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New Perspectives on the Psychology of Evil; Why Good People Do Bad Things

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Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who conducted the classic Stanford Prison Experiment has a new piece in Yale Alumni Magazine using the Milgram experiments on obedience to authority as a jumping off point to defend the situationist view that evil is largely the result of people being placed in evil-producing situations. The piece is adapted from Zimbardo's forthcoming book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.

Psychological situationism (as distinct from the Situationist political movement of the 1960's and 70's) is an important trend in social psychology that emphasizes the importance of situations, as opposed to personal dispositions, in generating particular behaviors. Psychologist Walter Mischel popularized situationism in 1968 with his argument that situations were more powerful than dispositional traits in predicting behavior. This work dealt a blow to personality psychology. Over the succeeding decades personality psychologists refined their work and showed that dispositional differences among individuals do, indeed, exist and predict average behavior fairly well. Thus, dispositional extroversion may not be a good predictor of whether an individual will attend a particular party, but it is a good predictor of how many parties the person is likely to attend in a year.

Milgram and Zimbardo's work demonstrates that, sometimes, the power of situations can be overpowering. This power is frequently underemphasized, including by by psychoanalytic colleagues. But the situationists are also sometimes guilty of underemphasizing the effects of dispositional differences. Mischel, himself, eventually developed a more complex view of the relationship of personality and situation to behavior. He eventually generated strong evidence of the power of dispositional differences in "impulse control" in young children to predict life functioning many years later. I have also generated evidence that personality in college predicts life course functioning in many domains [The Big Five personality traits and the life course: A 50-year longitudinal study].

In any case, the situationists are surely right that evil-producing situations play a large role in the generation of evil. Institutions like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo exist to abuse those detained there. If one wants to stop this abuse, one must change the institutions that create it. Merely punishing the "evil-doers" as if they are "a few bad apples" is largely a distraction from the required institutional change. If one wants to look for evil-doers, look first at those who created the situation, rather than at those who acted badly under the situational pressures created by the designers. For American torture, efforts at change, and at punishment, should look at the true perpetrators, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Gonzales.

Here is an excerpt from Zimbardo on the application of situationist ideas to the understanding of torture:

Arendt's phrase "the banality of evil" continues to resonate because genocide has been unleashed around the world and torture and terrorism continue to be common features of our global landscape. A few years ago, the sociologist and Brazil expert Martha Huggins, the Greek psychologist and torture expert Mika Haritos-Fatouros, and I interviewed several dozen torturers. These men did their daily dirty deeds for years in Brazil as policemen, sanctioned by the government to get confessions by torturing "subversive" enemies of the state.

The systematic torture by men of their fellow men and women represents one of the darkest sides of human nature. Surely, my colleagues and I reasoned, here was a place where dispositional evil would be manifest. The torturers shared a common enemy: men, women, and children who, though citizens of their state, even neighbors, were declared by "the System" to be threats to the country's national security -- as socialists and Communists. Some had to be eliminated efficiently, while others, who might hold secret information, had to be made to yield it up by torture, confess and then be killed.

Torture always involves a personal relationship; it is essential for the torturer to understand what kind of torture to employ, what intensity of torture to use on a certain person at a certain time. Wrong kind or too little -- no confession. Too much -- the victim dies before confessing. In either case, the torturer fails to deliver the goods and incurs the wrath of the senior officers. Learning to determine the right kind and degree of torture that yields up the desired information elicits abounding rewards and flowing praise from one's superiors. It took time and emerging insights into human weaknesses for these torturers to become adept at their craft.

What kind of men could do such deeds? Did they need to rely on sadistic impulses and a history of sociopathic life experiences to rip and tear the flesh of fellow beings day in and day out for years on end?

We found that sadists are selected out of the training process by trainers because they are not controllable. They get off on the pleasure of inflicting pain, and thus do not sustain the focus on the goal of extracting confessions. From all the evidence we could muster, torturers were not unusual or deviant in any way prior to practicing their new roles, nor were there any persisting deviant tendencies or pathologies among any of them in the years following their work as torturers and executioners. Their transformation was entirely explainable as being the consequence of a number of situational and systemic factors, such as the training they were given to play this new role; their group camaraderie; acceptance of the national security ideology; and their learned belief in socialists and Communists as enemies of their state.

He then goes on to discuss the similarities in the processes producing torturers and those producing Palestinian suicide bombers. Read the whole piece!
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Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. He was a psychological consultant on two of (more...)
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