Psychological Studies That Highlight The Devils That Might Live Inside Us All

There are a handful of interesting psychological and behavioural studies that highlights why some of the behaviours in the digital age, the ego centric ones, aren’t particularly surprising.


Back in the 1970’s a Stanford experiment of a mock prison took a turn for the worst. It was halted early when those role-playing the positions of prison guards let the power go to their heads. They began acting with malice, cruelty and, on occasions, sheer evil towards fellow students role-playing prison inmates. The study-highlighted people may all have some capacity, no matter how minor, for meanness given the right circumstances. There’s even a movie been made on the social experiment.


Social media platforms certainly qualify as circumstance. We see similar behaviour has exploded in these forums. The worst manifestation of this propensity for cruelty shows itself through digital stalking (sometimes then offline to real life), trolling, bullying or general pulling down of others. The platforms don’t have mechanisms of human behaviour to keep it all in check: true accountability for ones actions.


A 2003 psychological study suggested we might be just as easily corrupted by power when given the right circumstances to some degree. Only in this case the power makes our actions riskier. We put ourselves on pedestals more easily and have a greater sense of entitlement. These 2 traits, entitlement and a greater sense of one’s own importance, are perhaps 2 of traits most magnified, not in a great way, also by the power of social platforms.


We see it some nominated leaders in positions of power (yes, Trump is an easy reference point but so many others too). More and more people, taking the idea of personal branding to whole new heights, allow the perception of their ‘influence’ to over inflate their egos at greater risk of themselves and others.


Think fraudsters from Fyre infamy, Billy McFarland, who’s a classic example of an over inflated sense of entitlement and risk without little consideration or perception of accountability.


The Milgram experiment in 1961 highlighted this lack of accountability being present in a high percentage of people. We might follow a course of action even when detrimental consequences are sure to follow. In the experiment, people would deliver what would prove to be fatal electrical shocks purely because someone in position of power told them to do so.


The experiment also highlighted how we may all face conflicting moral impulses. If we don’t have to face accountability or take responsibility we may be inclined to choose the lower moral ground.


This too is easily reflected in worsening online behaviour. The abuse or torment people throw at strangers or those they disagree with. Any usual path of civil discourse is deteriorating. There are plenty of people who might dish out commentary or get on the bandwagon from behind the neutrality or safety of the keyboard. Would they say the same to a person in the street?


It’s why trolls hide in anonymity. Deep down they perhaps know being incognito is the only thing preventing them feeling the full weight of their own mediocrity.  If only they’d find something they are actually good at then channel the same amount of energy or focus on that.  But that again is a behavioral skill, one they’re perhaps getting worse at because of their addiction to digital.


The Marshmallow test, originating in the 60’s through to the 90’s from Stanford under direction of Walter Mischel, is famously known for highlighting any ability to delay gratification is a great trait for longer-term success.


These days people have become so impatient and want everything now. And better still; give me it all for free! Our threshold for patience and self-control seems to be deteriorating and that impatience is killing the very thing we all need to keep improving: actual skills.


There are plenty of people faking fields of specialty, racing to get ahead, self-proclaiming expertise. A quarter century ago one earned their credentials. Nowadays experts are kids on Facebook barely out of school.


I know in my own circle of people writing books on how to build a business without going to university: yet they are at university and have no business. How to be a world class ‘insert position here’ when they’ve not achieved it yet.


Not every accomplishment in life makes you a master and the way we are bowing down to participation awards perhaps exacerbates this problem of a rush to get ahead. Everything about social media has been designed, deliberately; for this short-term dopamine fix to keep you hooked and addicted.


Social media is a marshmallow test fail on a global scale.


Even some of Facebook’s earliest founders have come out in recent years highlighting such fatal flaws. Chamath Palihapitaya noted a feeling of guilt for helping create tools that are ‘ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.’ He’s not the only one and perhaps they’re onto something?


In the late 90’s a study conducted by Harvard highlighted how we already struggle to notice what’s right in front of us. They’d have strangers ask for directions then, mid way through receiving them, would swap out the stranger, as two men carrying a door would pass between. Often the person issuing instructions wouldn’t even notice the substitution even when physical appearance differences were obvious.


Another example of selective attention is the classic gorilla test  where people are so focused counting the number of times a ball is passed they miss the gorilla walking through the middle of the experiment thumping his chest. We are already wired with selective focus so think about what those digital algorithms and content targeted at your addiction dopamine fix do to further inhibit this. It may limit even further our ability to see fresh perspectives or concepts.


We may be being pumped with more of the same biases constantly due to the nature of those algorithms.  In fact we now know that companies mining your data have managed to manipulate this to the extent of important political decisions and trends.


Of course there is value in the world of digital, there is quality, yet our hard wired behaviours including things like envy, jealousy, insecurity, judgments or prejudices, added to the mechanisms of how these platforms work, only serve to further block or prevent, not enhance, our personal growth.


Even simpler skills once taken for granted, once skills that as a species we were better equipped with, such as basic navigation or orientation, we’re losing because of an over reliance of apps and tools like Google maps. It’s likely our ancient sapien ancestors were equipped with far greater general knowledge of our environments that we’ve perhaps forgotten or gone backwards with.


Perhaps the longest study of adult development, out of Harvard, lasting close to 80 years, found the single ingredient to a secret, long and happy life to be, wait for it. Yes, love. What a surprise. Being supported and surrounded by people you know you can rely on sets you up for a fulfilling and happier life.


Yet again all too many people will sacrifice real world friendships and quality time with people in their lives for the sake of looking good for strangers in a digital world.


A curious thing is that as we no doubt continue to race, tech first through the next decade, AI and machine learning will perhaps be geared up to replace so many roles.  The skills we all need more of are the very ones we are losing because we’re using them with less frequency, thought or skill.


There’s research in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, where lead author David Fisher shows that the increased evolution of selfless traits — such as sharing food and keeping watch for one another — is mathematically equivalent to the decreased evolution of individually beneficial traits.


“They’re two sides of the same coin,” Fisher explains. “On one side, traits evolve that benefit your kin, but don’t benefit you, because you’re helping your siblings or cousins. On the other side, traits that benefit you but cost your neighbours don’t evolve, because you’re causing damage to related individuals.”


Well, the same is perhaps true then to be more mindful of how we are using tech so our behaviour doesn’t keep going backward.


Anyway, to each their own. I just know that if things keep going the way they are then I could already start planning a different path for my 3rd book.  It will be on how to be a single, divorced mother. Because clearly I know as much about that topic as many gurus out there preach about their own fields of expertise.


Be mindful, the historical studies are there. Whilst tech may be beneficial, don’t let digital tap into the cruel, impatient, power hungry, selfish, over inflated ego or lower evolved version of yourself that science suggests might rear its head!

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