Zimbardo would not have stopped the Stanford Prison Experiment on the sixth day but for an argument with his girlfriend. When the guards took the prisoners to the toilet at 10pm, hooded and abused, he said, “Isn’t this interesting?” And she told him it was disgusting. “They are not prisoners or guards, they are just boys!”
I think it likely she helped him to see, rather than merely he wanted to keep dating her. He was a victim of his own experiment.
I noticed that when someone was generous to me while driving- letting me pull out into heavy traffic, say- I would drive more generously after that than if someone cut me up. So sometimes I intentionally sought to drive more generously, and if there were a ripple effect that would delight me. It is possible to practice generosity, and sometimes I would still be mean. When a beggar told me a long, wheedling lie, and I told him I recognised him from last time and remembered it- sudden disaster, urgently need transport to Sheffield- I did not give, and am unsure that was the Right response. Good enough, I think.
There might be an innate predisposition to generosity, which is dependent on the situation. Or, it might be more constant. Or it might be an active choice, but still variable; or a rigorous, long practised choice which is fairly constant. The last is the good character which stands up to the Stanford Prison Experiment, which we would admire as Good Character.
And now, a paradox. It seems to me that a trusting nature is part of that Good Character which is worthy of cultivation- don’t fear the dog will bite unless it shows clear signs of that, deal with the bad situation when it comes rather than imagining possible bad situations, think the best of people. And- in childhood and in less mature people and in me I notice a desire to find the rules, and follow them. That is trust in authority simply because it is authority. I think it is that trust in authority, the disconnect which made the dupe obey Milgram’s researchers (Milgram and Zimbardo go together like a horse and carriage) that corrupted them rather than lack of fellow-feeling.
An example from a blog I cannot find again: one trusts Bible translators to be scholars, doing their best to interpret its meaning, surely? Well, no, they incorporate their prejudices. That blog looked at 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 of which the NIV is only one of the more egregious examples: the Greek and the meaning is not “men who have sex with men”, it is far more restricted than that.
I can mould myself, and be different from how I might otherwise have been. Am I therefore in some way a different person from how I was before all this practice of generosity and questioning authority?