The question of what makes people go wrong and commit evil acts is a question that goes back to ancient times. People tend to think that the line between good and evil is fixed and immovable, but Philip Zimbardo disagrees. In his video, he states that he thinks the line is “impermeable and movable”. He believes that with help, bad kids can recover. The following will explore Zimbardo’s argument about good and evil in the context of conflict resolution.
Zimbardo sees the potential for good in people and the potential for evil is present the dichotomy of the human condition. He agrees with the old adage that there is good and evil in all of us. He labels the ability of good people to be transformed into evil the “Lucifer” effect. He believes that the ability to do evil is a result of the need for power and control. At this point in the video Zimbardo refers to references from the field of philosophy and religion. His argument is broad and theoretically based. It is in agreement with commonly held philosophies that focus on society, rather than the individual, as the source of evil or good.
Zimbardo makes the point that blaming violent incidents on the system, or other people does not solve the problem. He uses the example of good soldiers that committed atrocities while on duty against other human beings that were incarcerated in prison. Zimbardo asks the question of what made these soldiers, the “bad apples” different from other soldiers that do not commit these acts. He also asks what made them turn the corner and go from once good soldiers to ones that were capable of committing intentional evil against other human beings. Many recent examples exist that are similar to the questions asked by Zimbardo. For instance, what makes innocent school children suddenly take a firearm and start killing their classmates and teachers? What makes people plot to fly airplanes into buildings, killing not only other supposed “enemies” whom they have never seen and themselves? This can also be translated into the good husband that starts committing acts of violence against his family. There are many examples both on a societal level and an individual level that quality for Zimbardo’s argument.
Zimbardo feel that there are several factors that contribute. They are dispositional, situational and systemic. Dispositional considered what is inside of the individual. What does the person bring to the situation? Our disposition is determined by the dance between genetics and our environment. What we are today is the sum total of our experiences to this point. It is a result of the situations that we experienced, our reactions in those situations, and the results that we obtained. The factors that play into someone’s disposition are complex and represent an entire branch of psychology in itself.
Situational influence is an external force that requires the person to act. What does the situation do to them? The way that a person reacts to a particular situation depends on their disposition. If the person has prior experience in the situation, they will probably make choices based on the results that they got from their reactions the last time. If the situation is entirely new, they must rely on other information to make their choices. The third component of evils is systemic. Systemic refers to the macro societal system that creates the environment for the acts. These can be bad economics, culture, and political forces. Of these three factors, the systemic factors will be the least important because they do not have a direct impact on the person. The micro environment of the situation and the person’s disposition will have the greatest impact on their actions.
Zimbardo defines several factors that make a person capable of committing evil acts against a stranger. He supports his arguments through both reliable and popular studies and through example. Zimbardo ends by suggesting that we can help to curb violence in our society by shifting away from a mental health perspective that focuses on what is “wrong” with the individual towards a public health model that focuses on the systemic and situational conditions that create the potential for evil. I agree with this in that it is a systemic problem, but in so many cases, the signs were present in the individual that something was wrong. The shift cannot take focus completely away from the individual. We still need to be able to spot those troubled individuals and get them help before they explode. I think that a more balanced approach is needed, not a complete shift away from one aspect of the three components of evil. Promoting heroism is a good idea and building in the idea that the individual can make a different is a good idea. This gives the individual the power to make a change. If they feel empowered, they will be more likely to act.
- “Philip Zimbardo: The Psychology of Evil”. [Video]. TED. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/philip_zimbardo_on_the_psychology_of_evil.html