Her Spirit

I’m writing this in appreciation of what one human being can do for another. May this inspire people my age. 

I have a very quirky friend that goes by the name of Amy. She’s a small girl for her age – a sophomore in high school – with wonderful green eyes, a spontaneous demeanor, and long hair with conspicuously blonde highlights. She likes to jump around and say random things, like “Hello!” and “Weeeee!” and “I’m gonna stick it up YOUR ass!” in a manner worhty of putting in a Disney commercial; how cute it is. You talk to her and it’s like talking to kid in elementary school – but she’s smart, let me tell ya. In fact, her personality might as well be as complex as cracking the code to a bank’s money safe. She’s an odd apple – but a wonderfully eclectic and frisky (not sexually, boys) one at that. 

There’s only one thing – she’s only become this way as of recent. How was she before? The same way – only difference was that that darling energy and hyperactivity was hidden and sealed away beyond some invisible door. In fact, even though I knew she was like this in reality, it was only a few days ago that I noticed this sudden change for the best, this sudden explosion of what I figured to be repressed energy. It was at my school’s drama show. She’d been at band rehearsals, I think, until about five in the afternoon, and the show was at seven. Why not stay for it, right? After all, the Drama magnet at our school always produces amazing performances. It was definitely worth the five dollar admission, I must say. She likely thought the same thing, prompting her to stay an additional four or five hours (’til about ten thirty) after her band rehearsals.

Anyway, that’s not the point. Oh, tangents.

I was filming an interview after school, and so by the time me and the interviewee were done with our session, it was time for the drama show. We’d made plans to attend it for the same aforementioned reasons, and so after I met up with my other friends attending the show, I saw Amy. Immediately, i was surprised by a new wave of “spunkiness” that’d swept over her. She didn’t just say hi, she sprang into action – literally – when me and my friends (also in Band with her) encountered her. This behavior continued through the night – during the show, whose audience got progressively boisterous as the performances got better and the clock kept ticking, my Band friends and I would applaud and cheer unnecessarily loud after each performance, which prompted Amy to continuously turn around and jokingly scream out English delicacies at us (we were sitting behind her). After the show, when it was ten thirty at night and we were all tired from an overly long day at school, she was the only one still jumping around and essentially doing cartwheels on the entrance steps.

Was she like this before? Why sure she was … but there was a noticeable bit of extra spontaneity that’d become evident only as of recent. You know when you see someone, and it only takes a few minutes of conversation to realize that they’ve changed? That they’ve become noticeably happier, lighter in their step, higher in their jump, faster in their sprint? When they’ve transformed from a happy, fulfilled member of society, to a happy, fulfilled, energetic, optimistic, independent leader from society? Why did Amy suddenly turn this way? How’d she exponentially energize herself?

I think the answer is that she’s found someone to trust, someone that makes her happy and provides her with unconditional positive regard. Her family and relatives of course provide her with this – but in adolescence, it’s even better when someone like a boyfriend provides you this.

Yes – Amy has a new boyfriend, and his effect on her life couldn’t have been more evident than during the night of the Drama show. I tip off my hat to you, Mr. Gold – you’ve done a wonderful little girl, a great humanitarian service. Good job. I’m happy for both of you guys. May love and happiness be with you forever.

