This year, To Kill a Mockingbird (the movie) turns 50 (the book itself celebrated its fiftieth birthday in 2010). I actually didn’t see the movie until late in college, when I came across the tape while rummaging through a cardboard box of my parents’ old films on a snowy evening in Vermont. But I read the book far earlier, when I was around eight years old. It’s one of the first “real” book I remember reading.

Atticus and Tom Robinson, screenshot from 1962 film. Moni3, Public domain, Wikimedia commons.


But what I remember has little to do with race or civil rights or the themes that dominated Gregory Peck’s portrayal. What I remember is a story of simple human kindness. Different kinds, different approaches, coming at times from the most surprising of places. And not just Atticus and Tom Robinson. Scout trying her best to be kind to the Cunninghams. Jem reading to Mrs. Dubose (and Atticus forgiving—or if not quite forgiving, then at least not judging that same Mrs. Dubose for—a lifetime of racism and hatred for a single last act of bravery). Boo Radley’s gestures of anonymous—and then, not so anonymous—kindness to Jem and Scout. Calpurnia’s love for the Finch children. And yes, there was meanness and close-mindedness and injustice and hate. But there was also human kindness, plain and simple, which didn’t ask for acknowledgment or repayment, which did not need to be loud or public, which existed just because it did. There didn’t need to be a reason.

I don’t mean to suggest that, because I remember those instances in the book where people acted as they should, sometimes in spite of themselves, everything is rosy and everyone, kind and good. But I do want to say something that is often forgotten or willfully ignored, more often than not in the world of psychology, something that Harper Lee made the eight-year-old me see quite clearly: there is no such thing as people, broadly speaking. People are different. Even people you think are the same. True, plenty of people will—and unfortunately, do—do horrible things, especially when pressed. And who hasn’t at one time or another invoked Stanley Milgram’s famed study of obedience, where person after person administered lethal electrical shocks (or so they were told) to a man with a heart condition—even after he had screamed in agony and then, gone silent altogether. Or Philip Zimbardo’s prison experiment, where a group of Stanford students quickly assumed the roles of cruel guards and suffering prisoners and saw the veneers of university life fall away in a matter of days. Or the real-life case of Kitty Genovese, when a woman was murdered as onlookers listened from their windows—and no one called the police or interfered to help.

A shock generator, used in Milgram's obedience experiments. By, Wikimedia Commons.


But as tempting as it is to cite those cases—and don’t get me wrong, they are important and instructive cases to cite—in so doing we are also tempted to forget the thing that Harper Lee would have us remember. When it comes to morality, people hold shades of grey. And while I won’t go so far as to say that for every one person that doesn’t help a Kitty Genovese, there is one who does, I will say that the ones who do exist.

In Milgram’s experiments of obedience, there were the few who refused to follow orders. Flat-out refused. They would not shock. They would not punish. They would not participate. They looked Milgram in the face, and said, not for me (and things that were not quite as nice as well). In Zimbardo’s prison study, not every guard became a sadistic torturer. In fact, there were three different types of guards: those who followed the rules, those who broke the rules to give the prisoners small breaks and favors and never punished them—and then, the brutal, hostile ones that tend to get all of the press.

In Kitty Genovese’s case, true, no one called the police. But one thing that is not often mentioned when discussing the bystander effect is that a single dissenting individual can be all it takes to tip a group to an entirely different reaction. One strong person is enough to break group conformity. It can happen on the smallest of levels, as with Solomon Asch’s famous study of social conformity, where a participant would go against his own eyes to conform with a group’s judgment of the length of a line—unless there existed a single other individual who would back him up, in which case, the conformity effect evaporated.

A sample stimulus from the Asch studies. What would you do if everyone in a room said Line B was the one that matched the image on the left?

And it happens all the time on the most real levels, where people put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of perfect strangers. In fact, if you were to talk to Philip Zimbardo these days, you would hear that he is studying just that: the hero effect. Far from toppling his faith in humanity, the Stanford prison study made him understand that people are capable of being tipped toward good just as they are of heading in the opposite direction—and that the right training (here, I think of Atticus’s many words of advice to Scout) can play an important part in tipping that balance.

I haven’t reread To Kill a Mockingbird since my childhood. My memories are just that. The impressions that I carried away with me from that tattered book. But whether accurate or not, they are impressions that lasted and that have colored how I view the nuances of human behavior. Whether or not you are a fan of Harper Lee (and I, for one, am), you have to acknowledge that she saw the possibility of grey when it comes to human morality—and that is a possibility that many of us are quick to dismiss. It is so much simpler to bundle people into masses and to make sweeping generalizations. And for psychologists, it’s also much more powerful and publication-worthy and somehow important-seeming. Who wants to talk about individual differences (and still get tenure, that is)? Who wants to mention all those participants who went against a reported effect or didn't fit into the overall theme of a paper?

Harper Lee forces you to stop before you judge. To always remember the exceptions: those who did not obey, those who did not turn into animals, those who stepped in and helped and did the right thing. For, exceptions there will be. And you can be sure, there will be more of them than might appear at first glance.