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April 29, 2007

Stanford Prison Experiment and Swarm Intelligence

Guy Kawaski recently conducted an interview with Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the person who created the Stanford Prison Experiment.  I've been fascinated with this experiment, because of how the situational factors of it could turn good college students into sadistic guardsmen.  Dr. Zimbardo recounts it in the interview and also in his recently published book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.

Although the interview talks a lot about Abu Ghraib, I thought it would be interesting to apply the experiment to corporate cultures.  In the experiment, the night watchmen were given nearly complete authority over what they did, with little oversight and a management team that does not care about the lapses.  Each little lapse will compound over time, until the entire system is enveloped in unethical behavior.  In corporate America, how do you get rid of ethical lapses when people are given much more autonomy?  Some argue you need rigorous internal controls and a great degree of oversight over the employees.  By creating the controls, you can get rid of the behavior quickly.

There is just one problem with having lots of controls...they inhibit system performance.  Swarm Intelligence deals with this area, describing systems of behavior where there a couple of general rules followed by everyone involved.  Researchers found that when you run a simulation with dumb robots and they have a plethora of rules, the dumb robots will collectively act in a simple, dumb manner.  Although if you keep the number of rules to no more than four or five simple ones, the dumb robots as a collective will exhibit complex, intelligent behavior.  Given human beings are an intelligent complex species by nature, giving us a lot of rules to live by will probably make us take simple, dumb actions for fear of breaking one of the rules.

There was on example in the pdf linked to, but what other ways could you implement this to make sure that everyone acted in an ethical and efficient manner?


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