At a time of official misconduct and rampant financial fraud it is important to understand the nature of evil and how it becomes the norm. Whether manipulation of banking interest rates or the casual cruelty of remote controlled killing by airborne drones, or the active defense of a broken and deadly health care system, evil has a way of manifesting itself in systems and becoming the accepted norm.
While certainly there are the criminal sociopaths and psychopaths who need no encouragement to behave with evil intent the reality is that “normal” people can — and regularly do — become bent to evil by systems within which they work and live. While systems — like the military, congress and dank financial nests like J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs — are always quick to blame their multitude of scandals on “a few bad apples”, the research clearly demonstrates that a corrupt system — a bad barrel, if you will - can quickly taint even the most moral toward evil.
Belief in the “few bad apples” illusion is a way to insulate ourselves from the possibility of doing evil; to believe ourselves somehow more moral, kind, resolute or just too darn smart to behave like the sadistic guard at Abu Ghraib or the embezzling bank executive. Such an illusion is as dangerous as it is dunder-headed naive and runs counter to reality. This dynamic toward evil can play out in an individual board room or military platoon or across an entire nation, as it did in Italy and Germany in World War II and many nations since then.
To ignore the seductive danger of the “bad barrel” is to make it possible for evil systems and policy to perpetuate. It’s also a way to shun the collective responsibility when evil is done in our name. While that may feel okay in the moment, as we are learning now, karma is not so easily sidestepped.
Now the good news is that even as corrupt systems can lead people to act with evil intent, so, too, can positive systems lead people to behave with courage and nobility. An expert on this moral dynamic is social psychologist Phillip Zimbardo, professor emeritus at Stanford University. He was the lead researcher in what became known as the infamous Stanford Prison experiment back in 1971.
In that experiment a group of normal, healthy middle-class male college students were arbitrarily divided into “guards” and “prisoners” and set up in a makeshift jail in the basement of the psychology building. Zimbardo was the “warden”. What rapidly unfolded was shocking, as these normal ”good kids” quickly devolved into cruelty and turned on each other. As Zimbardo notes in his book “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil”, even he got pulled into the vortex of evil. The experiment had to be called off when a visiting graduate student challenged Zimbardo.
Zimbardo’s work echoes earlier work on the obedience to authority research by Stanley Milgrim (1961). He was inspired to do his work intrying to decipher whether Americans could behave with the same callousness and curelty as Germans in WW II. Clearly they would. (See video link below.)
Unfortunately, as Abu Ghraib and many of our domestic prisons and too many boardrooms demonstrate daily, the lessons of the Stanford experiment are often ignored in America. The moment, the Stanford experiment demonstrates, we think ourselves immune to evil, we have thrown open the door to it.
The following is from the TED Talk introduction to a fascinating video presentation by Zimbardo. Given what is regularly being done in our names and the impact of systemic evil on people who make decisions that impact our families daily, this is a talk every American citizen should watch:
Philip Zimbardo knows how easy it is for nice normal people to turn bad. In this talk, he shares insights and graphic unseen photos from the Abu Ghraib trials, where he was an expert witness. Then he talks about the flip side: how easy it is to be a hero, and how we can rise to the challenge.
Philip Zimbardo was the leader of the notorious 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment — and an expert witness at Abu Ghraib. His book The Lucifer Effect explores the nature of evil; now, in his new work, he studies the nature of heroism.
23-Minute TED Talk Video: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/philip_zimbardo_on_the_psychology_of_evil.html
- 6-Minute BBC Video on Stanley Milgram’s research on obedience to authority: http://www.personalgrowthcourses.net/video/milgram_2009-1