Like many Americans, I couldn't help but sit in astonishment last week as I watched the videos showing University of California police officers hitting and pepper-spraying non-violent student protestors.
My initial reaction was disgust and anger. How could a reasonable person see this as proportional force to disperse the protesting students? While it's not as bad as what's happening in Egypt or Syria, this is definitely not behavior we expect to see happen in the land of the free and home of the brave. (I'd like to point out that the "it's worse elsewhere" defense is specious at best).
Many of us direct our anger at the police officers themselves. I'm guilty of this too. When I saw the video of UC Davis students being pepper-sprayed, I immediately thought that Officer Pike must be sadistically enjoying the act. I mean obviously only a sadistic nutcase would do such a malicious act like this right? A "normal" person would act reasonably and find an alternative, more peaceful way right?
Unfortunately, psychology says that this may not the case.
The science of human behavior consistently demonstrates that conformity is the norm, even for aggressive and abusive actions. Doing the "right" thing in the face of authority demanding excessive force is the exception to the rule. All freshmen psychology majors know this story by heart due to the tragic success of the research by Stanley Milgrim and Philip Zimbardo.
Conformity To Power
Stanley Milgrim was an American psychologist who wanted to understand how it was that so many Germans could commit the atrocities that occurred under Nazi control. Are Germans just a sadistic people inclined towards violence or could anyone be pushed to kill an innocent human being?
To test this, Milgrim took a random sample of people around Yale University and put them in charge of "delivering" electric shocks to "participants" who were answering questions in another room. Every time the "participant" gave an incorrect response, the test subject was told to deliver a shock and increase the intensity of the electrical stimulus on the next incorrect answer. Milgrim found that most people (over half) caved to the authority of the experimenter and would deliver even a "fatal" electric shock to the unseen "participant."
Of course the "participant" was just an actor and the "shocks" were never actually delivered, but the conclusion was very clear. For most people the drive to conform to authority was so strong that they'd even hurt or kill a stranger rather than resist the authoritative figure. This is even without a threat of violence from the authority figure.
About a decade later Phillip Zimbardo showed how context can even affect the authority figures themselves. In one of the most terrifying experiments in modern psychology, Zimbardo showed that John Dalberg-Acton had a particularly acute insight into the pernicious influence of power on human behavior.
Zimbardo took a random sample of Stanford University students and assigned half to playing the role of "prisoners" and the rest fake "guards" in a mock prison setup in the basement of the Department of Psychology. Zimbardo himself the role of "warden." Within a matter of days things quickly fell apart. Otherwise normal, college students found themselves abusing their classmates by playing the role of authoritarian prison guards. The entire expriment had to be shut down as people fell too deeply into their simulated roles (including Zimbardo himself) and started hurting fellow students. This was in a setup where everyone knew that their roles weren't real.
The important thing to realize is that in both the Milgrim Study and the Stanford Prison Experiment, it wasn't a subset of people who were pre-disposed to violence that committed abusive acts it was an easy majority each time. When pressured by authority people will do extraordinary things and left unconstrained those in authority can go too far. It's simply human nature.
Two Eyes For An Eye
Even in the moment, psychology teaches us that each forceful act is perceived differently by those doing the hitting and those being hit. Neuroscientist and motor researcher Dan Wolpert wanted to understand why it is that the fights between his two children escalated so rapidly (well really he was trying to understand how the brain optimally predicts sensory stimuli when we move, but it was his kids that apparently gave him this idea for the experiment).
Wolpert had subjects press on a lever attached to a robotic arm. Another arm delivered the exact same force to another participant seated in the same room. This participant was then instructed to deliver the force he felt back to the other person using a similar robot setup. With each cycle the amount of force being delivered would nearly double. This is because our brains underestimate the experience of force when we produce and so it feels weaker than the forces we experience from someone else. It's the same reason why we can't tickle ourselves. The sensory signals are sort of cancelled out when we produce them. When we expect it, our brains make things feel a bit less intense.
Bringing this back to the events of the last few weeks, this may mean that the officers may not fully perceive how rough they are actually being. Their brains literally don't feel that they are hitting as hard as they are. So in the moment, it may literally seem as if the hits aren't as strong as they are. (Of course, who knows if this holds for the experience of pepper spraying.)
Putting The Context In Context
Before I end I need to point out that there are thousands of upstanding police officers in this country who put themselves in dangerous situations every day to keep the public safe and treat civilians in a civil manner. There are many many officers who treat protesters with dignity and without violence. Sadly, we often react with more anger to misuses of pepper spray than we react with sadness when an officer is gunned down doing the right thing in the line of duty.
In no way do I mean to imply that because of the context that they are put in, all police officers are going to be abusive or lose control. I'm just trying to point out that we take a good look at ourselves and realize that many of us, if put in the same situation, would very likely do the same thing as Lt. Pike or the Berkeley police officers.
So what do we do? Maybe instead of just admonishing the excessive force when we see it, we should also focus on rewarding those officers who stand up against the pressure and internal desires to use excessive force because it's the easy route. After all, reinforcement works better to change behavior than punishment (we can also thank psychology for knowing that). But until we start accepting that these actions are not abnormal, but in fact predictable within a context, any acts of punishment against officers who go too far won't change the likelihood of future similar acts
With the exception of psychopaths and saints, if you treat a man like a dog you will get a dog. But treat a man like a man and you'll get a human being.
Shergill, S. (2003). Two Eyes for an Eye: The Neuroscience of Force Escalation Science, 301 (5630), 187-187 DOI: 10.1126/science.1085327