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For those who haven’t seen the show Breaking Bad, Walter White is a mild-mannered chemistry teacher who, through a series of unfortunate circumstances, finds himself the unapologetic ringleader of a brutal criminal enterprise by the end of the series. I’ve been thinking recently about how well-intentioned people like Mr. White can find their identities gradually eroded and wind up in a place they never would have chosen or predicted for themselves. One way this can happen to us is through “cognitive capture,” where a corrosive social or moral environment slowly warps even those who are initially hostile to its influence.

A personal example is from my college years, when I worked in a year-long paid internship for a megacorporation with large government contracts. A group of us started together as gung-ho productive workers who would often forgo our lunch break to finish reports on expedited schedules. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where the transition began, but it must have been sometime when we left the plant and arrived back 15-30 minutes over our allotted lunch hour. Corporate procedure dictated that we inform our supervisors and mark the time down on our timesheets as unpaid, but it was just so much easier if we allocated it to one of our megaprojects and made up for lost time later. The incident didn’t change much at first, except weeks later it happened again, and then again, and there were never any observable consequences for our escalating transgressions. Months later, it had developed to the point where we would come in, goof off for the full 8 hours, and go home without having accomplished anything at all. Now you, the reader, may assert, “That wouldn’t have happened to me!” But consider that we ALL started out as reliable, hardworking employees, and we ALL ended up as Walter Whites of corporate productivity.

Another example was a friend of mine who entered military service as a strongly independent libertarian. I remember asking him how he reconciled his politics and contrarian personality with his career choice, and whether he feared the outcome of his experiment. He replied that he could always retain his individuality by rejecting those aspects of the organization he despised while adopting the positive traits he admired. Years later, I found that he had been totally converted to institutional thinking and had adopted the habit of angrily denouncing any who challenged America’s defense spending or foreign policy on the basis that they lacked inside information and were in no position to question experts on the ground.

My hypothesis is that the mind operates like a velociraptor from the film Jurassic Park, systematically testing the electrified fences for weaknesses that can give way to an easier existence. When we're placed in an environment with holes in the fence, and especially others to show us the way through, it can wear down our natural boundaries and incentivize habits that we never would have adopted on our own.

I’m interested in hearing other examples of people “breaking bad” from their personal moral codes, and in thinking about ways in which we can prevent this degenerative process from occurring in ourselves and others.

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I sometimes find myself--instead of jumping out of bed at the first sound of my alarm clock to head the gym--hitting the snooze button and taking anywhere from 15 to 30 extra minutes of snooze time in a warm bed. As a result, I often go ahead and skip the workout because working out is more difficult than, say, sleeping in a warm bed.

I tend to call this a classic case of "cognitive capture".

Others might call it "being a pussy."

I have found it worthwhile to note that, in between stimulus and response, i.e., between the alarm clock sounding and my reaction to it, I seem to have this odd faculty that actual seems to allow me to choose not to sleep in. I know there is a phrase out there somewhere that describes this uniquely human faculty...I wish Rand had written about it.....

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Robert, I think your hypothesis is quite sound- essentially, looking for gaps, and going with the flow. Those times we act counter to our own ethical code are best exposed by introspection - and when they are, they come as quite an emotional blow (in my experience) leaving long and painful memories. Also it's revealing that both your examples involve institutions of some sort, both representing authority.

It is easier (in the moment) to quell one's 'better nature' when everyone else has done the same, or are leading the way. "That's the protocol? Well, why should I be the one to buck it?" Unchecked, a moral slide may begin with these rationalizations. Of course there are other causes for it, but at core, I put it down (as I would) ;) to altruism-collectivism in its fullest expression - i.e. accepting, assuming or imitating the morality of others.

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There is a Sufi proverb, "You become what you gaze upon."

In my experience, this is true.

Obviously, this is a slow process.

Sometimes, a person in a bad situation has to stop gazing on the outside and gaze on the inside. A perfect example is Viktor Frankl. But it's hard to realize you can do that when you are in the middle of it.

Interesting topic.

Apropos, I have Netflix now and I intend to go through the entire series of "Breaking Bad." From the things I have read about it, the storytelling is out of this world good.

And further as an aside, I am currently doing "Alias" to catch up on American TV series culture from my decades abroad (which is the reason I have to start "Breaking Bad" later). I've learned a lot about scene construction just watching the gazillion episodes I have already. :smile: I'm at the end of the 4th season and the storytelling is noticeably inferior to the first three--very formulaic scenes, almost like "Law and Order--SVU."


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Michael - The first two seasons are phenomenal. The show lost its way in the third season, but stick with it and it finds its path again. I like Game of Thrones better, but there is no reason to pick one or the other - watch both. Alias seemed contrived to me, so I never bothered. When the leads are too made-up and gorgeous, it ruins the immersion effect for me for starters. I wouldn't have cable if I lived alone.

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