making local government more ethical

The Lucifer Effect II — Situational Forces

This second blog post on Philip Zimbardo's book The Lucifer Effect applies the situational approach to government ethics programs, and looks at the situational forces at play with respect to ethical misconduct.

The Situational Approach
It is in the interests of those who are responsible for the preservation of a poor ethics environment to keep an ethics program focused on individuals. This isolates problems and deflects attention away from those responsible for situational pressures and the lack of oversight.

But there is an alternative approach, which takes a situational orientation. Zimbardo refers to the alternative approach to individual misconduct as a public health approach. The medical approach is individualistic, treating the patient. The public health approach identifies diseases and tries to prevent them from spreading. In the context of local government ethics, the disease is institutional corruption and a poor ethics environment. If patients keep catching this disease from their environment, treating their ethical misconduct alone is a short-sighted and short-term solution.

Only by recognizing the power of situational forces to infect us can we avoid, prevent, challenge, and change them. Just as we need to recognize that we are all vulnerable to diseases, ethics programs need to recognize everyone's vulnerability to situational forces and their need to deal not only with individual conduct, but also with the situational forces themselves. This is similar to a flu epidemic, where public health professionals try to stop the spread of the flu at the same time that individuals are treated individually.

It's important to emphasize that although a poor ethics environment is a principal cause of ethical misconduct, this does not mean that individuals are not responsible for their actions. But depending on the particular circumstances, situational forces could be considered as mitigating circumstances or, for those putting pressure on subordinates, for example, as aggravating circumstances in determining an individual's penalty for violating the ethics code.

Zimbardo quotes Lee Ross and Donna Shestowsky arguing that the criminal justice system (and this would also apply to the ethics enforcement system) should not accept erroneous notions of the individual's sole responsibility for misconduct, leaving out situational effects, any more than it should accept what was once considered equally valid, that is, the effects of demonic possession and witchcraft. That's worth a bit of thought.

The situational orientation does not apply only to ethics enforcement. Officials can protect themselves best if they are taught not only what conduct is unacceptable, but also what situational pressures they will need to oppose, and how best they can do this. Therefore, situational forces need to be taken into account in every aspect of an ethics program, including training, advice, disclosure, investigations, enforcement, and the drafting of ethics codes, regulations, and rules of procedure.

The Situational Forces
What are the situational forces that cause people to act in ways they do not act elsewhere in their lives? The forces most relevant to local governments include obedience to authority, loyalty, intimidation (and the resulting passivity), and rationalization (government attorneys are best at providing this). These are forces I've written about in this blog.

One of the strongest forces, which is employed both in prison situations and especially in war, is, I believe, also relevant to local governments, but it's one I haven't written about for a long time, and not in this manner:  dehumanization. By seeing others ("the enemy") as less than human (or at least less than us and our colleagues), we can see them as deserving of mistreatment, and ourselves and those like us as deserving of special treatment. Dehumanizing others disengages our morality and our reason.

In war, the enemy is pictured as animalistic, perverse, insane. In government, the enemy is usually considered the other major party or faction, and dehumanization does play a part in inter-party enmity. But the real enemy, in a poor ethics environment, is the public, and its other representatives, the news media. They are seen not in as strong terms as an enemy in war, but as decidedly lower than government officials. They don't understand the problems, don't know the facts, and all they think about is their wallets or crazy ideas, like stopping development or holding referendums. Ever notice how often when a citizen rises and makes a strong critical point, she is told she doesn't know what she's talking about? Humiliation is an important weapon of dehumanization.

On one hand, this is a classic example of the ad hominem attack, attacking the individual rather than the argument that is being made. And when community leaders make this sort of attack, since they are presumed to know what's what, it is an effective way to counter an argument, as dishonest as it might be. But it reflects something more than cleverness and dishonesty:  the fact that many government officials feel they have special knowledge that makes them superior to the rest of the community. With this special knowledge, such officials feel they don't really have to listen to what is said by the public, unless feelings are strong enough to make a difference at the polls.

One way in which the dehumanization of the public becomes normal practice is in the rules for speaking at public meetings. Members of the public are often given a very short period of time in which to speak, they are often not allowed to ask direct questions (and rarely follow-up questions), and officials often respond to them in a condescending way, even when their tone is very civil. Or they refuse to respond at all, as if the questioner is too lowly to deserve an answer. In the worst ethics environments (and I've seen videos of this from council meetings across the country), legislative bodies have "difficult" members of the public forcefully taken out of the meeting by police officers, or the threat is made.

When I rose to ask a question of my town's finance director at a town meeting several years ago, the moderator (a neighbor of mine) told me that the rules did not allow for asking questions of town officials. I successfully appealed the moderator's decision pursuant to Robert's Rules §24. He is a good person who was apparently protecting those who had chosen him for the position. As a lawyer, he is used to representing those who "hire" him and doing what is necessary to "win." What he did turned out to be unnecessary, because the finance director, who was one of those responsible for the town government's poor ethics environment, refused to answer my question. And no one said a word in protest. It was as if the town meeting, the height of public participation in our society, were one big prison guarded by its officials who, of course, made the unwritten rules, often as they went along. The goal is to keep the inmates . . . I mean the citizens . . . from getting out of line.

The Effect of Situational Forces on New Officials
New officials often get pulled into feeling superior to ordinary citizens. They come in as members of the public who don't know what's what, but they have the chance to become a member of the in crowd, knowledgeable, respected, and arrogant. This is hard to resist. And with the idea of having special knowledge and becoming one of the elect comes the idea that you have special rights, that you deserve things others don't deserve. You are entitled to treat yourself and others differently from the average citizen.This is one of the principal factors in the process of co-opting. And once you're accepted, it's hard to act in such a way that you might be kicked out. It takes a strong rather than a good character. It takes independence of mind as well as courage.

Zimbardo included in his book a quotation from a lecture by the writer C. S. Lewis, best known for his Narnia books, but also an Oxford professor and lay theologian. The quote shows how easily our desire to belong can lead us to do things we would not otherwise do:
    [I]t will be the hint of something, which is not quite in accordance with the technical rules of fair play, something that the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand. Something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about, but something, says your new friend, which "we" — and at that the word "we" you try not to blush from your pleasure — something "we always do." And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man's face — that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face — turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you have been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit.
And then, of course, there is power. Having authority can do incredible things to a person's conduct. A former prison inmate (in the real world) was made head of the imaginary Parole Board in the Stanford Prison Experiment, and as the "prisoners" came before the board, he embraced his authority with increasing intensity and conviction. He "confided that he had been sickened by what he had heard himself say and feel when he was cloaked in his new role." And this happened in just one day, in what he knew was an experiment.

It's important to recall that relationships are central to conflicts of interest, and relationships are also central to this process of becoming one of the elect, subject to the unwritten rules more than to the rules of law and ethics. It is also important to recognize that this process is not only positive – learning the ropes – but also negative – looking down on the public and coming to feel entitled. The negative aspects help officials to justify ignoring the public interest because, after all, the public doesn't know what its interest is.

See the other blog posts on The Lucifer Effect:
I–A Situational Approach to Local Government Ethics
III–Debriefing and Other Ways to Deal with Situational Forces
IV–Miscellaneous Observations

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics