For years I've been interested in a fundamental question concerning what I call the psychology of evil: Why is it that good people do evil deeds? I've been interested in that question since I was a little kid. Growing up in the ghetto in the South Bronx, I had lots of friends who I thought were good kids, but for one reason or another they ended up in serious trouble. They went to jail, they took drugs, or they did terrible things to other people. My whole upbringing was focused on trying to understand what could have made them go wrong.
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This is the woman who stopped the Stanford Prison Study. When I said it got out of control, I was the prison superintendent. I didn't know it was out of control. I was totally indifferent. She came down, saw that madhouse and said, "You know what, it's terrible what you're doing to those boys. They're not prisoners, they're not guards, they're boys, and you are responsible." And I ended the study the next day. The good news is I married her the next year.
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We all like to think that the line between good and evil is impermeable--that people who do terrible things, such as commit murder, treason, or kidnapping, are on the evil side of this line, and the rest of us could never cross it. But the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram studies revealed the permeability of that line. Some people are on the good side only because situations have never coerced or seduced them to cross over.
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The "Lucifer Effect" describes the point in time when an ordinary, normal person first crosses the boundary between good and evil to engage in an evil action. It represents a transformation of human character that is significant in its consequences. Such transformations are more likely to occur in novel settings, in "total situations," where social situational forces are sufficiently powerful to overwhelm, or set aside temporally, personal attributes of morality, compassion, or sense of justice and fair play.
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We can assume that most people, most of the time, are moral creatures. But imagine that this morality is like a gearshift that at times gets pushed into neutral. When that happens, morality is disengaged. If the car happens to be on an incline, car and driver move precipitously downhill. It is then the nature of the circumstances that determines outcomes, not the driver's skills or intentions.
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Coming from New York, I know that if you go by a delicatessen, and you put a sweet cucumber in the vinegar barrel, the cucumber might say, "No, I want to retain my sweetness." But it's hopeless. The barrel will turn the sweet cucumber into a pickle. You can't be a sweet cucumber in a vinegar barrel.
Part of what we want to do with the Heroic Imagination Project is to get kids to think about what it means to be a hero. The most basic concept of a hero is socially constructed: It differs from culture to culture and changes over time. Think of Christopher Columbus. Until recently, he was a hero. Now he's a genocidal murderer! If he were alive today, he'd say, "What happened? I used to be a hero, and now people are throwing tomatoes at me!
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I'm saying to be a hero it means you step accross the line and are willing to make a sacrifice, so heroes always are making a sacrifice. Heroes always take a risk. Heroes always deviant. Heroes always doing something that most people don't and we want to change - I want to democratise heroism to say any of us can be a hero.
As a result of the prison study, I really became more aware of the central role of power in our lives. I became more aware of the power I have as a teacher. I started consciously doing things to minimize the negative use of power in the classroom. I encouraged students to challenge me.
Whoever has the power to label others as evil is automatically, or reflexively, the good person. Good people label bad people as evil. And once you do that, then it demonizes them. You don't negotiate with evil. You don't sit down at the table with the devil and say, "Okay, let's work this out." What you want to do is destroy evil. Every Catholic kid every night says, or should say, "Lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil." And so you've got to go to God to help you deal with evil rather than your State Department or your negotiators.
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Most of us hide behind egocentric biases that generate the illusion that we are special. These self-serving protective shields allow us to believe that each of us is above average on any test of self-integrity. Too often we look to the stars through the thick lens of personal invulnerability when we should also look down to the slippery slope beneath our feet.
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Our sense of identity is in large measure conferred on us by others in the ways they treat or mistreat us, recognize or ignore us, praise us or punish us. Some people make us timid and shy; others elicit our sex appeal and dominance. In some groups we are made leaders, while in others we are reduced to being followers. We come to live up to or down to the expectations others have of us.
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There was zero time for reflection. We had to feed the prisoners three meals a day, deal with the prisoner breakdowns, deal with their parents, run a parole board. By the third day I was sleeping in my office. I had become the superintendent of the Stanford county jail. That was who I was: I'm not the researcher at all. Even my posture changes--when I walk through the prison yard, I'm walking with my hands behind my back, which I never in my life do, the way generals walk when they're inspecting troops.
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The most dramatic instances of directed behavior change and "mind control" are not the consequence of exotic forms of influence, such as hypnosis, psychotropic drugs, or "brainwashing," but rather the systematic manipulation of the most mundane aspects of human nature over time in confining settings.
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In one sense, the Stanford prison study is more like a Greek drama than a traditional experiment, in that we have humanity, represented by a bunch of good people, pitted against an evil-producing situation. The question is, does the goodness of the people overwhelm the bad situation, or does the bad situation overwhelm the good people?
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Whether we consider Nazi Germany or Abu Ghraib prison, there were many people who observed what was happening and said nothing. At Abu Ghraib, one photo shows two soldiers smiling before a pyramid of naked prisoners while a dozen other soldiers stand around watching passively. If you observe such abuses and don't say, "This is wrong! Stop it!" you give tacit approval to continue. You are part of the silent majority that makes evil deeds more acceptable.
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The [Stanford Prison Experiment] was readily approved by the Human Subjects Research committee because it seemed like college kids playing cops and robbers, it was an experiment that anyone could quit at any time and minimal safeguards were in place. You must distinguish hind sight from fore sight, knowing what you know now after the study is quite different from what most people imagined might happen before the study began.
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... In contrast to the "banality of evil," which posits that ordinary people can be responsible for the most despicable acts of cruelty and degradation of their fellows, I posit the "banality of heroism," which unfurls the banner of the heroic Everyman and Everywoman who heed the call to service to humanity when their time comes to act. When that bell rings, they will know that it rings for them. It sounds a call to uphold what is best in human nature that rises above the powerful pressures of Situation and System as the profound assertion of human dignity opposing evil.
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As we have come to understand the psychology of evil, we have realized that such transformations of human character are not as rare as we would like to believe. Historical inquiry and behavioral science have demonstrated the "banality of evil" -- that is, under certain conditions and social pressures, ordinary people can commit acts that would otherwise be unthinkable.
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We want to believe we are good, we are different, we are better, or we are superior. But this body of social-psychological research--and there are obviously many more experiments in addition to mine and Milgram's--shows that the majority of good, ordinary, normal people can be easily seduced, tempted, or initiated into behaving in ways that they say they never would. In 30 minutes we got them stepping across that line.
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I'm saying to be a hero is means you step across the line and are willing to make a sacrifice, so heroes always are making a sacrifice. Heroes always take a risk. Heroes always deviant. Heroes always doing something that most people don't and we want to change - I want to democratise heroism to say any of us can be a hero.