Skip to main content

Could you snatch away a child's lunch?

By Jason Marsh
updated 12:45 PM EST, Sat February 1, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jason Marsh: Stories of school lunches grabbed from kids, man ignored by rescuers draw shock
  • How does this happen? Studies show people all too blindly obey rules, authority, he says
  • Marsh: It's surmountable. People can be reminded of humanity, taught empathy
  • Marsh: Story of boy, on his own instincts, urging mom to check on fallen neighbor gives hope

Editor's note: Jason Marsh is the founding editor-in-chief of the online magazine Greater Good, published by the Greater Good Science Center, which focuses on the "science of a meaningful life" and is based at the University of California at Berkeley.

(CNN) -- Two recent incidents have people questioning the basic goodness of humanity.

In Washington, a man had a fatal heart attack across the street from a fire station. Passers-by said firefighters refused to help him because they hadn't been officially dispatched.

At an elementary school in Salt Lake City, staff members seized and discarded children's lunches because their parents owed money on their accounts. (School administrators apologized.)

Jason Marsh
Jason Marsh

Officials in Washington say they are "furious" at the firefighters' inaction. A mother of one of the students in Utah says she was "blind-sided" by the school's actions, and a state senator says he is "incredibly disappointed."

The anger and bewilderment are understandable. But neither incident seems that shocking when considered in light of decades of study of the psychology of obedience and power. Researchers have repeatedly found that allegiance to rules and protocols routinely trumps people's consciences and sense of basic moral responsibility.

Most famously, studies by Stanley Milgram at Yale University in the 1960s found that ordinary people were willing to give what they believed were fatal electric shocks to their partners in a bogus "memory experiment" simply because a researcher in a white lab coat told them to. The people supposedly getting shocked (who were working with Milgram and not being hurt at all) hollered and pleaded for the shocks to stop, which distressed many of the people administering them, but they kept at it. In fact, roughly two-thirds of the participants kept giving shocks until they had reached the highest voltage level possible, a percentage far higher than Milgram or any of his colleagues anticipated.

In a similar vein, the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment run by psychologist Philip Zimbardo took typical Stanford University undergrads and randomly assigned them to be guards or prisoners in a makeshift jail. The guards completely took on their new roles and meted out cruel and sadistic treatment to their "prisoners."

Utah school snatches students' lunches
Firemen on leave after refusal to help man

The authority they were given and the rules they were asked to enforce blinded them to what was right — and perhaps the same could be said for those school officials and firefighters.

It's important to keep in mind that the participants in Milgram and Zimbardo's studies weren't necessarily bad people. They were likely no worse than you or me. They, too, were likely "blind-sided by the surprisingly strong ways that rules and circumstance can dictate our behavior. While we would like to believe that humanity has evolved since the 1960s, other researchers have achieved similar results in more recent years.

Is the upshot of all this that we're condemned to be unprincipled sheep? That a few rules and regulations can easily blind us to the better angels of our nature?

Not so fast. The research shows that while external influences on our behavior can be strong, they are not insurmountable.

We can overcome these influences simply by becoming more aware of them. One set of studies found that when people attended social psychology lectures explaining how external pressures can inhibit moral behavior, they became less susceptible to those pressures.

Other evidence suggests that being reminded of one's similarities or common humanity with a person in need can motivate us to come to their aid, even when doing so puts ourselves at risk. Perhaps if bystanders' appeals to those firefighters had struck a more personal chord with them, they might have been jarred into action.

Finally, throughout history, we have seen examples of people who displayed great altruism, even heroism, while most everyone around them remained bystanders to evil — or perpetrators of it. Some evidence suggests that the roots of this caring behavior extend back into childhood. A seminal study by Samuel and Pearl Oliner suggests that one commonality of people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust was that their parents nurtured empathy in them, such as by encouraging them to see the world from other points of view and emphasizing the universal similarity of people.

Indeed, the childhood roots of altruism were evoked by another story in the news this week: the story of 10-year-old Danny DiPietro, who noticed that something seemed awry in a neighbor's garage and pressured his mother to investigate.

Despite his mother's resistance, Danny persisted until his mother agreed to walk down the street. She found an 80-year-old neighbor who had slipped, couldn't get up, and likely would have died had she spent much more time trapped outside in the freezing cold. Rather than remaining quiet or succumbing to the pressure not to make waves, Danny stayed attuned to his moral instincts—"something just didn't feel right," he said.

Sometimes it's nice to be reminded that while sensing what's right can get complicated by adult rules and regulations, it can still come naturally to kids.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jason Marsh.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:30 AM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT