The Power Of The Situation Essay Research

The Power Of The Situation Essay, Research Paper The Power of the Situation A week of urban mayhem was ignited by the April 29, 1992 jury acquittal of four white police officers who were captured on videotape beating black

The Power Of The Situation Essay, Research Paper

The Power of the Situation

A week of urban mayhem was ignited by the April 29, 1992 jury acquittal

of four white police officers who were captured on videotape beating black

motorist Rodney King. The angry response in South Central produced its own

brutal footage, most dramatically the live broadcast from a hovering TV

news helicopter of two black men striking unconscious with a brick, kicking, and

then dancing over the body of, white truck driver Reginald Denny. The final

three-day toll of what many community activists took to defiantly calling an

uprising, revolt, or rebellion, was put at 53 dead, some $1 billion in property

damage, nearly 2,000 arrests, and countless businesses in ashes. These two men,

Damian Williams and Henry Watson undoubtedly committed a heinous crime, but

thousands more looted, burned, and destroyed property with the same disregard

for life and property. Were all these people criminals who used the verdicts as

an excuse to commit crimes, or was the nature of the social situation the

primarydeterminant of this nefarious behavior? In the course of this paper, I

plan to explore this question from a psychological perspective with an emphasize

on conformity and social norms, bystander intervention, social perception and

reality, and finally, prejudice. Generally looking at the Los Angeles riots,

and specifically drawing upon the Reginald Denny beating and subsequent trial,

the power of the situation becomes evident, as thousands of people living in an

extremely poor and crime-ridden area of Los Angeles, lashed out against a

perception of injustice through violence.

The conditions that lead people to perceive themselves as victims of

unjust actions are rather complex. In this case, the favorable verdicts towards

the officers who beat Rodney King was the “unjust action”, not only for Rodney

King, but for the community he came from. The perceived damage to desired

social identities and justice led to resentment on the part of a historically

poor and underprivileged class of citizens. The individual attempts to explain

the event (the verdicts) by processes of attribution in which grievance may or

may not be formed. (DeRidder, Schruijer, and Tripathi, 1992). The attribution

of responsibility and blame is activated when confronted with unexpected

behavior, unwanted consequences, or stressful, puzzling, and important events

(Wong & Weiner, 1981). Thus the attribution process may be activated either

when the individual experiences harm, or perceives an anti-normative action by

another person or group.

Contrary to popular belief, not everyone residing in south-central Los

Angeles looted. Instead the majority stayed in their homes until the

participants ceased their destructive activities. This does not take away from

the validity of the attribution theory due to the individual differences in

attribution. These differences correspond with discrepancies in how one copes

with a perceived injustice towards them. In the case of the rioters, they

overestimated the dispositional factors and underestimated the situational ones

(the fundamental attribution error). They saw the verdicts less as an

explainable, rational decision by a jury of their peers, under the laws of

California (situational), and more as a direct consequence of “the white man’s

power over the black man” and the failure of the American legal system in

general (dispositional). But although attribution process plays a significant

role in the motivation and rationalization of the rioters, it is only one of

many factors that eventually led to the infamous Los Angeles riots.

It is safe to assume that for the most part, the individuals

participating in the riots did not have a history of criminal activities. Yet

why did they act upon their grievances in a matter totally unacceptable in their

society and step beyond their social roles? The answer can best be illustrated

by considering at an experiment preformed 20 years ago in Stanford, California.

