President's Column

There are some ideas about human behavior that we just do not like--even when there are good empirical data to support them; sometimes even psychologists find it difficult to recognize when these principles operate in their everyday life.

For example, most people do not like the idea that they could be easily influenced by situational variables, which is why the "fundamental attribution error" is so "fundamental." Even those of us who understand the power of situations to shape behavior will still attribute more of the variance in individual behavior to dispositional traits than to the context, which is the standard definition for this "error" in attributing why people behave as we do.

We tend to think that Alex Trebeck, the host of the popular game show "Jeopardy!" is really smart because he knows all of the answers to the difficult questions, even though we know that the question-writers gave him the answers, and we consider professors intelligent because they can answer all their own exam questions. I offer these examples as evidence that most people underplay the critical importance of context, even when we know context is important. How else can I explain my own "shock and awe" over recent and tragic current events?

The power of situation

As I write this column, I continue to see in my mind's eye the recurring images of brutalized Iraqi prisoners that have been shown nonstop on television, appear daily in the important above-the-fold section of every newspaper and are described in exquisite detail on every radio show.

The media and broader public have turned to us as psychologists to ask how ordinary Americans--people just like us--can brutalize prisoners (see pages 8 and 9). We have seen these pictures before. They are in every introductory psychology textbook in the chapters on classic social psychology, where we read about experiments on the power of social situations to change how we behave and the willingness of thousands of ordinary people to obey authority.

Recent news events are nothing more than vivid real-life examples of classic textbook studies in psychology. In classic studies such as the Stanford Prison Experiment, average college students were transformed into vicious prison guards within six days. In Stanley Milgram's experiments, it only took an insistent authority figure to get most people to deliver what they believed were high levels of shock to a kindly looking, middle-aged man who was supposedly "the learner."

We have been "giving psychology away" to the general public since George Miller's 1969 APA presidential address, when he urged us to make our psychological principles more accessible and applicable so that more people could understand that the laws of psychology have jurisdiction everywhere there are people. Here is an unfortunate but excellent example of the relevance of classic studies in psychology for understanding human behavior in the larger laboratory of the real world.

One voice makes a difference

Whenever I ask my own students if they would have behaved like the students in the Stanford prison experiment or the obedience to authority experiments, almost everyone says "no." For the most part, no one believes they would respond so readily to the social situation.

As former APA president Phil Zimbardo has documented, although most people conform to the pressure of social situations, there are always some resisters. There are people who challenge authority and refuse to act in brutal ways, even when the majority pressures them not to rock the boat and to be a team player. It happened in Iraq, just as it has happened everywhere else where boredom, power and lack of accountability created a situation conducive to sadistic behavior. We should be proud of those ordinary GIs who refused to be quiet or compliant.

We know much less about the few average people who refuse to go along with the crowd, who don't succumb to social situations, and who act the way most of us predict that we will. As psychologists, when bad things like the Iraqi prisoner-abuse scandal happen, we do our best at understanding and predicting what people will do, on average, but it is those outliers who represent the best of human nature. Let us salute these ordinary people.

We can learn from the resisters and emulate their behavior by finding something in our communities to refuse to be silent or indifferent about, whether it is the millions of children growing up in poverty, the working poor who have no health insurance or other safety net to care for a sick family member, or some other condition where one voice will make the critical difference.