Thursday, October 01, 2009

Social environment.

It’s amazing how quickly people adapt to their social environment. Consciously or subconsciously, it is hard to resist the draw to mimic the behaviors of the bigger group. When social habits are as different as they are here, these behavioral changes can be drastic.

There are the superficial conformities. For example, most people quickly learn to wear more conservative and looser-fitting clothes – good luck warding off the advances from creepy men and blatant finger-pointing from women if you bare shoulders or show leg! Adopting new eating manners is another way to avoid unwanted attention. Some have even learned to nod once to the side to say “yes”; no one nods up and down here.

The most interesting behavioral changes, of course, are in attitude.

Most Indians have blatant disregard for the environment. In Delhi’s case, this is not for a lack of governmental effort. Plastic bags are banned from a fair proportion of establishments (it may even be banned in all of Delhi, for that matter), but I haven’t seen a single place enforce it. Tiny trees are planted around the city center, surrounded by signs urging people to care for the environment, which seems like a rather weak form of advertising. City buses and auto-rickshaws run on natural gas, but there has been nothing to regulate the myriad other forms of transportation that clog city highways. These efforts are well-meaning, but they don’t seem to make a dent in the psyche of the city’s residents.

Without public trash cans, streets are used as a dumping ground. People use small plastic bags to carry everything. There is no recycling; even if it was available, I can’t imagine people being motivated to use it. For the typical household, water bottles and jugs provide the only form of filtered water besides boiling. Forget organic, free-range, local; even the thought is laughable.

The environmentally-conscious who first come to India may wallow in guilt for a little while. But since it’s extremely difficult and perhaps impossible to be green in the Western sense of the word, the guilt goes away very quickly and turns into active habit. If everyone else chucks their bottles in the gutter, and there’s nowhere else to throw it, and no recycling available, why not and who can fault me? I’ve seen this attitude shift with nearly every other foreigner that I’ve met. Even the ones from more environmentally progressive countries like Australia consider me uncommonly ecological for refilling my steel bottle instead of buying water.

One way to explain this is cognitive dissonance. People nurse their conscience by making themselves think in ways that justify their behaviors.

This briefly calls to mind the Stanford prison experiment, conducted in 1971, where participants were randomly assigned to roles of either prison guard or prisoner. In a short time, the prison guards became psychologically abusive and sometimes violent towards the prisoners, and the prisoners became submissive and despondent. It says a lot that the guards were able to justify their actions despite the fact that they never would have behaved in such ways in a normal context.

People are so powerless against social and psychological forces.


Lexie said...

one of my friends dates a guy who works for an eco-friendly hotel in india. the movement is starting, it's just not changing as fast as we hope.

i remember watching mad men this summer and seeing don draper throw all the trash from his picnic basket on the grass of a state park and then chuck his beer can across the park. mad men takes place in the 1960s - i really think america has come pretty far since then, at least in the general public mindset? i'm sure people would argue with me though.

Rochelle said...

I have no idea why I didn't put this on my reader before, but it is now. :)

Jacob said...

I think the stanford prison experiment says more about college students than human behavior. The kind of person that would act "normal" wouldn't be part of the experiment. Being in the spectacle suggests that something must happen. How do you play pretend if you don't play?

Is "Taxi, Tech Support, and Liquor Store Training Camp" too much for a blog title?