Have you ever wondered why otherwise good people end up doing bad things? I’m not talking about telling white lies or eating grapes out of the bag in the grocery store. I’m talking about whole nations swept up in a Nazi stupor. I’m talking about Guantánamo Bay, Abu Graib, and drone bombing of wedding parties and hospitals. On home ground, I’m talking about police brutality. And, to a lesser extent, I’m also talking about college kids who mentally and physically abuse their peers in psychological experiments or, more commonly, in hazing rituals. Regardless of the degree, I’m talking about acts of evil.
There is an easy answer that comes to those who have not taken the time to contemplate this issue or to those who would rather not find out what human nature is actually like.
That easy answer boils down to ‘us versus them’. On a national level, “…we’re enlightened, you see. But them Germans, on the other hand… hmmm… I wouldn’t trust’em as far as I could throw them!” If it’s religious or cultural, you just need to turn on the TV to hear what is being said about Muslims these days. If it’s a generational thing, there’s your usual “Kids these days…”. And if you dare point out something evil done by ‘their own’, “…well, that’s just a rotten apple, now ain’t it?” assuming they’d agree that act was evil in the first place.
That last assumption there is quite important to flesh out. Why is it always the enemy’s soldiers who are barbaric whereas ours are heroes? Why is it that the Blitzkrieg leaving over 40,000 British civilians dead was a crime against humanity (which it was) but the Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that killed over 200,000 Japanese men, women, and children were necessary (which they most certainly were not)? By the same token, why is Nazism so demonized (which it should be) and the swastika an outlawed symbol whereas the hammer and sickle are proudly worn and Communism is perfectly accepted (which it most certainly should not be)? Are the 100 million (!!!!) victims of Communism humans of lesser value than the 6 million Jews and 5 million Gentiles who died in the Holocaust? It’s all evil to an absolutely insane degree although one side’s actions sometimes get a pass, depending on whom you ask.
But assuming we can agree on the evil nature of the action, why are ‘their’ actions quintessential to their evil nature, whereas ‘our’ actions are an anomaly, not representative of our good-hearted selves? Maybe ‘us versus them’ is not the right answer after all.
Apparently being born on a specific piece of land surrounded by an imaginary line (that can normally only be seen on a map) doesn’t imbue you with specific qualities of goodness and kindness. And just as surprisingly, being born on a different plot, bounded by different imaginary lines, doesn’t guarantee an evil character for future you. Humans are humans; some do bad, some do good (I’d like to think peaceful and respective parenting can help tilt the scales towards the latter). Question is, can otherwise good people do bad things?
The answer is yes. They can and they do. The human psyche is incredibly fragile and incredibly volatile. Under the right circumstances , people can be made to behave or react in ways they’d never thought possible. Humans are prone to relinquish responsibility and obey authority figures. Likewise, conformity to your surroundings and to peers can be just as instrumental in stamping out your individuality and pressure you into taking actions you would not have otherwise taken.
As a side note, these are all ingrained traits that exist naturally in clinically sane individuals. Having capacity for these traits, however, does not imply that you will act upon them, nor does it predict the degree to which you would conform, obey, behave, or react. But the potential for one to do so is key to understand why it’s not always ‘us versus them’ – it’s universal. Recognizing this is the first step to reducing ‘enemy imagery’ or how you perceive others who have acted in ways with which you don’t agree, and a critical step in being able to compassionately connect with the other and understand what is going on inside of them.
In this blog, I would like to bring to the fore three psychological experiments that illustrate these ideas in the most remarkable ways: the Milgram Experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment, and The Third Wave Experiment.
The Milgram Experiment
One of the earliest controversial experiments, and perhaps one of the most well known in this category was the Milgram Experiment, which shone light the aspect of obedience to authority. Conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale University three months after Adolf Eichmann (a major Nazi organizer of the holocaust) stood trial for his role in the Nazi crimes against humanity, the Milgram Experiment sought to answer the question of whether the Nazis were, in fact, merely following orders and to what degree of accountability were we to hold them?
