Hello, old friend. Has it really been five years? You may recall that I took your "Psychology of Mind Control" course in 1995.
I learned so much from you that continues to influence my views. That year, while we were studying advertising techniques, you assigned a paper in which we were to create a marketing scheme for a tobacco company. Our job was to improve sales using the principles learned in your class. It was clear to me that you assigned the paper as an exercise in ethics. (I am still amazed that so many people fell for the ruse.) I wrote the paper you wanted: I flatly refused to create the marketing scheme and instead gave you an analysis of the principles of influence you exercised in assigning the paper, why writing the paper would violate certain ethical tenets, yada yada yada. I got an A+. You were proud. I could control minds, but I'd only do it for a good cause.
Fast-forward five years, and I'm driving through the San Fernando Valley, having just met with some dot-com about its phone-switch vectors, of all things. I'm a marketing consultant. I'm rushing home to complete the materials for my newest client, which happens to be--you guessed it--a tobacco company. I've been working on this stuff for two weeks. Suddenly, I remember your project from "Mind Control" and realize that these materials are almost exactly the same as the faux paper you assigned. Only now it was for real, and this time I was willing to go along.
Here I was, adroitly applying the techniques of influence I'd learned in your class to peddle tobacco--techniques I was supposed to use to reform public education, better the prison system, feed the hungry and generally be a good guy who did good things. Was I, at 26, already losing my ideals?
On the one hand, I knew that what I was doing was absolutely wrong. An overall sales increase for the tobacco company could mean more people would get cancer. On the other hand, my consulting firm was pleased with my work. They had given me this client as a sign of faith in my ability to handle pressure and big business. I was getting paid a lot of money. The tobacco company salespeople and top executives had been informed of my apparent wizardry and were expecting my presentation in five days.
That night, I was unable to work, having been rendered ill by my crisis of conscience. (Is there such a thing as intestinal dissonance?) I kept thinking that everyone was counting on me. It was as if my allegiances were wrestling with each other. On one side were my co-workers and the president of my firm, who was already talking about my potential as a partner. On the other were my parents, you and all the other professors I'd admired in school who had fought for my intellectual soul.
So who won? Here's where things get complicated. I wish I could say I just told the whole office crowd to piss off and went down in a blaze of glory, my red badge of ethics intact. But I didn't. For the moment, I took the path almost everyone but the ghost of Phil Zimbardo expected me to take. I compromised. I told my bosses about my crisis and announced that Monday's presentation would be the last work I would do for this or any similar client.
To my surprise, my bosses and co-workers laughed at me. They didn't care what I did as long as I finished my initial commitment. All they saw was that I was walking away from a large sum of money that, hey, they could have now.
Three weeks later, I quit the firm. All the ethical ruminations in the world can mean exactly squat, I realized, when you're staring down the barrel of so many zeroes at the end of a paycheck. I couldn't stomach the prospect of being a sellout. My life, my education--which frankly boils down to the stuff I learned from you and Claude Steele and Lee Ross and Daryl Bem and Elliot Aronson--had to add up to more than that. And I'm sure it will.
Your class gave me the tools to understand the forces at work upon my conscience and to make a reasoned decision. For me, it is now a matter of choosing a set of forces that will allow me to do well for others while also doing so for myself and my family. In a sense, you could chalk the whole thing up to the strong dose of morality and nonconformity I received in your class. So thank you. This student's soul remains intact, for now.
Take care, old friend. I hope this finds you well--still teaching, still goading, still battling for our souls.Mikel Jollett is living in the desert on a ranch outside of Los Angeles, writing, editing and preparing applications for writing fellowships.
This article was reprinted with permission from STANFORD magazine, published by the Stanford Alumni Association, Stanford University.