Philip Zimbardo: The psychology of evil

Speaker

Philip George Zimbardo is a psychologist and a professor emeritus at Stanford University. He became known for his 1971 Stanford prison experiment and has since authored various introductory psychology books, textbooks for college students, and other notable works, including The Lucifer Effect

Summary

People like to believe the line between good and evil is clear – with them on one side, others always evil. Philip shows that this line is far more permeable – good can go bad, and ‘evil’ people can be redeemed. He defines evil as exercising power to intentionally harm (psychologically), hurt (physically), destroy, or commit crimes against humanity. Philip was part of the trial of US army reservists accused of evil acts within Iraq war, who tortured and humiliated prisoners. He became an expert witness to represent one of these guards, and was given access to the reports, photos, and the guard himself. His hypothesis was that the people themselves weren’t evil, but were put in a system where they were compelled to exercise their power in an evil way. The accused men were military police holding the prisoners in the ‘Intimidation hold’- to soften them up for interrogators to get information later. Interrogators gave them permission to “take the gloves off”.

Philip shows a 1minute montage of graphic & sadistic photos – of prisoners often naked, stacked in strange piles or sexual positions, soldiers posing happily with the prisoners. Some prisoners are covered in wounds, some with faeces. All these photos were taken by the soldiers themselves. TED has apparently edited this video to remove some of the worst.

Secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld asked “Who are the bad apples”, but Philip suggests he should have been asking a broader question in terms of ‘The Lucifer effect’ – what causes people to go evil? The issue could be:

  • Bad apples: a few isolated people committing evil
  • Bad Barrel: the system surrounding the people compelled them to commit evil
  • Bad Barrel-makers: the politicians, economic and legal system creating a system that corrupts people.

Philip illustrates that most people do not see themselves as evil, but could be compelled to do evil in a situation. Most people wouldn’t electrocute a helpless person, but an experiment was devised where a ‘teacher’ was ordered to electrocute a ‘learner’ by the technician – this is the “Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures”. The experiment started at 15Volts (which the learner didn’t feel), and increases at 15V intervals up to 450V (which causes intense pain). The dial was labelled to show how dangerous the highest Voltages were. Importantly, the technician running the experiment said he would take full responsibility for consequences. In the first experiment 2/3s of people went all the way up to 450V shocks – despite psychiatrists predicting only 1% would do it (since only 1% of the population shows ‘sadistic behaviour’). Other experiments show up to 90% of people went all the way to 450V.

Philip contrasts this with a pastor who ‘killed’ 912 people by convincing followers to murder their families and commit suicide. This shows the danger of blind obedience, in forcing people to commit evil. He also talks of his own study – where 24 normal college boys were divided arbitrarily in 2. Some were designated guards, some prisoners. The prisoners were dehumanised and degraded, while the guards had symbols of authority to make them more important. The guards forced prisoners to simulate sodomy, and do degrading tasks like cleaning toilets with their bare hands. It quickly got out of control, and Philip cancelled the experiment early due to 5 psychological breakdowns of previously healthy people.

Anonymity is a factor – anthropologists studied warrior cultures – those who go to battle as themselves as opposed to those who wear masks, paint, uniforms to change their appearance. Of 23 cultures, those who changed their appearance were far more likely to maim, torture or mutilate their enemies. This is one of the 7 slopes to evil in new situations.

  1. mindlessly taking the first small step
  2. dehumanizing others
  3. de-individualize self (anonymity)
  4. diffusion of personal responsibility
  5. blind obedience of authority
  6. uncritical conformity to group norms
  7. passive tolerance of evil through indifference.

Most of these are systemic issues, and should be treated with more of a public health model. But they can still be broken by a ‘hero’ – people who refuse to conform to the evils. Children can be trained to think of themselves as heroes waiting or the right situation to rescue. We just need to reframe heroes away from people with supernatural powers and make it clear that ordinary people can be heroes. He talked of the private who blew the whistle on the Abu Ghraib jail, and the woman who convinced him to cancel his own experiment on prisoners and guards (who he then married a year later).

My Thoughts

Fascinating look at how evil works. Nothing more to be said – if you can stomach the shocking photos, this is a very worthwhile talk.

Some additional reading on the two experiments mentioned

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_prison_experiment

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One thought on “Philip Zimbardo: The psychology of evil

  1. Pingback: Displaying Holiness, A Conversation on the book of Leviticus | akleslieprice

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