Stanford Review - Archive - Volume XXXII - Issue 1 - News
Uncritical Students Sign Petition for Fake Cause
Professor Zimbardo's Psych 187 explores large-group conformity
by Christine Boehm
Forty-two Stanford students have signed a petition in support of HAASSU's effort to give campus palm trees "the axe." Fliers advertised athletic scholarships and laborers as worthier causes than palm trees.
An additional 227 people have visited HASSU's web site, which was advertised across campus via e-mail lists limited flyering.
HAASSU, a self-described "group for environmental and sociopolitical awareness," is critical of the "'country club' atmosphere" on campus. It attracts some accommodating students.
One supporter of HAASSU offers, "we could get rid of half [of the palm trees] as a compromise."
Despite its popular support, HAASSU isn't a real organization, but rather a creation for a psychology experiment by freshman Tamar Berger for Psychology 187, Professor Philip Zimbardo's Exploring Human Nature.
Berger wanted to see how social expectations would influence interest in a topic presented with very little credibility. She expected to "spark some interest," but not actually convince so many people to sign the petition.
She designed the advertisement with certain catch phrases that appeal to the general student body, including "give them the axe," "sociopolitical and environmental causes," as well as the name of the group, which is a combination of Haas and ASSU.
However, the advertisements were overwhelmingly not credible. They were full of basic grammatical errors and the facts were "fairly inaccurate," according to Berger's report. She relied on "the power of consensus," to influence students.
Students started debating the topic within twenty minutes of an e-mail advertisement for the petition going out. Berger notes that once one student misinterpreted the metaphor of "giving [wasteful spending] the axe," on the Larkin e-mail list, other students were quick to follow on this train of thought. She calls the widespread misinterpretation "a perfect example of large-group conformity."
While many students sent Berger researched e-mails on the palm tree issue, only one student asked what HAASSU was.
"I now realize how easy it is to spark interest and provoke people to demonstrate for or against a cause, even if it is not one of vital importance," Berger concludes.
However, not all students were so easily convinced. "I thought it was ridiculous," said freshman Alan Laursen. Freshman Richard Jones also called the fliers "ridiculous."
Senior Steve Hazy's first reaction was that the fliers were "ridiculous, impractical, and naive."
The majority of students interviewed by the Review thought that HAASSU was just another of the extremist groups that either operate or advertise on campus.
A quick look at the fliers, which used very large letters for the "the axe" and small type for the rest of the text, lead some people to think of other campus groups. One senior thought it was a parody of the Axe Committee.
The petition can be found at: http://www.geocities.com/tangjelo/classic_blue.
Page last modified on Thursday, 02-Mar-2006 00:31:39 MST.