Situational dynamics is a proven way to seduce good people into doing bad things, a discovery that began as an experiment and was later documented in The Lucifer Effect, by Phillip Zimbardo in 2007. The study upon which the book was based, and which will be dramatized this month as a Hollywood film, was called The Stanford Prison Experiment. (“The Slippery Slope of Evil,” by Michael Mechanic, Mother Jones, July/August, 2015, pg. 56.) Students attending the university volunteered for an study where some of them were assigned to play the role of prisoners and others, guards. To everyone’s surprise, the subjects so identified with their roles that the cruelty between masters and the subjugated forced the experiment to be aborted before it’s time.
The study showed the “human mind can rationalize anything” and that “once you start on that slippery slope of evil, there is no going back for the vast majority of people.” (Ibid, pg. 56.) The results of the Stanford experiment shouldn’t be surprising. The mind’s genius is its adaptability. Change the environment and you change the brain.
Fortunately the same truth can take human development in the opposite direction. In “The End of Punishment,” Katherine Reynolds Lewis writes about a school experiment which asks the question, “What if discipline is wrong?” The “school to prison pipeline” assumption — that unruly or mentally troubled children were headed for an institution — was thrown out the window. Gone, too, were behaviorist techniques, like the carrot and the stick method to control children. The new model made no attempt to bend a difficult student to the rules but allowed the student to chose how to react to his or her setting. (Mother Jones, July/August 2015 pgs. 40-48.)
The approach is based on what science has learned about the brain’s development and malleability. Aggressive children have underdeveloped and slower growing prefrontal cortexes than the average youngster. They need time and a variety of experiences to catch up. Forcing them to comply when the brain isn’t ready fosters rebellious behavior that could lead o prison.
One of the schools involved in the experiment is a youth detention center. Since the new policies have been in place, the rate of recidivism has “plummeted from 75% in 1999 to 33 percent in 2012.” (Ibid pg. 45) Other schools in the program are reporting equally remarkable success.
Roughly 5.2 million youths in this country suffer from ADH; 5 million have learning disabilities; 2.2 million have anxiety disorders, and 16 million suffer from repeated trauma or abuse, not to mention the 1.4 million with autism. (Ibid pg. 44) We can’t drug them all nor can we afford to build enough prisons to house them all. It’s time to set aside our former notion of crime and punishment and pay attention to what our brains are telling us.
(Originally published 7/21/15)