“The Stanford Prison Experiment (Haney & Zimbardo, 1977) created a new

“social reality” in which the norms of good behavior were overwhelmed by the

dynamics of the situation.” (Zimbardo 586). In the same sense, the outcome of

the verdicts, which was totally unexpected by those who most identified with

Rodney King, created a new social reality, a society which does not deliver

justice to blacks and minorities in their minds. Just as the Stanford students

radically altered their mind-set to adapt to the situation, the rioters

disregarded the norms of society because they were overwhelmed with the new

social reality created by the outcome of the Rodney King case. Once a few

members of the community began committing crimes, those who identified with

their view of social reality and shared the same attribution processes, joined


Specifically now I draw on the case of Reginald Denny, a white truck

driver who was savagely beaten by two black males as he slowed down to avoid

hitting rioters on the street. The nature of the beating was particularly

disturbing because the assailants were joking, laughing, and dancing while they

smashed Denny’s skull into nearly 100 pieces. As one of the witnesses [race not

specified] explained to the New York Times, “They [the defendants] seemed just

like anyone, just like you and I. I see them just as two human beings. They

just got caught up in the riot. I guess maybe they were in the wrong place at

the wrong time.” Although the witness may not of realized it, he was applying

an aspect of psychology to justify the actions of Damian Williams and Henry

Watson. The objective of this paper is not to excuse the actions of the

individuals involved in the riots, but to help explain their actions from a

psychological perspective so that one can judge for themselves the rationale

behind their actions on an individual and group basis. The Reginald Denny

beating is particularly useful not only because it demonstrates the power of the

situation, but also because it reveals other aspects of situational forces

acting on the observers as well as the participants.

Reginald Denny was beaten by these men in broad daylight in front of

many bystanders. True the context of the beating was that of a full fledged

riot, but not a single person came to the aid of the helpless victim as

helicopters overhead recorded the 47 minute beating for the nightly news. This

phenomena of bystander intervention is explained in this case by the diffusion

of responsibility theory (Darley & Latane, 1968). This result arises when more

than one person can help in an emergency situation and people assume that

someone else will or should help. Another factor which plays into this serious

apathy is the situational cost of helping Denny. Perhaps bystanders felt that,

yes the two men were going too far, but they did not do anything because they

felt that the cost would be too high, in this case, their own safety. They

simply did not feel responsible for the well-being of Denny in the new social

reality they were absorbed in.

Perhaps the best method to analyze the behaviors of the rioters is

through the humanistic approach. Humanistic psychologists study behavior but

unlike behaviorists, they “focus on the subjective world experienced by the

individual, rather than on the objective world seen by external observers and

researchers.” (Zimbardo 18). In short, they believe that social and cultural

forces are critical to true understanding of a person’s inner self. With the

Los Angeles riots, it would truly be a mistake to attempt to interpret the

actions of the participants without considering the social and cultural forces

within the community. This approach is particularly useful because it looks for

personal values and social conditions that develops self-limiting, aggressive,

and in this case, destructive perspectives. Looking at the riots from a

humanistic perspective, the issue of prejudice must be explored to understand

the reasoning behind this “blind ethnic retribution” (Deviant Behavior, 1994,

Feb, 1-32).

Would Reginald Denny have been pulled out of his truck and nearly beaten

to death if he were black by these black men? After the verdicts, people living

in south-central Los Angeles and other minority neighborhoods began chanting,

“No Justice, No Peace!” They saw the enemy as white, whether it be in the form

of the white officers who beat Rodney King, or for the Denny’s assailants, Denny

himself. “Prejudice is the learned attitude toward a target object, involving

negative feeling (dislike or fear), negative beliefs (stereotypes) that justify

the attitude, and a behavioral intention to avoid, control, dominate, or

eliminate those int he target group.” (Zimbardo 615). The “us” versus “them”

mentality results in social categorization in which people place themselves and

others into groups. To say that prejudice had little or no role in the riots is

simply wrong. Yet a thorough examination of racism and it’s socio-economic

implications in America cannot be explained within the context of this short

paper. Instead, for the purpose of this study, it is important to realize that

once formed, prejudices exert a powerful force on the way relevant experiences

are processed.

African and Hispanic Americans living in the inner cities harbored

grievances against a perceived discriminatory system imposed by whiles, and when

officers’ Koon, Powell, Wind, and Briseno were acquitted of charges of brutality

toward Rodney King, there ensued a riot in Los Angeles which lasted for three

days and took the nation by utter surprise. This is a powerful case which

empirically displays that human thought and action are deeply affected by

situational influences. The participants constructed a social role that caused

them to act contrary to their beliefs, values, and personalities in order to

resolve their grievances.