A few nights ago when I was incapability of falling asleep, I decided to google: “interesting psychology articles” and stumbled upon a topic that intrigued me: psychology of evil. Many things in this world are deemed “evil” and having always been fascinated with the driven factor behind immoral actions, I decided to further look into the topic.
Stanford University is located in California and it’s one of the world’s leading research and teaching institutions. It’s probably one of the most, if not the most, prestigious universities in America. A majority of the research produced by Stanford officials have greatly aided to the findings of psychology.
A Stanford psychologist named Phillip Zimbardo conducted one of the most famous psychology experiments in which he set up a mock jail. He utilized 24 students who were all reasoned psychologically healthy with no previous criminal record. He placed these undergraduate students in this fake jail, half of them acting as prison guards and the other half as inmates. Researches then observed the prisoners (who had to stay in the cells 24 hours a day) and guards (who shared eight-hour shifts) using hidden cameras.
The experiment was intended to last for 8 weeks but due to the student guards turning abusive, it had to be terminated after just six days. The students took their roles very seriously and some of the guards started psychologically torturing the inmates, and the inmates started to riot as they showed extreme levels of anxiety and emotional stress.
“The guards escalated their aggression against the prisoners, stripping them naked, putting bags over their heads, and then finally had them engage in increasingly humiliating sexual activities,” Zimbardo told American Scientist. “After six days I had to end it because it was out of control — I couldn’t really go to sleep at night without worrying what the guards could do to the prisoners.”
Zimbardo released a book in 2008 called The Lucifer Effect in which he goes into depth in regards to the psychology of evil. His work focuses on how powerful social settings can make extremely good people do bad things. He states that regardless of whether or not one classifies themselves as a good or bad person, the strong influence of an environment and societal pressures can make us completely abandon our level of previous morale. It takes a strong level of psychological force to stick to one’s true level of “good” or “bad”, especially when there are very serious negative consequences if one does not convert to the other side.
Many psychologists share the same viewpoint as Zimbardo as they highlight that situational inspirations play a huge role in evil actions. In his book “Evil”, Roy Baumeister produced a list of influential factors that correlate with evil actions:
1) using evil to gain something (power, sex, status, etc.)
2) threat to a sensitive, but high ego
3) idealistic passion
4) obedience and conformity to others engaged in evil actions.
Zimbardo describes the actions of the Holocaust and the recent Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses utilizing that exact classical social psychology theory. Those that carried out these horrific historical events were under extreme pressure and influence.
On a post on the website: thequestforagoodlife.wordpress.com, one writer shares their experience while at the Holocaust Museum located in Los Angeles, California. She states that she was very surprised that Hitler was not discussed during the seminar and when she brought him up, various Holocaust scholars all agreed on one controversial theory: that the Holocaust would have happened even without the presence of Hitler. They believed Hitler had very little to do with the carrying out of mass murders. This all tied back to the fact that the entire region of Germany desired to demolish the Jews, not just Hitler himself. Hitler was the leader of the mass murders but he also had many collaborators that carried the same goal. Again, situational causes of behavior are very powerful and influential.
Zimbardo goes on to further share that many are quick to judge other’s evil actions however, if we were placed in the same situation, most of us would conform and do the same evil actions, as well.
On the contrary, let’s look at the psychological aspect of evil on a completely different level. Megan McArdle shares some interesting points about Zimbardo’s book. She brings upon the question that Zimbardo was describing that all humans have the capability to be evil-more so that he was blaming the students themselves for being abusive. McArdle testifies that perhaps it is not the people but rather, the system. She claims that of course if we utilize a system in which one group of people have a higher amount of power (the guards) and the other half have absolutely no power (the inmates), then no doubt will the power be abused eventually. She claims it is the system we must regulate, not necessarily the people. In return, us regulating the system will indirectly regulate us and minimize the evilness.
In conclusion, my philosophy has always been that individuals have the capability to do evil things- but I would never label anyone as evil entirely. Yes, horrific events in history show true signs of cruelty and evilness but like Zimbardo shared: mankind are too quick to judge other’s when they too themselves would most likely conform, and commit the same evil action if under the same circumstances. It’s an insane thought for us to imagine ourselves in the time frame of the Holocaust and contemplate whether or not we would have carried out those same actions. However, would we have had the strength to withheld from the huge amount of societal pressure and influence?
by Christina Tran