Why This Life – Avoiding Columbine

The school shooting at Columbine High School happened little over a decade ago, and the momentous nature of the massacre has earned it a spot on the list of mankind’s greatest disasters. Lives were lost, but the lives that weren’t lost, were changed. Never before Columine had anyone heard of something like a school shooting. A TIME Magazine article on the subject mentioned that before Columbine, students would often forget to leave their gun racks at home following a weekend of targeting practice or hunting with Dad. What would happen if you “forgot” to leave your gun rack at home today? You’d be considered a situation, you’d be expelled from school, you’d be checked out by a doctor.
I’m not going to narrate the events at Columbine – it’s a story repeated too often. I’m instead going to discuss something worse – the possibility that Columbine could’ve been avoided. An old 60 Minutes presentation on the Tragedy of Columbine decided to focus, not on why Columbine happened, when, what, how. But instead, on that which didn’t happen. That which could’ve been vital factors in preventing the massacre from happening. According to the presentation, the first police team to enter the school once 911 calls had rung and the news of the shooting had been dispatched to police did so after two hours after the shooting began. Two hours! There was been local police surrounding the school within five minutes of the first shot fired (and the first life lost), but it would only be two hours later that police deemed entering the school to be “safe”. After a massive amount of policemen, SWAT team members, police vehicles, and vans had assembled outside and in the vicinity of the school, all waiting around for orders from the local police authority while innocent kids were being shot inside the school by the two adolescent perpetrators. How could this have happened? An interviewee on the show who had knowledge of the police commands and operational orders given during the massacre spoke with the host of the presentation, but when asked why the SWAT team, why the police, why anyone didn’t go in as soon as possible, as soon as shots were fired – she conspicuously denied and essentially pleaded the fifth to, everything. It’s terrible! How could this have happened? Why were lives lost that could’ve been saved?
I can do nothing but mourn the lives lost. I cannot criticize the actions of the Columbine police department beyond the concepts of common sense. It’s unfair to think that policemen are all daring heroes ready to lose their lives by diving headfirst into a massacre. They didn’t know how many shooters were inside. It could’ve been two teenagers, it could’ve been a terrorist army. Could they have known? Did they know? Nobody knows. We cannot criticize that which we have little to no knowledge of. That’s a principle of life. We’re only left with questions. Not about why the police didn’t go in. Not about why the response was so slow. But instead why the criminals responsible for the massacre did what they did. Believe it or not, the Columbine shooters were both friendly, socially competent, good-looking teenage boys, with happy parents at home, lots of friends at school. Their personalities weren’t the warning signs – there were more conspicuous ones available, that no one cared to look at. The boys had created a website where they listed the schematics for the pipe bombs they would use, a hit list of the people they would kill, a schedule outlining in what order they would carry out their deed. People knew about these boys’ activities and desires too – they’d told some of their friends what they planned to do, but everyone dismissed it as being a joke, or simply as being a lie. If today you hear someone telling you, “hey, look at this list of the people I’m gonna kill.” What would you do? Would you tell someone? Would you stay quiet out of fear? It depends. What you would do is think that there’s something bad going on. The concept of a school shooting was not one that existed at the time Columbine happened – it had never happened before! People did not think that someone with such a good personality and such a high degree of social competence would be seriously planning a school shootout; that they would kill their own classmates. Now, when we see these warning signs, we have that thought, that possibility, in our mental repository.
Thinking that the same mindset was present back in 1999, is called having hindsight bias – that past events were more predictable than they really were at the time. It’s unfair … what we can solidly take away from Columbine is a lesson on the complexity of the human mind. Could there be something wrong in my sociable best friend? Could they be plotting a school shootout? I can only hope not. Let’s remain optimistic – it’s the best thing we can do.

