When we look at history it is hard to believe that historical tragedies like the Holocaust really happened. It sounds totally surreal. Most of us believe or would like to think that if we were living at that time we would have acted differently, we would have protected the Jews, we would have fought such or such regime and we wouldn’t have tolerated terrible injustices. Really? The sad reality is that most of us would have followed the herd.
I have the impression that most people fail to understand how they can be easily influenced by their environment or the context in which they are living. Would you have been in favor or against the slavery? Would you have helped Hitler exterminate the Jews or would you have rescued them? Personally I don’t know and I don’t want to know :-p
The reality is that our environment can have a tremendous influence on us. No matter how tough we think we are mentally, we are unlikely to resist intense propaganda, social pressure or authority very long. In this article let me introduce you three famous psychological experiments to illustrate my point.
Asch experiment – social pressure
This idea behind that now famous social psychology experiment conducted by the psychologist Solomon Asch was to test the influence of group pressure on opinions. After looking at a card with 3 lines on it, participants were asked to tell which line was the longest. The trick is that only one participant was a real participant, all the others were just acting. See what happened in the video below
Asch experiment video
The Stanford Prison Experiment – Situation is everything
Does the situation outside of you, the institution, could come to control you behavior, or does the things inside you, your attitude, your values your morality allow you to rise above a negative environment. – Philip Zimbardo
Stanford prison experiment summary
This social psychology experiment is truly fascinating. In order to study how people react to a negative environment, the psychologist Philip Zimbardo decided to turn Jordan Hall (Stanford’s psychology building) into a prison. He was interested in knowing whether bad situations could turn good people into bad people or whether our attitudes, our values, our morality could protect us from a negative environment.
24 students deemed to be psychologically stable and healthy were hired to play the role of the guards and the prisoners. The experiment was originally scheduled for a period of two weeks. However things escalated so fast that the experiment had to be interrupted after only 6 days. After 36 hours one prisoner already start to act crazy and become totally out of control. Experimenters had to release him.
One-third of the guards ended up having sadistic behaviors. They forced some prisoners to defecate or urinate in a bucket placed in their cell. They forced them to repeat their assigned numbers again and again to deshumanize them and use various physical punishments. Several participants who played the role of prisoners were emotionally traumatized and had to be released. Philip Zimbardo, himself, who was acting as a superintendent, admitted later that he was so caught in his role that he didn’t realize the gravity of the situation and confessed that he should have interrupted the experiment earlier. It was a graduate student in psychology, who was introduce to the experiment to conduct interviews, that made him realize that the experiment had gone to far. Who would have expected that what looks like an advanced role-play could totally transform participants in only a few days.
Stanford prison experiment video
Milgram Experiment – Blindness obedience to authority
Milgram experiment summary
Milgram, a psychologist from Yale University, wanted to understand why the Holocaust happened. Is it possible that people involved in the Holocaust were just following orders? He designed an experiment where one participant (the teacher) would punish another participant played by an actor (the learner) by sending him an electroshock when he failed to give the right answer. The subject of the experiment couldn’t see the person he was giving electroshock to but could hear him screaming. He didn’t know that the screaming were recorded and that no electroshock were actually given. An actor wearing a doctor’s coat told the participants to continue even when the learner was screaming.
Milgram experiment results
Before the experiment, Milgram polled fourteen Yale University Senior-year psychology majors and some of his colleagues asking them to predict the behavior of 100 hypothetical teachers. Respondents believed that only a very small fraction of the participants would be willing to inflict the maximum voltage (450 volts). However, Milgram’s experiment revealed that 65% (26 out of 40 participants) administered the maximum voltage even though the learner was screaming clearly saying he had heart problems!
Milgram experiment video
What can we learn from these famous psychological experiments?
Under normal conditions we have the ability to strive, a huge potential to grow every day and to become a better person. Learning how to master our inner psychology allow us to significantly improve all aspects of your life. However, we should also be fully aware and completely accept the fact that under particular situations we are weaker than we think. Just by knowing how we are likely to behave when facing authority or social pressure might give us valuable clues on how we can prepare when facing those situations.
How can personal development help us dealing with these situations? The main goal of personal development is to raise our level of consciousness. It is impossible to change behaviors we are not aware of, it is impossible to be really fulfilled in life when we don’t know what we want and it is impossible to deal with cognitive biases we ignore. Knowing who we really are and what our core values are, as well as having an healthy self-esteem allows us to be more independent from what people think about us. It allows us to take a step back and have a more objective look at ourselves as well as at our environment and, as a result, to make better decisions.
What about you? How does your environment influence you? What would you do differently if social pressure did not exist? Share your thoughts with me below this article.
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