Ordinary people do heroic things
WHY do good, ordinary people sometimes become perpetrators of evil? The most extreme transformation of this kind is the story of God's favourite angel, Lucifer – a story that has set the context for my psychological investigations into lesser human transformations in response to the corrosive influence of powerful situational forces.
Such forces exist in many common behavioural contexts, distorting our usual good nature by pushing us to engage in deviant, destructive or evil behaviour. When embedded in unfamiliar settings, our habitual ways of thinking, feeling and acting no longer sustain our moral compass.
Over the past three decades, my research and that of my colleagues has demonstrated the relative ease with which ordinary people can be led to behave in ways that qualify as evil. We put participants in experiments where situational forces – anonymity, group pressures or diffusion of personal responsibility – led them blindly to obey authority and to aggress against innocent others after dehumanising them.
My recent book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, describes the radical transformations that took place among college students playing randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison created at Stanford University. It goes on to establish direct parallels with the abuses committed by American soldiers at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, presenting much of the social-science research illustrating the power of social situations to dominate individual dispositions.
This body of work challenges the traditional focus on the individual's inner nature, dispositions and personality traits as the primary – often the sole – factors in understanding human failings. Instead, I argue that while most people are good most of the time, they can readily be led to act antisocially, because most people are rarely solitary figures.
On the contrary, people are often in an ensemble of different players, on a stage of life with various props, costumes, scripts and stage directions from producers and directors. Together, they comprise situational features that can dramatically influence behaviour. What individuals bring into any setting is important, but so are the situational forces that act on them, as well as the systemic forces that create situations.
Most institutions invested in an individualistic orientation hold up the person as sinner, culpable, afflicted, insane or irrational. Programmes of change follow either a medical model of rehabilitation, re-education and treatment, or a punitive model of incarceration and execution. All such programmes are doomed to fail if the causal agent is the situation or system, not the person.
As a result, two kinds of paradigm shift are required. First, we need to adopt a public health model for prevention of violence, abuse, bullying, prejudice and more that identifies vectors of social disease to be inoculated against. Second, legal theory must reconsider the extent to which powerful situational and systemic factors should be taken into account in punishment.
Although much of The Lucifer Effect examines how easy it is for ordinary people to be seduced into engaging in evil deeds, or to be passively indifferent to the suffering of others, the deeper message is a positive one. By understanding the how and why of such deeds, we are in a better position to uncover, oppose, defy and triumph over them.
In this sense, The Lucifer Effect is a celebration of the human capacity to choose kindness over cruelty, caring over indifference, creativity over destructiveness and heroism over villainy. At its end, I invite readers to consider fundamental strategies of resisting and challenging unwanted social influences, and I introduce the notion of "the banality of heroism". After all, most heroes are ordinary people who engage in extraordinary moral actions.
With this in mind, I propose a situational perspective for heroism, just as I do for evil: the same situation that can inflame the hostile imagination and evil in some of us can inspire the heroic imagination in others. We must teach people, especially children, to think of themselves as "heroes-in-waiting", ready to take heroic action in a situation that may occur once in their lifetime.
• Philip Zimbardo is emeritus professor of psychology at Stanford University. Details at www.lucifereffect.com
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