The Third Wave

The following discusses The Third Wave, an experiment undertaken by Contemporary History teacher Ron Jones of Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, California in the year 1967, to show his students the appeal of fascism. 
The following comments are based on a 1981 made-for-TV special about The Third Wave, although it bounces back between the actual facts and the content of the special.
For any teacher, the inability to answer a question from one of your students must fell like a parent not knowing how to help a child. I can’t speak for a teacher, seeing as I’m not one myself, but I can only assume how it must make them feel. Ron Jones was teaching his students about Nazi Germany and how people would go a long with their killing of Jews and other innocent people, when one of his students asked him why people would participate in something so horrible. Puzzled, Jones doesn’t know how to answer the question – so he decides to show it, by creating a classroom government known as “The Third Wave”, whose objective is to eliminate democracy. He designed a logo, an insignia, and a motto – “Strength through discipline, strength through community, strength through action, strength through pride.”, complete with an accompanying pledge-like hand motion.
Jones began to gradually exact additional layers of discipline on the students, too. He had them stand up to answer a question in class, for example. Before long, The Third Wave became a school-wide group, with flyers being distributed, membership cards going around, and even a physical altercation between Wave members and a local student who questioned its beliefs. What had essentially been created was a Nazi party all of its own. 
It sounds comical, and probably pretty unbelievable that a single teacher could form a “Nazi-like government” in school. But it’s true, and despite the relative lack of documentation of The Third Wave experiment, it’s supported at least in theory by the concepts of social psychology.
To not believe in the possibility of The Third Wave is to underestimate the power of social competence and the need for belonging that are essential to the human being – the former defined by Erik Erikson, the latter by Abraham Maslow. Human beings are social creatures – they crave for interaction with others; introverts and unsociable fellows are the exception, not the norm. Even though we often find ourselves frustrated by our social lives (okay, that goes mostly for adolescents, I’ll give you that), we cannot live without it (kinda like women). And so, in a world of social conflicts, finding a unit, a purpose, something to believe in, is quite the influence. In the made-for-TV dramatization, the benefits of The Third Wave are best shown in Robert – a shy, often picked on youth that, when given a coveted membership role in the group, essentially turns himself around and becomes a leader – confident, sociable, determined, hard-working, walking with a purpose. The Third Wave gives him something to believe in, but it also gives him a sense of identity that contributes to feeling of achievement and power (thanks to the high membership position) but also one of possibly harmful attachment to The Third Wave; essentially, Robert’s life depends on The Third Wave for guidance and identity. 
The Third Wave causes problems throughout the school. Kids are beat up by members of the Wave advocating their beliefs; no one is able to think for themselves anymore, and cannot see the harm they are causing due to the fact that they are blinded by unchanging belief and faith in the mission of the Wave. Two students, whom were previously in a relationship, are broken up when the guy in the relationship decides to continue participating in the Wave. Later on, a violent altercation happens between the two, as the girl tells him that the Wave is hurting everyone while he, unfazed and otherwise angered by her comments, grabs her violently and causes her to fall on the ground. This causes an epiphany in him which convinces him the Wave really is as harmful as she says – if it’s causing him to act this way, there’s definitely something wrong. They talk to their teacher, Ron Jones about the situation, and he decides he really should stop the Wave movement. But he does it “in his own way”. 
Calling for a Wave meeting between all of the Wave members – the number of which by now has skyrocketed and is exponentially greater than what it originally was – the teacher tells the Wave members that their national leader will be speaking to them on the big screen in the Auditorium. A few minutes later, no leader shows up on the screen. One student calls out – “there is no leader, is there?” The teacher replies sharply – “yes! That’s your leader!” as he points to a 35mm projection of Adolf Hitler during one of his speeches. Everyone in the room is instantly demoralized as they realize what they’ve become – the teacher even says that they all would’ve made good Nazis. 
This is what it comes down to. The power of obedience, when accompanied by the benefit of fitting in and being part of a group in which you’re unconditionally accepted, respected, and held in high esteem, is indeed very great. For this same reason, students go into drugs, alcohol consumption, and smoking when their friends do the same – “come on man, come smoke with us, man.” Same goes for crime – “what, are you scared we’ll get caught or something?” Same goes for elementary school treachery – “just take it, the teacher won’t notice.” As well as for high school apathy, “you’re never gonna learn this stuff anyway; come on, let’s go.” It’s scary to think that we are our own greatest enemies – but I guess that’s the virtue of being human. 
It’s all about learning to fear yourself.

Groupthinking, Obedience – oh, and Phil Zimbardo!

Last blog post I narrated the story of a brave WWII Nazi soldier who put his own morals and appreciation for the life of innocent human beings caught in the midst of political conflict well in front of his own life. In a single, swift act of defiance against his commanding officer, Schultz not only inspired humankind, but he also single-handedly defeated concepts of social psychology that seem to rule over the majority of humankind with an iron fist. 

Gestalt psychologist Solomon Asch published a series of studies in the 1950s which are now collectively known as the Asch Paradigm. Essentially, Asch’s experiments consisted of putting a group of five or six people together, in which only one was a test subject. The group would be asked questions involving comparing the length of a given line to the length of three other lines, and deciding which one was closest to the original. The first few questions, the group answers conspicuously correctly, and the test subject of course agrees with the answers himself. However, when the group offers a visibly incorrect answer, the test subject, despite knowing the rest of the peoples’ answer is incorrect, decides to answer the same way, simply because the rest of the people wholly agree that it’s the right answer, even when it’s visibly not. Suppose I asked you this – “what color is the sky?”, or maybe “what color is this pencil?” “what instrument am I holding?” “what color is the lamp?” and suppose that by the fifth or sixth question, a group of fifteen answers incorrectly, with each of the members issuing the same incorrect answer on purpose, even when the correct answer is obvious Would you be the lone wolf to say the correct answer, or would you simply go with the general consensus of the group and issue the same answer as everyone else. This, my friends, is conformity, and Asch’s experiment – simple and thus easy to propose and explain – dealt with this on a smaller scale. The test subject knew what the right answer was – it was obvious! What made him issue the incorrect answer was that everyone else was issuing that answer. Essentially, he conformed to the actions of others, because he did not want to be the one to stand out. Not only that, but with a group of five or six people issuing the same answer, the collective logic of that group completely dwarfs our own logic. In essence, we become part of the common brain serving the entire group. Majority rules, but a common question is; how can this occur in a real-life situation? In perhaps one of the most frightening ways possible, actually. 
On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger was due for its tenth mission. 47 seconds after blastoff, the Challenger exploded into the fiery mess you see in the picture above. The seven-member crew died almost immediately as the crew compartment had been disconnected from the orbiter by the combustion of the external fuel tank and had crashed into the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. What, or who was at fault here? The NASA members in charge of the project, whom had disregarded notices from engineers who had  mentioned a critical flaw in the construction of the ship. One member said it was all right, and the approval quickly spread as it gained second motions from everyone in the group managing the flight. More specifically, “… a conflict between engineering data and management judgments, and a NASA management structure that permitted internal flight safety problems to bypass key Shuttle managers.” No one was thinking for themselves at that point – they had adopted a new mindset that listened to the group, not to the members. The same forces at work in Asch’s innocent conformity testing were responsible for the death of seven astronauts, and a nationwide disaster.
Schultz didn’t conform. He could’ve easily cracked under the pressure of the stares of his brothers in arms as they motioned for him to get back into formation. Schultz continued past that, and also past the concept of obedience

