How Good People turn Bad

This is one of the most powerful interviews I have heard. It synched with my current musings on criminality so I thought it worthwhile summarizing the key points.

Philip Zimbardo has recently written a book called the Lucifer Effect, on the Stanford Prison Experiment that he conducted in 1971, because it was recreated in real life in the Iraq, Abu Graihb prison. Here is Philip Zimbardo:


“Dehumanisation is really maybe the most basic psychological process that pushes, propels good people to do really bad things. And in a particular situation the humanity of other people is taken away, is deprived. You think of them as less than human; as animals; you think of them as insects, you think of them as vermin. And once inferior, then you can do whatever either gives you pleasure or whatever the top-down command tells you is necessary to do.


If I told you, imagine you’re a prisoner, who would you like to have come down on your behalf? You say well, how about a Catholic priest, how about a public defender, how about your mother. I brought all of those people down to that prison, many…several times. The point is what they saw is a scene that we staged, and this is true in virtually every prison when there is a congressional hearing or where there’s a prison task force comes down. So the parents, then being good middle class parents, they too fall into conforming to the power of the situation.

Cognitive dissonance is a very common phenomenon that’s been widely studied. Typically what happens is your attitudes and values change to fit the behaviour rather than the other way around. Talmudic scholars would say get people to pray before you try to get them to believe, once they start praying they’ll come to believe what they are doing. So a lot of evil done by good people is really more from the evil of inaction.

Behaviour is always a product of what people bring into any situation. But what we have all under-estimated is how powerful and subtle situational forces can be to reshape our behaviour. And this is forces in classrooms, in business, in our families — just being aware that you have that vulnerability is the single best protection against it happening.

My book The Lucifer Effect would not have been written (without Abu Ghraib) …you know it was 35 years since the Stanford Prison study, I had never written a book about it, but wrote articles…for me it was over and ended, I’m doing other things. But when I saw those pictures that were flashed around the world…they were shocking, they were abominable but they were not at all surprising because I’d seen those exact images in the Stanford Prison study: prisoners with bags over their heads, prisoners stripped naked, prisoners forced to engage in sexually degrading activities. And so you take young soldiers, the military intelligence, the CIA, all these people are now telling these soldiers winning the war, saving the lives of your buddies outside depends on your helping to soften them up. So that was their seduction to evil.

When we sentence somebody to prison then we have to take into account what were the surrounding situational and systemic forces that made a really good guy do really bad things. You no longer can focus only on individual freedom of will, individual rationality. People are always behaving in a context, in a situation, and those situations are always created and maintained by powerful systems, political systems, cultural, religious ones. And so we have to take a more complex view of human nature because human beings are complex.

I end the book with a call for encouraging, fostering the heroic imagination in our children as the best antidote to evil. So to be a hero doesn’t involve as far as my analysis special attributes, it’s not you’re more conscientious, you’re more altruistic, you are more unselfish –you are an ordinary person who in a particular situation, at a particular time in your life, sees the world the way it really is.

I want to argue that all of us have the potential for evil. But more importantly all of us have the potential to be heroes.”


One thought on “How Good People turn Bad

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s