I was pleasantly surprised when on the second day of the social good summit, I recognized one of the speakers from a TED talk I once watched for my AP Psychology class. In her presentation, “The Neuro-Tech Network of Humanity,” Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor explained how human brains are designed in a way that makes social activism possible. One half of our brain (the left brain) makes it possible for us to plan, communicate, and organize things, while the other half (the right brain) is able to think holistically and creatively. More interesting is the idea that the left brain is what allows us to see ourselves as individuals, while the right brain understands that we are part of something much bigger. So we don’t just understand that we are all a part of this planet; we also understand that we as an individual can make a difference.
Taylor went on the explain how our most basic and innate functions were located in the center of the brain, while our higher “additional” functions developed through evolution and aging. If you ever learned about the brain’s anatomy, you know that the limbic system (emotions) is right in the center of everything, while our frontal lobe and cerebral cortex (thinking and higher reasoning) are at the edges of our brain. So in Taylor’s words, “We aren’t thinking creatures who feel, we are feeling creatures who think.”
Why is that important? Well according to Taylor’s argument, our natural tendencies lead us to feel for others. We are sensitive to the suffering around us and want to make a change. The thing which separates humans from other animals is that our brains have both the capacity to feel for others, and the reasoning and thinking skills to make accomplish the goal to make their lives better. If we go by what Taylor is saying, we are basically designed to be good people and help one another.
But if that’s true, why is it that so many people often choose to make decisions which harm others? The answer, coincidentally, can be found in yet another TED talk I viewed in my AP psychology course.
Philip Zimbardo, world-renowned psychologist and professor at Stanford University, has spent his career studying what makes humans “go bad.” In his book The Lucifer Effect, he analyzes the ways in which we can span the spectrum between kind and cruel, caring and indifferent, and so on. What he eventually found is that people don’t just become evil; rather, it is a higher power, or “the system,” which causes them to do bad things. In Zimbardo’s words, it’s not the apples that go bad, it’s the barrel.
He found that when people are put in an unfamiliar situation, they tend to do what the authoritative figure tells them to do–even if that means hurting people. Anonymity is also a large factor. When people disguise themselves, 12 out of 13 are willing to harm others, compared to 1 in 8 if they just appear as themselves. I know this sounds extreme, but there have been several studies to back this up, including Zimbardo’s himself, which tested college students like us. Kids were assigned positions in a makeshift prison, either as inmates or guards. The guards were instructed by authority figures to taunt the prisoners, humiliate them and abuse them. And they did, because that what they’d been told, and they didn’t know what else to do. They adapted in order to cope within a bad situation.
Humans are impressionable, and though I’d like to believe in what Taylor asserts about us being engineered to do good, we also have to remember how easy it is for us to do bad as well. If we keep a close watch on our leadership, and constantly ask ourselves if what we’re doing is really okay, I think we could make the progress everyone at the summit was talking about. We just have to remember: The most important person to monitor is ourselves.
Jill Bolte Taylor. Stroke of Insight, 2008.
Philip Zimbardo. The Psychology of Evil, 2008.
Philip Zimbardo. The Lucifer Effect, 2007.