When angles turn into demons

30 Jun

What determines human behavior? Are people guided by inner determinants when they behave good or bad? To what extent do outer determinants also play a role in the way we think, act and feel? Scientist might agree that both dispositional and situational factors are important, but can one prevail over the other? I wondered whether naturally good people can turn evil? How is this (im)possible?

Many examples of how good people turn evil can be found in Zimbardo’s book The Lucifer Effect. After thoroughly explaining the methods and the results from the Stanford Prison Experiment, he discusses psychological theories to clarify how good people can intentionally abuse, harm, and dehuminalize innocent others. Before reading the book, I thought that there were some things which I would never do. Now I am not that sure. I also advise you to reconsider your egocentric biases and beware of the power of situation.

In 1971 prof. Philip Zimbardo and colleagues tested the power of situation in a mock prison experiment in which naturally good college students were requited and randomly assigned to be prisoners or guards. The researchers witnessed the transformation of empathetic, self-conscious, and peaceful individuals into violent, abusive and dehumanizing guards. Namely this transformation Zimbardo referred to as the Lucifer effect. Students who were prisoners became pathologically passive victims in response to the situational forces.

In contrast to clinical, assessment or personality psychologist who rush to ask the “who questions” (who is responsible, who is to be blamed, who gets the credit), social psychologists like Zumbardo tent to explain behavior by firstly asking the “what questions” (what is the external factor, what are the circumstances, what is the environment). The author warns that many institutions and individuals overestimate the personal traits, innate characteristics, free-will, and underestimate the powerful situational forces. However, he stresses that even though psychological analysis can explains behavior, it is not excusology, and everyone should be kept responsible for his or her actions.

Psychological analysis shows that good individuals can be seduced, induced and initiated into behaving in an evil way. Furthermore, people might act in irrational, stupid and antisocial way when the situation challenges their sense of stability and consistency of personal character, morals and believes. Therefore, it is possible for good people to become evil.

The book challenges the common mindset that some of us cannot undergo dramatic character changes when we are confronted with situational forces. In case of not recognizing the situational forces, our motives and needs, which ordinary serve us well, can lead us astray. As long we succeed to recognize some situations as dangers, we could possibly resist the powerful influence of social forces. To get a better insight of variety of social psychological forces, I recommend reading the book and highlighting some of the research. Self-serving biases, deindividualization, dehumanalizations, the evil of inaction (bystander effect), conforming to group norm (Muzafer Sherif’ s experiment; Solomon Asch’ s research), blind obedience to authority (Milgram’s shocking research) and many others are worth giving a credit.

Along with discussing all psychological theories and SPE, Zimbardo makes analogs with mundane situations as for example the abusive behavior of American soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison. Zimbardo helped the case investigation by revealing some facts about the dark side of human nature. He stated that the inappropriate behavior of soldiers is not due to some bad apples (disposition, persons), but rather due to a bad barrel (the situation).

The Lucifer Effect brings a message that drastic changes in human behavior are not caused by the effect of drugs, hypnosis or mind control, but by more mundane situation. Therefore, beware of similarities in your life because situations and systems matter.


4 Responses to “When angles turn into demons”

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  3. Marvis L. Patnaude 06.10.2014 at 11:12 am #

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  4. Miroslav 09.02.2015 at 9:21 pm #

    I’m glad you liked this post I wrote when I stared studying psychology. Stayed tuned! I plan publishing more on human behavior and the interaction with their environment whose relation is not merely unidirectional and unidirectional.

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