Why good people do bad things to each other

OPINION: The infamous Stanford University Prison Experiment pitted two groups of students against each other.

One group was asked to role-play prisoners, and the other group acted as the guards. The supervisors made arbitrary rules, and it didn't take long before the guards started bullying and psychologically abusing the prisoners who didn't follow the rules.

The experiment was supposed to last two weeks but had to be abandoned after just six days, with some students traumatised by the experience. The methodology and outcomes are highly questionable in academic circles, but some principles are clearly illustrated.

People, who can be considered good in all other respects, can easily put thoughts or actions into separate mental boxes that are disconnected from outcomes.

Psychologists call this "compartmentalised thinking". The parking warden can dish out tickets because that's "the job" without considering the financial stress it may cause.

Yes, there are a thousand excuses, most rubbish, but what if a solo mum was dealing with a child's medical emergency?

It is the opposite of the creative process of 'thinking outside the box' – looking for connections and ideas beyond the immediate linear thought process.

This natural inclination to box thinking is compounded by authorities, such as employers. Many people will readily hand over responsibility to bosses, often because they have limited power to resolve issues anyway.

Thus, if a boss tells the parking warden to write a hundred tickets a day, then that mum with sick child in tow, arriving a minute late, is given no leeway. Moral reasoning is somebody else's duty.

Rules and regulations add further still, by dehumanising situations. The rationale behind the rules is quickly forgotten as the thought box contains the process and nothing else.  "Only following orders" was the defence of many Nazis. How about taking responsibility for deciding whether that order was fair or not?

I have never met a councillor who wasn't trying to do good things for Hamilton.

I am friends with many council staff members and they are good people. But in large institutions such as governments and councils, the bureaucracy actively creates thought boxes.

Every rule, regulation, and policy is a box.

There is an old adage: "if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail."

Councils write rules about any issue they can imagine. When those rules create bad outcomes, their response is more rules.

Case in point is the District Plan. When the Resource Management Act first came into force, it was described as an "enabling document" to give greater flexibility. Since then, a steady creep of regulations has seen District Plans triple in size and the number of planners in Hamilton City Council quadruple.

The National Government amended the Act to simplify the process and reduce the number of consents, but this has been actively subverted by councils.

Somewhere in the system is a manager ticking a box about increasing income, thinking it is a good outcome for council without caring about the people who have to pay.

The impact is a mountain of paperwork and delays, with a new profession of consultants needed by the public to navigate the bureaucracy – at yet more cost.

A major Hamilton house building company has priced the average expense at $8,000 per house just to get through the system. The cost of inefficient land usage is even greater, and is a major factor in the housing affordability crisis. Have the regulations improved our buildings? Is it worth the trouble? I can show you many examples where the outcome is clearly bad.  

More people need to start thinking outside the box.

There is a real person at the end of the rule.

Begin by asking "what is the purpose of the rule? Does it really apply here? Is there a better way of achieving a good outcome?" This is what being good at your job really means.

Changing the thought process works. Rules banning skateboards from public areas are destined to fail. The alternative approach is a positive solution. Building the Melville and Fairfield skate bowls gave kids a place to go.

Graffiti has been around since Roman times, even though it was a lot harder to chisel slogans into stone than to use spray paint.

One option would have been to allow selected walls to be used publicly for slogans. This could manage the extent and location, perhaps even encouraging more artistic work in order to get noticed.

Instead rules banning graffiti made it more daring and exciting, causing the problem to evolve. There was a shift away from political slogans to personal "tags" because the culprits revelled in the notoriety. The rules made the problem worse.

Thinking outside the box led to Hamilton City Council's Tagbuster initiative. Understanding the notoriety motivator pointed to a solution. Painting over the tags quickly has made it less meaningful for taggers and graffiti has declined.

I am sure good people get more work satisfaction from coming up with real solutions to help people than simply filling boxes. This is why they were originally called civil servants.  

*Andrew Bydder is a Hamilton architect


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