in Motivation, Philosophy, Psychology, Science

What Would I Do? — A Golden Opportunity We Often Miss

“What happens when good people are put into an evil place? Do they triumph or does the situation dominate their past history and morality?”

 — Philip Zimbardo

There are two experiments that’ve had a tremendous impact on me. I’d heard of both of them before, but I got a deeper knowledge of them in my high school psychology class.

The first was the Milgram experiment which measured peoples willingness to obey authority:

Milgram Experiment

The second was Philip Zimbardo’s “Stanford Prison Experiment”:

Stanford Prison Experiment

My first reaction to them was really judgemental. Phrases like “I would NEVER do anything like that!” and “It’s so sad that they’re so weak” were fired off.

It took me another 5 years to fully understand their true value.

The change came when I put myself in their shoes and dared to admit that maybe, just maybe, I could be just as susceptible as them.

Put me in a situation where I’m prone to view myself as a subordinate or to view others as lesser beings and I may very well start behaving in the same way.

There was a tremendous amount of pain the moment where I realized that I’ve in fact already acted in that way. Times when I’ve said “But they told me to!” or have abused my “status”.

I was in my early 20’s and that’s the first time I truly felt like I had more agency than I could’ve imagined.

Sure, I was known to give the middle finger to authority figures. But it wasn’t like this.

Now I felt that it was fully in my right to express myself and refuse to cooperate when people did something that was blatantly wrong.

Also, besides noticing other people’s behavior I became very aware of my own. At first it was kind of annoying to feel like I was constantly monitoring and policing myself.

After a while it became a part of the natural process. Whenever I failed to live up to those standards I was also very quick to notice it, correct it and apologize whenever it affected someone else.

The golden opportunity we miss is that these lessons are all around us. All of the time.

We can find them in our favorite shows, movies, video games, news, music and so on. The trick is to look for them.

Golden EggOne of these things is not like the others.

Let’s take “Breaking Bad” as an example. We can either choose to view it as entertainment or an amazing work of art. The story, the characters, the dialogue, you know, really pick it apart.

Beyond entertainment and craft lies something else. Something that really gets to the core of us as humans. Our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

We could be just as judgemental of Walter White. Perhaps we even should. But when we ask ourselves that one powerful question we’ll get to the core of it all.

“What would I do?”

What would you do? Imagine yourself getting diagnosed with a terminal illness. You project forward and imagine the life you wish to leave your family with. What would you be willing to do?

Few of us would probably go down the same route. However seductive that route may be.

We know better.

Let’s imagine that we’d pursue that route anyway. What would your reaction be if it turned out you went into remission?

You’ve already done all that horrible stuff. You could very well get away with it. Still, going back to your old life once you’ve had a taste of that. In fact, you’re quite good at it. Could you stay on the straight and narrow?

These are all questions we’re invited to ask. Not only when it comes to good TV, but in all of life. Whenever we see someone begging on the street or pushing themselves ahead in a queue, it’s an opportunity for us to ask what we would do and to imagine ourselves in that situation.

It’s not always pleasant and sometimes we might end up feeling like shit. What it does is to erode the sense of distance between ourselves and others. In some cases that might not be a good thing, in the larger scheme I feel it is something we all will benefit from.

Now, understanding is one big piece of the puzzle, the even bigger piece is the action.

When our understanding of ourselves and others drives our actions, it’s a far greater force than anything we could imagine.

I’d like to leave you with a few quotes by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo.

“The disappearance of a sense of responsibility is the most far-reaching consequence of submission to authority.”

— Stanley Milgram

“It is easy to ignore responsibility when one is only an intermediate link in a chain of action.”

— Stanley Milgram

“Evil is knowing better, but willingly doing worse.”

— Philip Zimbardo

“The line between good and evil is permeable and almost anyone can be induced to cross it when pressured by situational forces.”

— Philip Zimbardo

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