Volunteers were selected to fill the role of a teacher, who were asked to teach providing electric shocks as negative feedback for wrong answers. Every wrong answer was to be met with higher and higher electric shocks, the highest of which (450V) may have appeared to the teacher to cause permanent damage or even death. Unbeknownst to the teacher, the learner was in cahoots with the experimenter and the electric shocks were fake. The learner also made small talk with the teacher while the experimenter was out of the room, making sure the teacher knew of a supposed medical issue the learner had with their heart. During the experiment, if the teacher hesitated or felt uncomfortable electrocuting the learner with the heart condition, they would be prodded by the experimenter (an authority figure in a lab coat and devoid of emotion) that they are to continue, that the experiment requires them to continue, that they have no other choice but to continue, etc.
Shockingly, the results were that 65% of participants inflicted the maximum voltage simply because they were ordered to by an experimental scientist and despite deafening screams of their victims. The ability to resist authority so as to remain in line with one’s morals was found to be lacking in almost two thirds of individuals administering this supposedly excruciating procedure! Results and further details are described in Milgram’s own book, Obedience to Authority, whereas a conflicting account of this experiment and results are published in Gina Perry’s Behind the Shock Machine.
The Stanford Prison Experiment
The Stanford Prison Experiment was a psychological experiment highlighting in the most chilling way how people react to situations in which they take on a role and assume the stereotypical character traits associated with the role, even at the cost of their individuality and moral judgement.
In 1971, Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment whereby 24 clinically sane individuals were randomly assigned a role of prisoner or guard in a mock prison setting at Stanford University. Everything from their attire to their actions was designed to enhance the effect of prisoners losing their individual identity and guards being the ultimate authority. The appalling outcome was that otherwise regular college kids, acting as prison guards, actually started abusing their peers, and those acting as prisoners internalized and accepted their roles as prisoners. It got so bad so quickly that this two-week experimented was called off within its first week. The disturbing details, as well as a thoughtful analysis of the consequences of this experiment is depicted in the book written by Philip Zimbardo himself, titled The Lucifer Effect.
The Third Wave Experiment
The last experiment I feel is important here is The Third Wave Experiment, conducted by Ron Jones, a high school history teacher, who sought to teach his students how Germans could be swept by the National Socialist German Workers’ Party in the period between World War I and II. Lasting only five days, Jones took his students from regular high school students to ardent supporters of a social movement (The Third Wave) he concocted to illustrate the lure of fascism.
Starting with simple drills and enforcing of discipline, he established himself as the authority figure and emphasized a sense of pride and community amongst the teens. ‘Members’ of The Third Wave distinguished themselves from others through slogans, actions (like salutes and formal initiation proceedings), symbols, flags, etc. The movement grew stronger and what started out as 30 classmates became within less than a week over 200 participants. The desire to be part of a community, contributing to something greater than oneself, and conforming with one’s peers were key contributing factors to the rapid acceleration and ‘success’ of this group. A novel by Todd Strasser, The Wave, is based on this experiment. While not keeping completely true to source, the novel depicts the main thesis and underlying factors in a very vivid and gripping manner.
There have been many other psychological experiments, which I have not addressed here, and countless other books aim to shine light on how ordinary men and women find themselves committing atrocities. What I have learned from the above three experiments is that, at the very least, it is arrogant to assume ‘this could never happen to me’. And even more conceited and misguided is the notion that this could not happen to us, whoever ‘us’ may be, or that it could not happen here, wherever ‘here’ is. We ought to appreciate that it is human nature to be susceptible to such actions, feelings and thoughts. We can learn how we come to find ourselves in these situations, and how to identify the situation while we’re in it. Lastly, we can find compassion in our hearts for those who are victims of such circumstances and devise a more effective path of leading them back towards actions that are compatible with their moral imperatives.
I would also suggest that the traits of conformity and obedience are learned. If nothing else, they are certainly honed over many years and by many methods, with public (and some private) schooling being the greatest offenders. The appreciation and encouragement of independence of mind and action may have some undesired short term effects (insofar as you can’t control a child to do as you please), but in the long run it may inoculate them against submission to peer pressure and acting out of defiance to authority and in contradiction to their morality. This is certainly a complicated subject that cannot be easily summarized. For anyone interested in digging further, I would recommend the books highlighted above as a great starting point, as well as future blog posts where I will revisit this subject from other angles. And as always, thank you for reading!