Melissa Ditman’s article summarizes an address given by psychologist Philip Zimbardo, former president of the American Psychological Association and an emeritus professor at Stanford University. Zimbardo argues that anyone can be swayed into doing bad things. Three prominent influences are dehumanizing and labeling others through language, developing a sense of anonymity, and having the impression that one is in control of a situation.
Language is important because it can be used to distance the speaker from the subject of their negative speech. Terms that dehumanize others, such as by calling them animals, create that kind of distance. Similarly, applying derogatory labels, such as slurs, can influence the speaker’s subsequent actions.
Creating an impression of anonymity also encourages negative actions. People are encouraged to feel anonymous by wearing a uniform or a mask, especially one that is identical or similar to that worn by others. Zimbardo emphasized that anonymity can “minimize social responsibility” by making the participant believe they “are not individually liable.”
The third factor shapes behavior by offering people the illusion of being in control. Anonymity may be induced through placing people “in an anonymity-conferring environment,” according to Zimbardo. The psychologist noted that this type of environment may increase the pleasure people gain from destructive behavior which offers them a sense of power. In such situations, peer pressure usually supports negative actions, especially among people who do not typically consider themselves as controlling others.
In all three types of behavior, people are distanced from the negative consequences of their actions, which tends to absolve them of feeling personally responsible for their actions.