The Psychology of Evil

How Good People Do Terrifying Things

Fights are common. All fights are the same. Two students beat each other while seemingly the entire school encircles them. Some students cheer. Some students simply watch. Teachers force their way through the crowd to end the beat down. Afterwards, as seen in this recent fight, the perpetrators face serious repercussions while the bystanders go unacknowledged.

Passiveness can be just as dangerous as the evil act itself. The Holocaust in Nazi Germany and slavery in America destroyed countless lives not because everyone supported these movements but because no one would speak out against them. Edmund Burke famously said “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Nazi Germany’s linchpin was the passiveness most of us display every day, causing groundbreaking psychologist Stanley Milgram to wonder if the United States was susceptible to another holocaust.

In his experiments, Milagram started by testing minute passiveness. He had an authority figure ask volunteers to administer a small electric shock to a stranger whenever the stranger answered a trivial question wrong. The volunteers thought they were partaking in a study about the stranger’s memory. At first, the volunteers would use 15 volts, a slightly painful shock. As the experiment progressed, volunteers eventually were asked to use 450 volts while the stranger screamed in excruciating pain from the fatal shock.

Those who “received shocks” were only acting, but volunteers believed they were actually inflicting harm.

At the time, psychiatrists predicted only 1% of Milgram’s volunteers would escalate to 450 volts because 1% of the population displays sadistic behavior. But in a disturbing twist, two-thirds blindly obeyed authority all the way to 450 volts. In one re-creation of the experiment, 90% of volunteers went to 450 volts.

Why were these average, law-abiding citizens willing to torture and kill a stranger?

Our peers and our environment control our behavior.

During the Holocaust and Milgram’s experiment, the participants acted without morals because they had an authority figure accepting responsibility for their actions. But psychologist Philip Zimbardo showed an even scarier side of human behavior by eliminating the authority presence in the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Zimbardo and his fellow researchers recreated a prison scene with jail cells, guards, and prisoners. They examined their volunteers to make sure they were of good mental health before randomly assigning them as a guard or a prisoner. After placing them in the setting, Zimbardo did not interact with the volunteers. Instead, to influence their behavior, he gave guards sunglasses and handcuffs so that they would feel entitled to power. Prisoners wore gowns and shackles to dehumanize them.

On the first day, the guards felt awkward giving orders to prisoners, but by the next day, the guards began to view the prisoners as dangerous. The forms of ¨discipline¨ they used to keep the prisoners in line included harassing them, putting them in solitary confinement, forcing them to clean toilets with their bare hands, or acting out something humiliating. By the sixth day, half of the prisoners had unnerving mental breakdowns. Disturbingly, Zimbardo failed to shut it down and end the torture because he unwittingly became part of his own experiment. Because they witnessed the gradual transformation, the experimenters, the guards, and the prisoners did not realize anything inhumane was taking place. It was not until another psychologist came to observe the experiment that someone realized there was abuse.  The Stanford Prison Experiment was forced to shut down after only six days.

Would you have gone along with the abuse? When it started, everyone involved in the experiment was in excellent mental health. The experimenters who caved were Stanford psychologists on the look out for this exact behavior. And yet, all of them were swept up in the torture. Milgram’s experiment showed hardly anyone deviates in these situations.

With the right circumstances, the line between good and evil becomes permeable. During the Holocaust in Nazi Germany or slavery in America, it was not the individual who caused the torture but the environment or institution.

For most of us, our upbringing taught us to fit in. Conformity allows us to have functioning societies where the norm is to respect others and the law. However, the atrocities from the Holocaust, slavery, and the Stanford Prison Experiment happened when people automatically conformed without questioning the morality of their actions. Most of us are not comfortable with deviating.

How can we prevent a future epidemic of abuse?

Instead of teaching children to blend in, we should teach them to stand up. We should teach them that heroes are everyday people. Breaking up a fight should be encouraged while being a perpetrator or a bystander should be discouraged.

Currently, Zimbardo and Matt Langdon, a successful businessman and activist, are developing “The Hero Construction Company,” which encourages key attitudes in children to make them everyday heroes. Heroism starts at the home, explains Zimbardo. A proactive attitude, on a small scale, decreases school violence and ostracism. On a large scale, we can end oppression and genocide, rebuilding a better humanity.

Another Holocaust only requires a few evil-doers, while the majority remains passive. This war of passiveness starts with ourselves, our children, and small everyday actions.

If you see someone drop something, do you help them pick it up or do you pretend you did not see it? If you see a verbal or physical fight break out, are you the bystander or the person who breaks it up? If your teacher or boss asked you not to intervene in one of these situations, do you deviate? If your country passes laws that dehumanize citizens, do you accept the risks of speaking out or do you wait for someone else stop the injustice? Are there enough Americans willing to stand up if another epidemic of abuse occurs?

Do not leave it to someone else. An institution is made up of individuals.  We are the only ones who can change it.