Conforming to Expectations

One of my favorite psychological experiments is the famous and ethically-questionable Stanford Prison Experiment. If you’re not familiar with the experiment, the brief summary is this:

In 1971, Stanford psychology professor Phillip Zombardo selected 24 college males who were psychologically stable and healthy, and randomly assigned the roles of prisoner or prison guard to each, in a 50/50 split. With a semi-realistic prison environment, and isolation from the rest of the world, the students very quickly embraced their roles, to the point of several guards becoming sadistic and cruel and several prisoners suffering mental breakdowns within days of the start of the experiment. Even Zombardo shifted his view from researcher to “prison warden” until a colleague of his asked the pertinent question for any experiment, “what’s your Control?” At this point, the experiment ended early, although participation affected the students deeply for years to come.

The key takeaway from me for the Experiment has always been the speed at which individuals will fully embrace and conform to the role in which they are placed. When a role is reinforced, even slightly, a feedback loop begins where people act in a manner more and more in line with the expectation for that role, which reinforces the perception, and so on. A telling point in the experiment is that within only three days, the “prisoners” were willing for forfeit payment for “early release”, or were negotiatingĀ other terms to avoid further abuse at the hands of the guards, when in fact they were free at any moment, as voluntary participants in a psychological experiment, to walk out of the facility and return home. People, inevitably and quickly, conform to expectations for the role in which they are placed.

I mention this because of two points I would like to make. First, with regards to managing and leading teams, I’m aware that team members will conform to the role expectations in which they’re placed. Thus, whenever someone reports to me, I treat them like they’re one level above whatever their actual job level is. If they’re a Software Development Intern, I treat them like I would treat a full time Jr. Engineer so that they understand what the expectation is of their next role. Mid-Level Managers are treated like Sr. Managers, and are pointed to examples of great Sr. Managers, so that they understand the role to emulate, the expectations, and they begin to grow the actual skills and abilities of the next level. Nothing stunts a career more quickly than to place someone in a box at or below their current level, and keep them in that box forever. If you show someone an opportunity for growth, and give them an example of what that role looks like, they will conform to that role. At AMZN, this ledĀ to several of my reports being promoted, including my very first promotion recommendation, which apparently was a rarity for a new manager at AMZN. This was a process that worked.

Second, as we look at a series of troubling National incidents, we see a pattern of role expectations. When citizens are under constant surveillance by their government, they begin to act in an untrustworthy manner, because the role of being watched constantly sends the message that they require surveillance. When racial or ethnic groups are policed more harshly than other groups, or are treated like criminals, they lash out in a manner related to criminals, because they conform to the expectation. Some media will state that this just proves the surveillance or policing was justified, but this is just a post hoc fallacy: the role assignment caused the behavior, not the other way around. If we treat our citizens and all ethnic and social groups like informed and intelligent actors worthy of respect, they will rise to fill that role.

Part of what we’re doing with SyncBuildRun is to build games that features characters who give our players good examples of those roles. Building good role models is important, and building role models for overlooked groups is critically important, because too many people have difficultly emulating success without a solid role model to follow.

Unfortunately, modern media, especially reality television, is saturated with terrible role models. 40-something housewives should not aspire to be petty, bickering older versions of teenagers. Business people should not emulate the cold, harsh, cruel capitalists we see on TV. Student athletes should not become spousal abusers, or perpetrators of animal or domestic violence.

Certainly, our heroine of V.Next, Vivienne Denue, is an outsider, but her values and accomplishments over Season 1 set her as a role model for a purpose-driven technology enthusiast. We’re demonstrating a character with high moral standards, an ability to overcome challenges, and drive to understand and utilize technology to achieve her goals. For the additional IPs we have in development, we have similar goals for and qualities of our central characters. When players inhabit these roles, they begin to conform to the expectations, so of course we want to present roles that elevate and encourage our players.

Our goal is not to create more prisoners or guards. Our goal is to build more leaders. That’s our experiment, and I believe it’s a highly ethical one.

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