04 April 2007

You're evil. Have a nice day!

Two interesting items caught my attention in the last few days / weeks, and while they don't really have much to do with one another, I think together they make quite fascinating statements on human nature and social behavior. Those of you who know me realize (and tolerate) my social psychologist tendencies - I am addicted to watching, analyzing (often over-analyzing) people in various circumstances. (I will also fully admit to falling prey to a slightly narcissistic habit of hyper-analyzing myself as well.)

The first piece of media is a recent NPR "This American Life" program called "The Allure of the Mean Friend" (originally aired 9/5/2003, and re-aired 3/23/2007.) To quote the description of the program:

What is it about them, our mean friends? They treat us badly, they don't call us back, they cancel plans at the last minute, and yet we come back for more. Popular bullies exist in business, politics, everywhere. How do they stay so popular?

Prologue: We hear kids recorded at Chicago's Navy Pier and at a public swimming pool, talking about their mean friends. Host Ira Glass interviews Lillie Allison, 15, about the pretty, popular girls who were her best friends — until they cast her out.

Act One. Return to the Scene of the Crime: Jonathan Goldstein interrogates the girls, now grown up, who terrorized him and his classmates years ago in school — and finds they can be just as scary as ever.

I have spoken to numerous people about this, and some of them do admit to a certain allure of people who are - for lack of a better way to qualify what I understand of this - emotionally abusive. I guess I'm lucky enough to be in a situation where I've never suffered from emotional abuse (perhaps emotional neglect, but I don't think outright abuse.) I do admit, however, that I do have friends who I feel are a tad too judgmental and say things that I feel are inappropriate. But am I drawn to them? Honestly, usually I'm simply embarrassed for them, and feel badly that they have no sense of empathy or decency to keep their negative and unhelpful opinions to themselves. Granted, if I have a wad of spinach stuck to my front tooth during a party, I hope that someone will tell me, and not in any unkind way... But beyond that, I don't think I have an innate desire to surround myself with particularly mean people. Even in high school (which is when the bulk of the first parts of the NPR story was based), I thought that the mean people were just that - mean - and not the least bit alluring anyway...

Do you think perhaps that attraction to mean people really feeds on a sort of dependent personality type? Or is being mean a reflection of our society's judgment of the value of the 'if it bleeds it leads' mentality, where cruelty garners great ratings? (I'm thinking Simon from American Idol here.) I honestly don't understand this (and honesty requires that I disclose that I have never watched American Idol, either.)

Further, I don't understand why a) one would want to be a victim of such abuse, or b) why one would want to be cruel to another person. It seems to me that the world is cruel enough without adding fuel to the fire. After all, Paula Abdul is the "nice" judge, and she's constantly fighting off rumors of substance abuse, drunkenness and plain, basic stupidity. (Why can't she just be 'a nice person' with a strange personality? No no, let's blame her 'niceness' on drugs, while Simon's 'honesty' gets lavish praise and a million-dollar-plus contract.) Apparently in the modern world we live in, being 'nice' is overrated, and being 'mean' gets a positive response.

And thus, apparently, I'm screwed, because (hold on, this will throw you for a loop).... I actually like being a nice person. (*gasp*)

I know, I know... I'm going to end up at the bottom of the heap for a lot of things because I'm "nice", and "polite" and have a certain amount of empathy for people's feelings. I know I won't ever be at the top of a massive corporation, or even at the top of a social hierarchy of any sort except my nephews' when we have 'dessert first dinner' nights.

But you know what else? I don't really care if you don't like me being a nice person. Because in the end, I like being nice, and if you don't like me because of that, you can just go f*ck yourself.


The second item that caught my attention recently was an interview in yesterday's NY Times with Phillip G. Zimbardo (click here for the entire article). He was, for all of you who missed out on Psychology 101, a social psychologist who created the extremely controversial and now legendary Stanford Prison Experiment (S.P.E.) in 1971. In his words:

In the summer of 1971, we set up a mock prison on the Stanford University campus. We took 23 volunteers and randomly divided them into two groups. These were normal young men, students. We asked them to act as “prisoners” and “guards” might in a prison environment. The experiment was to run for two weeks.

By the end of the first day, nothing much was happening. But on the second day, there was a prisoner rebellion. The guards came to me: “What do we do?” “It’s your prison,” I said, warning them against physical violence.

The guards then quickly moved to psychological punishment, though there was physical abuse, too. In the ensuing days, the guards became ever more sadistic, denying the prisoners food, water and sleep, shooting them with fire-extinguisher spray, throwing their blankets into dirt, stripping them naked and dragging rebels across the yard. How bad did it get? The guards ordered the prisoners to simulate sodomy.

Why? Because the guards were bored. Boredom is a powerful motive for evil.

First off, that the last sentence terrifies me. Since when does boredom create evil? When I'm bored, I don't dream of doing horrible things to people. (Okay, so that's not entirely true of every bored moment in the last year of my life, but social circumstances at the time did provide some fodder for that, you have to admit!) Now, when I'm bored, I like to read books or papers, or see shows, or dance around my apartment with my iPod doing irreparable damage to my eardrums. Did these 'guards' not have any books?

He also ties his logic and reasoning of this misbehavior into an explanation for the horrible abuses witnessed at Abu Ghraib. The combination of long shifts with no time off, overcrowded, filthy and dangerous living conditions combined with lack of clear directives on how to handle prisoners lead to the inevitable abuses, Dr. Zimbardo claims. (In fact, the photos in the article of the S.P.E. abuses and the photos from Abu Ghraib are terrifying in their similarity. Eek.) Basically, his theory is that if you put good apples in bad situations, you get bad apples... and this was a perfect example of that effect in 'real life.' Only this time, there was no psychology professor available to pull the plug when abuses got out of hand.

Lest we fear no redemption from our evil ways, Dr. Z says:

"... Human behavior is more influenced by things outside of us than inside. The "situation” is the external environment. The inner environment is genes, moral history, religious training. There are times when external circumstances can overwhelm us, and we do things we never thought. If you’re not aware that this can happen, you can be seduced by evil. We need inoculations against our own potential for evil. We have to acknowledge it. Then we can change it."
Fascinating... we need inoculations against our own evil. So by this description, the first step in overcoming our innate (and apparently unavoidable) evil is to acknowledging the fact that we have the natural tendency in the first place. (Is this beginning to sound like an AA meeting of sorts: "Hi, my name is Beth, and I'm innately evil." "Hi, Beth!")

Something of this theme was echoed in one of the most disturbing books I've read of late, called "Blindness" by Jose Saramago. It won the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature, but for the life of me I cannot figure out where this bleak, depressing perspective on human nature qualifies as "peaceful", unless you take it as a warning to use as a personal 'inoculation' against our own evil nature.

The two articles were a fascinating dichotomy to me... In the first place, I don't want to be a mean person. But apparently if I get bored, I won't necessarily be able to avoid the allure of being evil. Then again, if I'm evil, do you think more people would like me? Hmmm...

Honestly, I would ruminate on this more, but I think my brain just shut down. Plus this posting is now officially way too long. So I suppose this is just something I'll have to think about while taking a bath this evening.... and trying to avoid becoming bored / evil.


Totally random quote du jour, from an email I received today: "Oh, and boobs. Don't let me forget to borrow your boobs."

hee hee


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