The situation matters

The latest furore about violence against children in New Zealand seems to be dying down already. No doubt we will all talk about it again sometime soon, when the next horrific case hits our headlines. I made a somewhat cynical comment to this effect in this post a couple of weeks ago; I’m disturbed that my cynicism seems to have been justified.

With that thought in mind, that we need to keep talking and keep it in the forefront of our minds, and start acting, here’s an interesting article in American Scientist Online, which I found through both ScienceBlogs.com and Butterflies and Wheels. The article is about the Zimbardo effect, although Philip Zimbardo himself calls it the Lucifer effect. The effect is so called after the famous experiment run by Zimbardo in 1971, where he got a group of students, all perfectly ordinary young men, divided them into “prisoners” and “guards”, put them into a “jail” and settled down to see what would happen. It was frightening – the guards quickly engaged in capricious and cruel behaviour, and the prisoners became stressed and depressed, and started begging to be let out.

Zimbardo has just published a book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. According to the article, he argues that the situation that people are placed in may be a much more powerful determinant of behaviour than the nature of the people themselves. He doesn’t deny that there are some truly evil people, but all too often, it is not a few bad apples who do rotten things – the situations people are placed in have a far greater effect.

It might be worth remembering this when discussing child abuse. It is very easy to blame the individuals, and to step aside from taking any responsibility for the context. If people are impoverished, living day-to-day on benefits, with little hope, and no social support, then although child abuse is not inevitable, perhaps it is not solely the fault of the individuals, and solving the problem will take far more than just calling for tougher jail sentences, or blaming a particular ethnicity.

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