In 1963, American psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted what would become one of the most controversial and equally classic studies of psychology, as did Asch’s conformity experiments. Milgram wanted to see how people would react when an authority figure told them to do things that went against their personal conscience. He got an actor, various test subjects, and an ominous machine that was supposedly designed to deliver electrostatic shocks, gradually increasing by volts, to a person wearing the respective electrodes on the receiving end. The test subjects saw the actor – whom they were told was a “student”- being outfitted with those electrodes, after which they were escorted to another room with the ominous machine in the corner. They were told that they were teachers that would ask the student questions, and for every wrong answer or lack of an answer, they were to deliver increasingly strong electrostatic shocks – up to 450 volts! What they didn’t know was that the shocks weren’t really being delivered; the screams of pain were fake (hence the actor). Milgram thought that only sadists would go up to 450 volts, but it turned out that a whopping approx. two-thirds of the test subjects did as they told and continued all the way to 450 volts! 
Milgram’s controversial experiment proved that (for the most part) people, when faced with an authority figure, will do whatever the figure orders them to do, even if it goes against their own morals. The two-thirds of people who went all the way up to 450 volts weren’t sadists! They were honest, moral people that were sweating and undergoing extreme frustration as they were told to continue with the experiment despite the dangerous nature of the shocks. This experiment proved that obedience is a human condition, that regardless of what they’re being asked to do, authority figures can make people do things they otherwise wouldn’t! And we see this happening in situations ranging from innocent to grim. In kindergarten, first grade, second grade, we’re presented to a staple of an authority figure – a teacher! We don’t have to listen to them – they’re not our parents, are they? Nope, they’re something worse – an authority figure. The human race is ultimately submissive, thus – students do what the teacher tells them to do without questioning it (until maybe high school). It’s a natural phenomenon. My sister is currently in first grade, and I’m sure that when in school, she sometimes will want to come home and color, or watch Arthur on TV, or play dress up games on the computer. Why doesn’t she get up, go out the door, and call for Mom? Well, besides the fact that she probably wouldn’t have the courage to do that regardless; the other reason why is because Mrs. Martin is there. She’s the teacher, and if she doesn’t let you do something, you don’t do it. Is she not doing it because she needs to stay in school and get an education? Because she wants to stay at school with her friends? No! It’s because the teacher will be angry and punish her. 
That’s a terrible example, isn’t it? Well it’s late (12:30 AM actually) … can you blame me? But despite the surrounding factors, I think it represents best the influence of an authority figure. Hell, when I was in first grade, I was undeniably fearful of my teacher – not to the point where I would scream at the sight of her; instead in the sense that I would never think to do something she told me was wrong. Lawrence Kohlberg calls this the pre-conventional moral reasoning level, one that is ruled by the concepts of punishment and reward.

I’d like to end on a note about Philip Zimbardo. Another American social psychologist, he conducted another controversial experiment in the 1970s, known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. In the basement of Stanford University, Zimbardo constructed a prison using miscellaneous materials scattered around the basement. He then selected college students that wanted to participate in what was described as a two-week summer experiment, which fit perfectly with many of the students’ schedules. Zimbardo, through this experiment, wanted to see the power of roleplay – could the human mind be volatile enough to fool itself into thinking it’s someone else? Some of the students would pretend to be prisoners, whilst others would be guards. The first day of the experiment, the students selected as prisoners were arrested from their homes, blindfolded, and taken to the makeshift prison, where the pretend guards would demean them by putting hair nets on them, strip searching them, make them wear a plain white outfit with no pants – essentially, they emulated a prison environment.

