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.