Aug 12, 2019 by Foresight

All Behaviour Has Meaning? by Angela Phillips (Forensic Psychologist)

“All Behaviour Has Meaning?”

Maya Anjelou author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings said we should not be surprised at human beings cruelty; if a human has committed such a crime then why are we surprised? A human can and does. Perhaps her quote goes some way to understand her comment. ”I believe we are still so innocent, so innocent that a person who is apt to be murdered believes that the murderer, just before he puts the final wrench on his throat, will have enough compassion to give him one sweet cup of water.” “Believe people the first time that they show you who they are,” said Anjelou, and this has been suggested by others as probably one of the most profound pieces of wisdom. On how we should pay attention to what people tell us about themselves without uttering a single word. Psychologists believe there is a reason for every behaviour and all behaviour has meaning and thus the aim to understand and prevent harm to the individuals and/or others.

There has been much debate recently around trophy hunting and the arrogance of the big game hunter being photographed smiling proudly with his or her kill.

This reminded me of the physical and psychological abuse on prisoners by American Military Police in Iraq and some of the evidence of such abuse eventually relayed to the world by the photographs said Military Police took as their own arguable trophies. What prompted the numerous photographs that would obviously be evidence of their violence and depraved behaviour? These men and women of the military police were described later as rogue soldiers, excused as being young and a few bad apples. They performed unimaginable torture against civilians they were guarding.

A Social Psychologist had decades earlier performed a particular experiment. With the help of mostly college students at Stanford University, Dr Richard Zimbardo (later Professor) had conducted the experiment and split the students to role play either prison guards, or prisoners for two weeks and the students would earn fifteen dollars a day to participate.

Without any staff encouragement some ‘guards’ began to act and behave in surprisingly sadistic ways and ‘prisoners’ became submissive. The experiment had to be stopped after one week and one ‘prisoner’ who rebelled and suffering extreme emotional stress reaction was released after 36 hours. Several years later he stated he had simulated extreme distress in order to be released.

However the energy in acting out the mental fatigue took its toll and the fact that he could get so upset; upset him and he talked with family constantly for several months about the experiment. Where there is disparity of power, in particular situations, it is insidiously waiting to surface. Perhaps like the trophy hunter and the rogue American Military Police.

Zimbardo became an advocate for social change based on the research evidence in promoting prison reform. The Standford Prison Experiment was about abuse of juveniles in pretrial detention. The experiment lasted just one week and the findings also indicated how time plays a hidden role in shaping the minds of those who become institutionalised whether in prison, care homes for the elderly or psychiatric hospitals. An ex convict and later a playwright wrote that people on the outside tend to live looking toward the future; the future for a convict being vague and sketchy. His past is gone; the present becomes magnified.

Zimbardo argued that the seeds of any madness can be planted in any person’s garden and will grow in response to transient psychological disturbances in the course of ordinary experience during one’s lifetime. On a more positive note, instead of considering whether you are capable of evil consider whether you are capable of becoming a hero. Zimbardo introduced the concept of the banality of heroism believing that anyone is a potential hero.

Angela Phillips AFBPsS is a Consultant Forensic Psychologist at a Private Psychiatric Hospital, Angela holds a shotgun license but only shoots clay pigeons. Angela is also available to provide expert reports through Foresight. Call the team at 0330 088 9000 or email



0330 088 9000


Stay up-to-date with all the latest news in the industry by signing up to our newsletter. You're welcome to unsubscribe at any time and we'll always treat your personal details with the utmost care.