Ordinary Evil

da401530b100892f9c787f83761c4d7e.jpgRichard Beck is doing a series on Everyday Evil. Check it out.

Yesterday’s post was The Fundamental Attribution Error, which is that humans tend to “overestimate dispositional factors over situational factors in explaining human behavior. Phrased another way, we tend to see the things going on inside of a person (e.g., traits, personality, motives, desires) as more important than the forces outside of the person (e.g., context, social pressures) in determining behavior. Basically, we downplay the power of context and situation.” This leads to overestimating “the strength of our character. That is, we tend to apply labels to ourselves, seeing ourselves in Platonic terms. We see ourselves adjectivally. As a ‘kind’ of person. A good father. A good husband. And so on.”

Today’s is about the famous Stanford Prison Study, conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971 (more on SPS). Zimbardo started with a group of non-pathological (per psychological testing), apparently normal college-age male participants, whom he randomly assigned to be either guards or prisoners. The guards went through an orientation on how to be a guard, while the prisoners were arrested and imprisoned. It was supposed to be a two-week study but “the guards had become so sadistic in their treatment of the prisoners that, due to ethical and safety concerns, the study was terminated” in 6 days.

What made the guards so sadistic? Beck suggests three things: Power Differentials; In-Group versus Out-Group psychology; and Group Conformity.

Immediately I am reminded of the constituents of a faith community — usually it consists of a powerful minister &/or a group of leaders who are privvy to information and who make the important decisions, and a flock; proud and defined membership in a privileged group (often seen as the ones ‘going to heaven’); and lots of written and unwritten ‘rules’ about how the group should behave. Somehow, these three conditions aren’t enough to create conditions for sadism (in the powerful) and depression (in the ‘prisoner’ population), because most churches (in my experience, anyway), while they have their problems, don’t have this particular problem — perhaps, I think in my most cynical moments, because there is another condition that serves as a check on outright dominance and sadism and instead routes it, often, into neurosis. My bias tells me that testosterone, flowing freely in 18-22-yr-old males, might have something to do with the exaggeration and opportunism of the power structure, but that really is just bias.

One of the questions posed on the SPS site is:

What prevented ‘good guards’ from objecting or countermanding the orders from tough or bad guards?

According to Beck’s ideas (mine, too), it’s not as simple as a matter of good and bad guards. As I have quoted many times, “If only [my emphasis] there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart” (Alexander Solzhenitsyn).  The propensity for doing good or evil deeds is part of each human ‘s identity; our actions, and perhaps even our intentions, are evoked by the context — cultural forces, individual circumstance, personal experience, etc. — in which we find ourselves.

Beck’s next post will address what makes humans vulnerable to the pressure to commit atrocities.

What other dungeon is so dark as one’s own heart! What jailer so inexorable as one’s self? — Nathaniel Hawthorne

(quote from Zimbrano’s book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (2007))


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