Are Situations the Root of All Evil?

By daniel - Posted on 27 August 2009

Phillip Zimbardo's talk about how ordinary people can become monsters gives interesting insight into humans and evil. He did some research in a mock prison where he took good, ordinary people and made half of them prisoners and the other half prison guards.

Over the course of two weeks, these guards were made to do increasingly terrible and humiliating things to the prisoners. This was obviously done back when psychology experiments weren't regulated to preserve human rights. Here's the video of his talk at TED, below.

Phillip Zimbardo's talk at TED. His presentation contains very graphic depictions of abuse and violence. Proceed with caution.

Zimbardo's Prison Experiment

The idea of Zimbardo's experiment was to show that he could take regular citizens and get them to do bad things. His success echoes that of the Milgram experiments where people were encouraged to administer an electric shock to another person. There were many variations of the experiment but a surprisingly large number of people were willing to administer a shock at the maximum voltage when encouraged by a person of authority.

And that person of authority was key. There had to be an authoritative figure in a lab coat telling the subject to administer the shock. Zimbardo also points out that anonymity is an important factor: changing your appearance by wearing a uniform, for example, makes it easier to get people to become monsters.

Evil in the Real World

Good and Evil ICBMs

Applying these experiments to real life events, it's easier to understand how German officers—yes, Nazis are people, too—were able to do such terrible things to their fellow humans during the holocaust. Same goes for the Abu Ghraib trials.

It's the situation, then, that allows these people to do evil things. You would have a terrible time convincing a stranger to, say, punch a random person in the arm. But if you set everything up the right way, you get the holocaust.

I think it's also interesting how TV shows like Dexter and Breaking Bad have been able to get viewers to sympathize with serial killers and drug dealers by associating their evil actions with their situation or history and not the characters themselves. I'm not saying this is a new development but these are the two stories that came first to mind.

Breaking the Situations

Once you understand where these "evil actions" are coming from, how do you prevent it? Zimbardo talks briefly about preventing these situations from occurring in the first place. Definitely a good idea, but I think that we should also rise above our situations. We are not the sum of our experiences but something more. I'm not saying it's easy but we can't blame our actions entirely on our history and the situation we find ourselves in.