The Psychology of Evil

I am in blood

Stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more,

Returning were as tedious as go o'er.

Strange things I have in head that will to hand,

Which must be acted ere they may be scann'd.

-- MacBeth Act III, Scene 4, Lines 162-166

I have a book to put on the reading list. Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo has a new book on the psychology of evil and how previously "good" people can do bad things. The book is called The Lucifer Effect.

If you remember, Zimbardo was the author of the famous Stanford Prison experiment. The Stanford Prison experiment cast students as prison guards and inmates in a fake prison environment. It had to be terminated when the students bought into their roles so much that the guards started abusing the inmates and the inmates started to riot.

Having not read the book I can't say for certain, but Dr. Zimbardo's work focuses on how powerful social millieu can make good people do bad things. In fact, our feelings about whether we are good or bad are rather quaint when you take into consideration how much social pressures can cause us to abandon them. It takes a great deal of psychological force to stick it to the man, particularly when that can carry very serious negative consequences.

On the other hand, Zimbardo makes the point that there are psychological changes that accompany the performance of evil acts by otherwise good people -- such as dehumanization of the enemy. Also, not all people respond to the social pressures. Some say "no," come what may.

Here is Zimbardo on the Colbert Report pushing his book:

Megan McArdle has some posts on a talk by Zimbardo about his book. I found this quote particularly telling:

The point of Zimbardo's lecture, of course, is that even though I can't imagine even imagining these things, much less doing them, these things were nonetheless done. And probably done by ordinary people who did not, in their ordinary lives, evince any particular sociopathic tendencies. Zimbardo says that when we asked of Abu Ghraib "Who were the bad apples?" we were begging the question--assuming that the problem was the people and not the system. Or rather, the situation. If you give people a terrible amount of power over others, you need strong safeguards to keep that power from being abused.

We all sort of believe that we'd have been hiding Jews in our basement during the Holocaust. But of course we have never been afraid that our government would put us in a dungeon and rip our fingernails out while sending our families off to forced labor camps. Worse than that, most people probably didn't even go along because they were afraid. They went along because everyone around them seemed to think it was all right.

If there were two things that I would take away from Zimbardo's work about the psychology of evil, it would be these. First, the future is not set. We all have the capacity for good and evil, and we do have a choice. Social forces are strong, but we can overcome them. Second, considering social forces, the most reliable way to limit evil acts is to arrange incentives against them. The terror that was Abu Gharib was orchestrated in part because no incentives towards good behavior were established. Rather an impossible situation was created, and then we were all surprised when it ended badly. This is not to free the perpetrators of the moral responsibility of their deeds, but when you set up situations where there are no incentives to do good you shouldn't be shocked when it ends badly.
Interesting stuff. I can't wait to pick up the book.


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I've always been annoyed by the "can't even imagine doing" thing. I'm really curious if it is actually true, or just a platitude. I have yet to encounter something I cannot imagine myself doing... and this is a good thing IMO since it provides a chance to work out the consequences; practical, moral, and ethical. If someone really can't imagine doing something, how do they avoid doing it? Most actions we take are not really thought about until after we've already started doing them.

Anyways, this has always bugged me... but I really don't know much of the psychology and neurology involved.

saying that people are "good" or "bad" is too essentialist for me. i decided a while back that most people are basically benign if you have ordinary expectations of them under normal circumstances. you have sociopaths, but they're in the minority.

introduce pressure, on the other hand, and normal people abandon principles of "decent" behavior. what disturbs me most about humans, myself included, is that the average person under enough pressure starts to behave like a sociopath, and that the pressure--social pressure, physical duress, whatever--doesn't have to be lasting or intense to dramatically change how we act.

when individuals behave "decently" under pressure, we think that's commendable, because it's not really what we *expect* from people. the ones who can keep it together enough to be decent human beings under extraordinary circumstances, are extraordinary people. they're the exceptions to the rule that we'll all act in ways that promote our own well-being at the expense of everyone else's.

and yet, we keep being appalled when "normal" people have normal responses, as opposed to heroic ones, when shit hits the fan.

By tevebaugh (not verified) on 13 Jun 2008 #permalink

What I find disturbing, tevebaugh, is that you're making assumptions about how sociopaths act. Sociopathy is (or more accurately, was) defined by feelings, not actions.

There are plenty of respectable people who fit the criteria for sociopathy. Many of them are politicians and institutional leaders.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 15 Jun 2008 #permalink