The Lucifer Effect

If most human beings know what not to do then why evil exists? What makes good people go wrong? These questions do come up in our classroom dialogues.

Personally, I was intrigued by the psychology of evil and went into this rabbit holes years ago and I found the Lucifer effect by Phillip Zimbardo - a phenomenon where people go from being individually moral to becoming evil, corrupt, and often brutal, towards other people.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is not just a fiction. Experiments and experiences have shown that the line between good and evil is movable and permeable. Good people have crossed that line to the other side. In some occasions bad people have crossed that line with rehabilitation/reform to the good side as well.

No one represented this better than Escher. The world is filled with angels and demons. The good and evil are the yin & yang of the human condition.

Psychologically speaking, evil is the exercise of power to intentionally harm, hurt and destroy human beings.

The 2003 Abu Ghraib torture is a classic example. I would like to believe that the soldiers of USA are fairly good people and they are not capable of such criminal acts. It was surprising and shocking to see what happened. When such a thing comes to light, the typical statement is, it is not the system but a few bad apples in the system. Well, that is not the case.

I strongly encourage you to read Philip Zimbardo's book to understand the details of the incident. It all happened in one place Tier 1A interrogation unit where the military reservists were pushed to the edge to break the will of the prisoners and they did. It is not the bad apples. It not even the barrel that held the bad apples. It is the system that gave the power to the barrel to execute.

It is an interplay of these three forces.

  1. What do the people bring into the situation?
  2. What does the situation bring out of people?
  3. What is the system that creates and maintains that situation.

It is not about the transformation of good to evil but it is fascinating to understand how our minds have infinite capacity to make us behave cruel/kind, caring/indifferent, creative/destructive that makes us villains/heroes.

Stanley Milgram's experiment is another great example of good people turning evil. Could the holocaust happen again now? Will a good person electrocute a stranger? The answer was "no way" but the results of the experiment proved otherwise.

I strongly encourage you to read the experiment here. The study was about obeying authority. The experiment simulated a learner and teacher. Participants in the study were instructed to administer electric shocks to a learner, even when that obedience caused harm to the learner. The teacher was instructed by a person in a coat (authority) to increase the voltage when there was disobedience. At one end it was 15 volts and the other end was 450 volts.

Psychiatrists predicted that 1% of Americans may be sadistic. Milgram did 16 studies and the results showed that 65% of the participants in the study delivered the maximum shocks 🤯

You might think that was just a study. What is the proof that it happens really? In Guyana jungle, Jim Jones aided a mass suicide and killed 912 people. They blindly obeyed him. In simple words, individual authority to control people makes them cross the line. The Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) is another example of psychological abuse of the prisoners (students) by the "guards" (students) became increasingly brutal in just five days. 

The seven social processes that takes people on the slippery slope of evil in new/unfamiliar situations include

  1. Mindlessly taking the first step (pressing the 15 volts in Milgram's study)
  2. De-humanisation of others (removing names, menial activities)
  3. De-Individuation of self (anonymity, masks, uniform)
  4. Diffusion of personal responsibility
  5. Blind obedience to authority
  6. Uncritical conformity to group norms
  7. Passive tolerance of evil through inaction or indifference

In such instances personality and morality are disengaged and habitual patterns don't work. We don't need any drugs for this evil transformation. Social psychological processes will do.

Power without oversight is a prescription for abuse. The leadership failed in Abu Ghraib situation. The higher authorities had no clue the abuse was happening. The superintendent failed in SPE experiment for five days till he was notified about the horrific abuse.

It is time to move from focusing on individuals towards the systems and situations that give the power to transform into evil. Diseases like bullying, violence, prejudice, inaction to be analysed in all three vectors.

One simple solution is heroism. We want to encourage our kids/ourselves to be courageous enough to standup when such evil happens to us and around us. The intolerance helps. We don't need to be super heroes to standup for ourselves and our society. Ordinary people like you and me can do heroic deeds. We just need to stop taking the first step towards the slippery slope.

🥂 to heroes!

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