How Good People Turn Evil

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo is interviewed in a great piece from Wired Magazine about how easy it is for good people to do evil things and what we need to do to try to stop that.

People are always personally accountable for their behavior. If they kill, they are accountable. However, what I’m saying is that if the killing can be shown to be a product of the influence of a powerful situation within a powerful system, then it’s as if they are experiencing diminished capacity and have lost their free will or their full reasoning capacity.

Situations can be sufficiently powerful to undercut empathy, altruism, morality and to get ordinary people, even good people, to be seduced into doing really bad things — but only in that situation.

Understanding the reason for someone’s behavior is not the same as excusing it. Understanding why somebody did something — where that why has to do with situational influences — leads to a totally different way of dealing with evil. It leads to developing prevention strategies to change those evil-generating situations, rather than the current strategy, which is to change the person.

Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the most important of its type.

I was most taken by his proposed solution to the problem. Training kids from an early stage about the importance of being a hero. Taking a stand. Facing the repercussions because you are doing what is right.

To be a hero you have to take action on behalf of someone else or some principle and you have to be deviant in your society, because the group is always saying don’t do it; don’t step out of line. If you’re an accountant at Arthur Andersen, everyone who is doing the defrauding is telling you, “Hey, be one of the team.”

Heroes have to always, at the heroic decisive moment, break from the crowd and do something different. But a heroic act involves a risk. If you’re a whistle-blower you’re going to get fired, you’re not going to get promoted, you’re going to get ostracized. And you have to say it doesn’t matter.

Most heroes are more effective when they’re social heroes rather than isolated heroes. A single person or even two can get dismissed by the system. But once you have three people, then it’s the start of an opposition.

The three young women who started Ex-Scientology Kids are such heroes. I applaud them and everyone else who joins the movement.

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10 Comments on “How Good People Turn Evil”

  1. Noxat Says:

    Bizarre, and extremely fascinating. But he’s right; the world needs more heroes. Maybe not full-blown heroes but more people willing to take a stand.

    I lost my last job when I bitched out my boss when I discovered he hadn’t given several employees a raise in over two years. This was a small health care company, and this small group of people were responsible for immense growth over that two-year period. I wouldn’t consider myself a hero by any means, but I did lose a pretty cushy (and easy) job standing up for what I believe.

    Oh, yeah, it didn’t help that this man had learned everything he knew about business from Sterling Management. He’d often talk of improving conditions and recording wins. We had several large posters of L. Ron Hubbard’s conditions chart on the wall. I found this stuff to be really odd and its how I discovered xenu.net and became fascinated with Scientology.

  2. Joyce Says:

    This is excellent Mark. Reading further I also enjoyed Stevan Hanson’s Mind Control: The BITE Model at http://www.freedomofmind.com/resourcecenter/responsibility/mind.htm. Gives new meaning to the often used “Bite me”.

  3. Matt Langdon Says:

    Zimbardo has been working with me to get the curriculum together. I’ve got a blog concerning heroism the way we see it. I’d love ot hear your comments.

  4. XENU TV Says:

    Thanks, Matt. I added a link to your blog. I appreciate what your doing and please lets Zimbardo know how much I appreciate the work he has done over the years.

  5. Matt Langdon Says:

    Will do. Thanks for linking.

  6. Sam Says:

    How come the third part is not available? I feel all sorts of wrong emotions. Where is it?

  7. Sam Says:

    Second comment: it reappeared. Patience is not my middle name.


  8. The person who wrote that is an idiot. There is absolutely no incentive for the capital-democratic State to teach kids to be “heroes”: otherwise they’d have a population of people who question everything they’re told! How well dyou think that would go for the power elite?


  9. […] May 7 2009 Filed under: Links | The Wog Blog (an anti-Scientology blog) has an entry on: “how good people turn evil.” I agree with what is being said, but as I point out in my comment to that entry, there is […]


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