The Pickle Principle

“Cucumbers get more pickled than brine gets cucumbered.”



It’s not just Deming that said that the system is responsible for 95%, and individuals only 5%.

The power of context over the individual is huge and that’s science. There’s a lot of data and studies that show this, outside of an organisational work setting.

Sit back and see how you can turn a mild mannered systems thinker into a violent psychopath.

You’re probably a nice person, how easy would it have been to persuade you to play a small part in the Holocaust?

In an interview between former Nazi Officer Adolf Eichmann and the author Hannah Arendt, the author asked Eichmann if it was difficult to persuade people to send all of those Jewish people to their deaths?

Eichmann replied that it was actually very easy because bureaucratic language allowed it. They simply had to say that they had “no choice”—that they were just “following orders.”

Eichmann and his fellow officers even had a bureaucratic term, Amtssprache (office talk), to justify their horrific actions during the Holocaust. It was policy, I was just doing my job. I was just doing what I was told to by people in charge.

But you wouldn’t do that would you? How easy would it be for you to be persuaded to electrocute a stranger into unconsciousness  despite their screams for you to stop?

Perhaps $4 and a sprinkling of Amtssprache might be enough? Milgram_Experiment_advertising

In 1963 you complete this form and are paid your $4, you go into a room in a  university where a man in a position of authority explains that you are going to  test the memory ability of a stranger in an adjacent room.

You ask questions of the man in the next room that you can’t see. When he answers incorrectly, you press a button that administers an electric shock, and you turn the power up by 15 volt increments.

This continues until the man in the next room is screaming in pain and begging you to stop.

If you show signs of wanting to halt the experiment, the man in charge gives you a succession of verbal prods, in this order.

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

Spot the Amtssprache?

You continue until you are administering lethal electric shocks to a seemingly unconscious stranger.

You really do, YOU.

Or 65% of you reading this would do.  That is the amount of people in this experiment who thought they were administering electric shocks to because someone in charge told them to.
There wasn’t anybody being electrocuted, it was an actor, they all were. The only person NOT an actor is you.

However the person reading this blog, is not the person in that room with the button.  The person reading this blog is probably thinking “Well, perhaps some people but not me“, Yes you. You just aren’t in that room right now so you don’t know how you would behave.

A psychiatrist might know perhaps? Before the experiment was conducted, the deviser, Stanley Milgram asked 40 psychiatrists how many people would get to administer the highest level of shock to an unconscious stranger who has begged for it to stop, they guessed at 0.1%.  The true amount was 65%.
This is because the thinking at the time was that traits such as empathy or cruelty were inherent in a person, and it was thought that only sociopaths would behave like that.

Milgram showed that empathy and cruelty are traits that are created in the situation.
You aren’t in that situation, but those volunteers were.
Just as 40 years later, normal well-adjusted people just like them were in Abu Grahib prison, on night shift, guarding some prisoners.

Here Philip Zimbardo talks about how easy it is for good people to do evil things when the setting encourages it.

This man has made it his life work to understand how easy it be fooled by the context into doing extraordinary things.

Here, he talks about how to resist.

These are his 12 steps that we should take to avoid being Pickled

    1. Teaching children to disobey unjust authority
      1. Support critical thinking abilities in children – asking for support of assertions, separation of rhetoric and conclusion, developing means vs. ends thinking
    2. Rewarding social modeling of moral behavior
      1. Social recognition for good deeds; acknowledging the bravery of whistleblowers of misconduct
    3. Promoting critical thinking that challenges false ideologies and bad means to good ends
      1. Not living on mindless “auto-pilot”
      2. Reflect on details of the immediate situation; think before acting
    4. Encouraging respect for human diversity and appreciating human variability
      1. Reduces in-group biases and discrimination
    5. Not allowing stereotyping and dehumanization of other people
    6. Changing social conditions that make people feel anonymous
      1. Support conditions that make people feel special, have sense of personal value and self-worth
    7. Encouraging admission of mistakes, accepting error in judgments – to reduce justification for continuing wrong, immoral behavior
      1. Reduces need to justify mistakes and to continue wrong or immoral action
      2. Undercuts motivation to reduce dissonance by being consistent with a bad decision
    8. Promoting personal responsibility and accountability of one’s actions
      1. Diffused responsibility is a mere disguise for own role in consequences of actions
    9. Supporting independence over group conformity
      1. Increasing awareness of when conformity to the group norm is counter-productive and should not be followed
      2. Understanding when independence should take precedence despite possible social rejection
    10. Reducing poverty, inequities, and entitlements of the privileged
    11. Never sacrificing freedom for promised security
      1. Bad deal – sacrificing the real and immediate for the distant and elusive; lose control and relinquish power to the already powerful
    12. Discouraging even the smallest of transgressions, cheating, gossiping, lying, teasing, bullying
      1. Provides first steps toward more severe behaviors
      2. Can harness the subtle power of small steps in Milgram’s paradigm to promote positive actions and altruism until one’s does uncharacteristically or previously unimaginably good deeds.

When you go into a situation, remember you’re only a cucumber, and how easy it is to get pickled.


This entry was posted in deming, psychology, systems thinking, thinking and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Pickle Principle

  1. bulldozer00 says:

    Gerry Weinberg has a cucumber & brine story in his book, “Secrets Of Consulting”.


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