The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo  

Resisting Influence

Prepared by Philip Zimbardo and Cindy X. Wang

Reversing the Process of Good People Turning Evil: Positive Social Influence and Civic Virtue

hile most psychological research is focused on the negative aspects of social influence, there is hope of applying the same basic principles toward beneficial goals. In Chapter 16 of The Lucifer Effect, there is an extended analysis of how principles of social influence can be used for good, to enhance basic social and political values.

Historically, social psychologists have divided positive aspects of human social behavior into prosocial behavior and altruism. Prosocial behavior benefits group members but also the individual engaging in that behavior, perhaps through higher esteem or greater acceptance by the group, or avoidance of social censure. Altruism refers specifically to positive social behavior that would be done even without personal gain.

The motivating factor that separates these types of behavior is empathy. Research shows in experiments in which people are asked to empathize with a fictional character in distress are more likely to help the person even if there were no negative consequences if they did not. Thus, if we strive to relate more with others, we may be more sensitive their situation and act in more benevolent ways.

Just as Milgram established that people can be gradually inoculated into doing more and more unthinkable tasks, the opposite technique may also be useful. We learned that the “foot-in-the-door” technique relies on agreement to a small initial request yielding to acceptance of a larger one later on. We may also utilize this principle for good by challenging ourselves to do increasingly more positive activities. Making sensible adjustments and achievable objectives can help us reach goals that improve on our lives and those near us.

Establishing prosocial behavior and promoting civic virtue highlights the potential positive aspects of social influence. Moral behavior can be cultivated in early life by rewarding positive behavior. Government, education, and social institutions can be re-designed to facilitate critical thinking and responsible conduct. The following highlights some ideas that we can bring into our own lives and those of our children.

  1. Teaching children to disobey unjust authority
    • Support critical thinking abilities in children – asking for support of assertions, separation of rhetoric and conclusion, developing means vs. ends thinking

  2. Rewarding social modeling of moral behavior
    • Social recognition for good deeds; acknowledging the bravery of whistleblowers of misconduct

  3. Promoting critical thinking that challenges false ideologies and bad means to good ends
    • Not living on mindless “auto-pilot”
    • Reflect on details of the immediate situation; think before acting

  4. Encouraging respect for human diversity and appreciating human variability
    • Reduces in-group biases and discrimination

  5. Not allowing stereotyping and dehumanization of other people

  6. Changing social conditions that make people feel anonymous
    • Support conditions that make people feel special, have sense of personal value and self-worth

  7. Encouraging admission of mistakes, accepting error in judgments – to reduce justification for continuing wrong, immoral behavior
    • Reduces need to justify mistakes and to continue wrong or immoral action
    • Undercuts motivation to reduce dissonance by being consistent with a bad decision

  8. Promoting personal responsibility and accountability of one’s actions
    • Diffused responsibility is a mere disguise for own role in consequences of actions

  9. Supporting independence over group conformity
    • Increasing awareness of when conformity to the group norm is counter-productive and should not be followed
    • Understanding when independence should take precedence despite possible social rejection

  10. Reducing poverty, inequities, and entitlements of the privileged

  11. Never sacrificing freedom for promised security
    • Bad deal – sacrificing the real and immediate for the distant and elusive; lose control and relinquish power to the already powerful

  12. Discouraging even the smallest of transgressions, cheating, gossiping, lying, teasing, bullying
    • Provides first steps toward more severe behaviors
    • Can harness the subtle power of small steps in Milgram’s paradigm to promote positive actions and altruism until one’s does uncharacteristically or previously imaginably good deeds.

©2006-2016, Philip G. Zimbardo

About the Book

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About Phil Zimbardo

Stanford Prison Experiment

Celebrating Heroism

Resisting Influence


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