Try to think of people who have done something bad or hurt someone. Someone who didn’t act the way you expected or did something out of character. Ask yourself, were they bad because of the position they were in, or are they naturally bad? Think of the interview of a neighbor of someone who has done something bad. I bet you heard them say something like, “He always kept to himself” or “He was quiet and a good neighbor.” But behind all of that, they were up to no good.
We ask ourselves, “How could someone do such a thing?” Are they naturally a bad person or were they in a position or predicament where they had to be a certain way? Nelson Mandela shares a similar experience of when he was imprisoned on Robben Island…
Bad by name; bad by nature?
During Nelson Mandela’s 19 years imprisoned on Robben Island, one particular commanding officer was the most brutal of them all:
“A few days before Badenhorst’s departure, I was called to the main office. General Steyn was visiting the island and wanted to know if we had any complaints. Badenhorst was there as I went through a list of demands. When I had finished, Badenhorst spoke to me directly.
He told me he would be leaving the island and added: ‘I just want to wish you people good luck’. I do not know if I looked dumbfounded, but I was amazed. He spoke these words like a human being and showed a side of himself we had never seen before. I thanked him for his good wishes and wished him luck in his endeavors.
I thought about this moment for a long time afterwards. Badenhorst had perhaps been the most callous and barbaric commanding officer we had had on Robben Island. But that day in the office, he had revealed that that there was another side to his nature, a side that had been obscured but still existed.
It was a useful reminder that all men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency and that, if their hearts are touched, they are capable of changing. Ultimately, Badenhorst was not evil; his inhumanity had been foisted upon him by an inhuman system. He behaved like a brute because he was rewarded for brutish behaviour.”
Source: “Long Walk To Freedom” by Nelson Mandela
The Stanford Prison Experiment
Mr. Mandela’s story reminded me of the of the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted in August of 1971. It was a social psychology study intended to measure the effect of role-playing, labeling, and social expectations on the way people respond. 24 selected applicants were divided equally as either guards or prisoners. The intention was to simulate an environment like a real jail. The study was intended to go for two weeks, but was stopped after 6 days by principal investigator Philip G. Zimbardo due to the quick escalation of mistreatment of prisoners by the guards. It seems like this very normal people, who were mentally and physically in good shape, took on the real personas of guards and prisoners.
It seems that when people are put in an environment or situations where they’re expected to act a certain way, they tend to act that way. Think of the kid who wants to be cool with a certain group of friends who picks on another student or group of students. They may not have anything personal against the student or group of students but tends to join in on the bullying, just to “fit in.” Unfortunately, the natural human instinct is to do what the people you want to be like are doing, so that you will be accepted. This is understandable, but not permissible.
We need to rise above the situation and show compassion. Not only do we need to fight a natural urge to “fit in” but we also need to be compassionate and forgiving of those who give in to the temptation and do something out of character. We all make mistakes and are subject to social pressures and expectations. We need to try to avoid these challenging situations, but when trapped in them, rise above the natural instinct to “fit in” and instead show strong character.