to assume that what's being done must be what should be done. We'll embrace fashions, or fashionably deny them, put grills on our teeth, we'll even ignore a real live fire if we're in a crowd, just because everyone else is, so that must be okay.

In short, we know the recipe for harmful behaviour - stress, poor or absent guidelines, a strict hierarchy with dissociation from others and from the consequences of our actions, established group culture and lack of oversight. These factors create sick workplaces, rogue military units, feral banks, abusive care homes, abusive marriages, countries apparently consumed by madness. Surveys now show bankers and doctors amongst the least trusted professions. They used to be touchstones of reliability - what happened? Highly influential bad situations happened.

And when we consider the UK's politicians - stressed by intense competition and workloads in an environment that makes Gormenghast look like Butlins, led to believe they're a class apart, working in a gilded palace where they operate, in some senses, literally above the law… It's a testament to their moral fibre that they don't eat constituents in the lobbies.

But, naturally, if there's a recipe for wrongdoing, there's a recipe to encourage its opposite. Reverse all the above. Really. Remove stress and moral uncertainty, promote leadership ahead of dictatorship, introduce collaboration, guidelines, support, keep humanity's humanity and action's consequences in view. And introduce appropriate oversight. Ever wondered why sending a postcard to someone unjustly imprisoned can improve their conditions? Partly because it lets their guards know someone's watching. Why do you think our idea of God has that omnipotent reputation? Partly because God watches everything.

Are we likely to actually learn from what we know about ourselves, the scared, over-dressed monkeys we can be? Probably not. But if you have a go at it, I promise I'll try, too. No more pilfered Bourbon creams for me. And I'll tell my godchildren about Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo and all the rest, because they deserve a kind future where good people like them can do good things.

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