How did it go? Way too well. the guards became convinced that they had a power over the prisoners, that they they were wardens themselves. The prisoners had forgotten that this was a two-week college experiment, and had become convinced that they were true prisoners. Zimbardo himself, upon learning that the prisoners were supposedly planning an escape, began to think like a prison superintendent, weighing option against option on what would be the best way to avoid the situation. There’s more details that I’m missing here, but Zimbardo’s experiment only further strengthens the idea that the mind is as powerful as we tihnk it to be. We can become completely absorbed in someone else, we can be fooled into thinking we are something completely different than we really are. I find that amazing, that our mind is such a grandiose weapon, really, when put to use this way. Zimbardo’s experiment is one whose outcome is difficult to replicate in a real-life situation; in other words, I can’t think of a real-life example. But just the fact that it happened in Zimbardo’s study is amazing enough.

The mind is as fragile as it is strong.  It’s equally susceptible to obedience, groupthink, Zimbardo’s roleplay as it is to creating a person such as Joseph Schultz, and his post-conventional level of moral reasoning. If there’s one thing I’ve learned through my psychology course, it’s that the mind is the greatest tool us human beings have.

It’s no wonder that scientists, doctors, chemists, psychologists say that the mind is a work of art. There’s no doubt about it – it’s the best painting in the world.

One Soldier’s Mind

The concepts of social psychology have a lot to demonstrate about the human mind, and for this reason, this and the next blog post will be discussing some of the greatest examples of the influence of social psychology on human behavior and responses. However. we begin today with a negation of those very principles – with the story of a German soldier who gave his life for what he believed in. 

The comments here are based on a film dramatization of Schultz’ story.

World War II, early 1940s. The Nazi war machine is at war with the United States, England, Russia and other nations. On the other side of the world, the second Axis power, the Japanese, are at odds with American gunships and fighters sweeping the Pacific Ocean. A time of political turmoil, but more importantly, of unacceptable amounts of lives lost that didn’t deserve to be lost. Nazi soldiers, in addition to risking their lives in urban and rural warfare against enemy troops, were often charged with the task of executing defenseless civilians and other innocent people caught in the middle of world-wide political conflict.
Joseph Schultz was a good, upstanding Nazi soldier fighting on the Eastern Front. On the 20th of July, 1941, he’s caught relaxing with his fellow soldiers when the commanding general of the unit summons them to participate in what at first appears to be a routine mission. However, when they see fourteen defenseless captives pressed against a haystack, blindfolded, they know what they’re doing isn’t routine. They line up a good ten to fifteen meters away from the captives, and as seven of the soldiers take aim at them, a rifle is dropped on the ground. Joseph Schultz had lied down his rifle and combat helmet, ignoring a military order from his commander as he walked to the other side of the equation taking his place next to the captives on the haystack. The captive closest to him grips his hand, and a few minutes later, amidst confusion from Schultz’ brothers in arms, the commanding officer orders the soldiers to shoot. The fourteen civilian captives are dead, in addition to the single Nazi soldier who put his morals, values, and opinions well above the call of duty.

What do we see here besides a human being too humane to take orders of assassination? We see the concepts of social psychology being completely opposed by the mindset of one human being with courage large enough, and values great enough to put his own life on the line for.

Schultz’ story is inspiring for two reasons. For one, it is the story of a caring human being who could not bear the guilt that would come from killing innocent civilians in cold blood. This was different from killing armed infantry and taking out armed tanks – those were people well equipped to deal with the war they were risking their lives in. But these civilians were bystanders in a worldwide sea witnessing the greatest storm the world had to offer – World War II. They had no fault, they had no reason to die. Their death would yield a controversy in political talks, perhaps the facilitation of the conquest of the next opposing nation. Schultz may or may not have thought about this when he put his life on the line, and most likely, he wasn’t thinking about it. Schultz, as is evident in the film, was an upstanding soldier that attacked fortified positions with ease, that was part of an elite group of soldiers worthy of an official photographed group portrait. He had no reason to doubt the morality of the political party, of the military superiors he served for. He did have reason to doubt the morality of killing a defenseless human being. That’s what stopped Schultz from going along with what he was being told to do, from going along with what his close-knit military brothers were doing.

That’s the second reason why Schultz’ story is amazing. He stepped over the social psychology concepts of groupthink, of obedience, in a single act of defiance against his military superior. What are these concepts? How did Schultz oppose them? Stay tuned for the next blog post.