The Psychology of Evil

I was chatting on a group chat with my parents just now, and my Mum bought this book called Man (Dis)connected by Philip Zimbardo. It’s about how young men are failing as never before due to excessive gaming and porn use. Because of all these addictions, it has caused a drop in academic performance and in terms of social, young men prefer to masturbate to porn than to be with real women.

So I checked out this guy on google, and no wonder why his surname was so familiar! He’s the guy who did the Stanford Prison Experiment that I studied when I was in high school doing psychology! (Gosh when I was in high school……)

Anyway, I then saw his TED talk titled ‘The Psychology of Evil’ and decided to watch it. The points he makes is very very interesting.

It reminds me of a video that my friend shared with me about the problems of the world and if there are solutions to it. It is an interview with Daniel Schmachtenberg with Larry Michel.

The video is ridiculously long but so worth watching. Won’t get into that now, but what Mr Daniel Schmachtenberg has said I’ve been able to draw some parallels with Zimbardo.

The same points that they picked out is that they believe people are normally good. Schmachtenberg is more explicit about human beings being innately good than Zimbardo. Anyway, they came to the conclusion that it is the situation and circumstance that makes people bad. Evil is the exercise of power to intentionally harm and hurt and manipulate according to Zimbardo in his TED talk.

Zimbardo has coined the Lucifer effect derived from how one of God’s angels turned away from Him and because of this God casts Him out of heaven and so Lucifer (who’s name originally means morning light) becomes the devil and the tempter. The Lucifer effect is how good people turn evil as everyone has the capacity to be good or evil.

As Zimbardo quotes Milgrams study of obedience, it is revealed that many people would blindly obey authority as more than 60% of people are willing to electrocute people up to 450 volts (would recommend reading the study beforehand here). Interesting point to note is in some variations, when there was less personal responsibility, obedience increases. Milgram’s experiment was to show individual authority was able to control people. However Zimbardo’s experiment shows us how institutions influence people’s behaviour (which you can read here).

From this, Zimbardo presents the 7 social processes that ‘grease the slippery slope of evil’:

  1. Mindlessly taking first small step
  2. Dehumization of others
  3. De-individuation of self (anonymity)
  4. Diffusion of personal responsibility
  5. Blind obedience to authority
  6. Uncritical conformity to group norms
  7. Passive tolerance of evil through inaction or indifference

Zimbardo continues saying that the line between good and evil cuts through to the heart of every human. It’s nothing external that can fix this but it is on the individual as we all have the ultimate choice to do good or bad.

Therefore Zimbardo’s solution was to refocus evil to understanding heroes.

Traditional societal heroes are a wrong example (e.g. Gandhi, Nelson Mandela etc) as they organise their lives around sacrifice for a cause. Children’s fantasy heroes are a wrong example (e.g. superman, spiderman etc) as they unrealistically possess supernatural talents.

What Zimbardo suggests is to look to normal everyday heroes. Such as Joe Darby who revealed the Abu Dhabi prison images or even Wesley Autrey who was the NYC subway hero. A man who had a medical condition fell down the train tracks and even though Autrey had children with him, he was the only one out of the 75 there that day who jumped and saved the man.

Zimbardo says that we should start teaching our kids to act socio-centrally rather than ego-centrically.

This is all great insight to the human condition. We definitely don’t like to put the blame on ourselves. Therefore is it correct that we put the blame on the situation? Institution can influence people. However I don’t see how this is something new. You can give responsibility to a group of people or individually, they can choose to follow with the rules or not. When we are given responsibility, there may be a temptation to abuse it, but Zimbardo is right to say that ultimately we have the choice to do good or bad. To harm (mentally, physically etc.) or protect (rights, health etc.).

This kind of reminds me of Genesis 3 whereby God gave Adam and Eve responsibility over the garden and one of the tasks was not to eat the fruit of tree of knowledge. They abused their responsibility by giving in to temptation, the snake.

It is also a bit odd that the traditional societal heroes are wrong as they sacrifice for a cause. It seems to be implicitly implying – be good but not too good. What does it mean by sacrificing for a cause? The cause for justice? For no discrimination and prejudice? Or is it to do good but just don’t risk your life? Because the man Autrey has definitely risked his life to save another.

However this is life. That is realistic. It’s true that we should start thinking in this way, when we see this kind of abuse we need to act actively to prevent harming others. We will undoubtedly be placed in these institutional situations. I personally believe we have not invented this, it has always been part of us as people, as social beings. It could be more of a primitive situation when we organise to hunt for animals up to what we can see at the office. But these structures or institutions just form when we group together. We are together for a purpose after all be it wanting to play golf or the need to guard the president. It’s either you abide by the rules of the game or you slack on the job. There will always be some kind of institution ready to be abused.

The reasoning to do good feels very weak. It can kill you, it’s not easy as you have to be in some situations to break away from the group norms, it’s stressful, and are there any boundaries or situations that you can just take a step back and say I’ve done enough good?

What are we working towards? From Schmachtenberg’s interview, he ends with the idea of love. To be selfless, implicitly altruism. I suppose the entire interview was needed to explain how he arrives to this conclusion. Personally, I think he’s close. And as a Christian, we all know where this is going 😛

So strange how we are alive. So strange how God allows suffering. So strange that God gave us all free will and didn’t make us robots to just love him. He’s looking for something genuine. And I don’t like it when people fake that they like me. So strange how he still gives us the chance to know Him and it’s free. It’s been two years plus knowing God, if the cross never happened I’d be wasting my time. Never had I known He would be with me even through all the stress, the awkwardness of breaking away from group norms, loving people who don’t love me back and giving and not expecting anything to be given back. All because of His greatest example that He too went through all that humiliation for us, how could I not give back?


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