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Monday, September 01, 2008

I'm currently reading a book that's making me think [slightly more than usual].

The Lucifer Effect is written by Philip Zimbardo, the same professor that was in charge of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. This was the one where he got 2 groups of students in a realistic prison-like setting to see what was the effect of being imprisoned on guards and prisoners. The experiment had to be terminated after only 5 days [he intended it to go on for 2 weeks] due to the increasing sadistic tendencies of the students assigned as guards, and due to a moralistic awakening on the part of the professor.

Conclusion: Situational forces are strong enough to significantly alter people's behaviour, often to unrecognisable states. Students who are assigned to be guards became sadistic SOBs, but even more scarily, students assigned to become prisoners became depressed, detached, and suffered from increasing levels of hopelessness.

The even scarier part of it: Even when student-prisoners knew that at any time, they were free to leave the experiment, none of them took up the chance. They were so deeply entrenched in the prisoner mentality that they totally resigned themselves to their situation, and literally became prisoners of their own making. At one point, they asked the student-prisoners: If you could leave the experiment early, without collecting your monetary reimbursement, would you? 3 out of 4 students said yes, but did not leave the experiment. Even when the chance to leave was offered to them, they did not leave! They said yes, and then walked back to the guard to be literally shackled down!

Zimbardo's point was that the situational forces at work are so strong, that they confer a kind of mentality on the persons in that situation. If you were an easy-going, carefree person, who was put into a position of power over others, the situation that you were put in would transform your personality into a domineering tyrant that you wouldn't recognise if you saw yourself on TV.

This is scary, because I immediately started seeing paralells in my work situation. Ok, not quite to that extent, or I'd probably be fired, but I recognised some of it in myself. At home, or out, I'm relaxed, easygoing but in my work situation, I have to change into a more aggressive, domineering figure. [Yes, some of those under me would probably describe me as being tyrannical. -_-!!!]

And once I started to really think about the prisoner mentality, I started to realise that there were many other paralells you could find in society in general. Doesn't everyone know someone who would tell you to just obey the boss, despite his outer-worldly requests for your soul, because that is what you are supposed to do? Don't people complain endlessly about the gahmen, but leave it only at verbal complaints because they see no point in taking action against those in power?

Come to think of it, everytime you succumb to a figure of authority, or a general way of thinking, simply because that's the way things are, aren't you succumbing to a kind of prisoner mentality? Your job may suck, you may feel depressed, but you stick at it anyway, because of the perceived benefits in terms of the paycheque, and because you're not entirely sure that things would be better somewhere else. You've become a prisoner of the company in your own mind!

And just as in the experiment, these are boundaries that exist in our own mind and nowhere else. Is it such a moral sin if you decide to quit your job? Or get out of a bad relationship? Or decide to become a full-time bartop dancer? And yet there are people who will subscribe to that way of thinking, and who will tell you that such things cannot be done, because of various reasons, but actually because it just isn't done this way in our society. These people have created a prison for themselves, even though the prison door was never closed and locked.

You don't have to stay in a bad situation in life. You can always get out and change yourself. It only depends on whether you want to accept that you have this chance at freedom and whether you are willing to take it.

This somewhat reminds me of a scene from The Sandman: Season of Mists. Lucifer is talking to Morpheus, and of the souls in Hell, he comments wryly, that they can ascend to Heaven any time they want. They are only there as long as they want to inflict punishment on themselves for their sins on Earth. And some of them put themselves there for eternity.

It may look a long road to freedom, but maybe it's not as long as we think it is, as long as we start walking on it.

I'm still reading the book, so I haven't reached the part where it gives tips on how to get out of that prisoner mentality. But I am starting to think twice about the whole career deal and about what I really want for myself out of life. Freedom? Or handbags? ;)

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