Good vs. Evil

Zimbardo presented some highly relevant research on this topic at the 2014 Convention of the American Psychological Association. Zimbardo, a retired, but still very active professor from Stanford University, grew up in the South Bronx of New York City. The South Bronx was, and I believe still is, a very poor and crime ridden part of the city. Since he was seven years old he wondered why some people became bad pursuing the routes of drug dealing, crime, and prostitution, whereas others managed to pursue good, legitimate lives. As a psychologist he has conducted some significant research to address this question.

At Stanford University he conducted research using a simulated prison, which is certainly the most famous experiment that was never completed. He recruited college students in the area, many of whom were Stanford students, to participate in a prison experiment for pay. Twenty-four participants were randomly assigned to experimental conditions. Half were designated to be guards, and half were designated to be prisoners. The experiment was scheduled to run for two weeks. The situation quickly degenerated into one where the guards were degrading and humiliating the prisoners. After only six days, some of the prisoners had been sent to the health center suffering from what were apparently nervous breakdowns. Bear in mind that any of the participants could have voluntarily left the experiment at any time, but only two of the prisoners did. Yet the guards persisted in degrading and humiliating the prisoners and the other prisoners who apparently chose suffering nervous breakdowns rather than simply quitting the experiment. Zimbardo’s fiance came to the prison to meet him for a dinner date. She was horrified by what she saw. She asked him how could he be doing this? He responded that he was collecting good data for his research. She told him that she did not know him and left the experimental setting in tears. Zimbardo left the prison and ran after her. Only after speaking to her again outside, did he realize what he was doing. He has said that had he not left that setting, he probably would have continued the research. But instead he immediately cancelled the experiment. He married his fiance the following year and they remain married today. Accounts of this experiment can be found in the Wikipedia or by entering “Stanford Prison Experiment” into the search block of any browser.

Another relevant line of research was conducted earlier by a fellow professor who had grown up in the South Bronx, Stanley Milgram. Milgram was Jewish and wondered how the Germans could commit the atrocities the Nazis committed. And he wondered whether this was a uniquely German affliction. Milgram was at Yale, but he conducted his research at other settings in addition to Yale, Milgram’s experiment was framed as a learning experiment. Two participants arrived at the experiment, although one of the participants was a confidant of the experimenter. There was a pseudo random assignment to the conditions (the experimenter’s confederate was always the student). The student went into an adjacent room. It was set up as a learning experiment, and when the student made a mistake, the other participant, the “teacher,” was told to administer an electric shock. These shocks were (apparently to the trainer) on a panel indicating that the shocks were increasing in intensity. As the trainer progressed up the panel, the “student” indicated increasing amounts of pain. Close to the end, he was shrieking, and at the very end, there was complete silence. Now there were a few “trainers”, perhaps 10% who left at the beginning of the experiment. However, about 65% went all the way to the top. I’ve viewed videos of some of these experiments. The trainers were showing obvious signs of distress as they thought they were increasing in intensity, but when the experimenter told them to continue, they continued. In fact, when there were two trainers, the second one being a confederate of the experimenter, 91% of the trainers, influenced by peer pressure, went to the top. Over the many iterations of this experiment there were about 1,000 experimental subjects (the “trainers”). And these research participants could have left the experiment at any time. A more detailed account of this experiment can be found in the Wikipedia.

Zimbardo also showed videos of research on bystander apathy. This research used stooges dressed differently to collapse on a busy public sidewalk. One was dressed in an expensive suit. He was responded to quite quickly. However, others were passed by many people before someone offered to help. One was in apparent agony, but he was still ignored for a depressingly long period of time. However, once one “Good Samaritin” responded, others usually followed.

Here is Zimbardo’s theoretical account of the phenomena of good versus evil. Each of us has a thin line separating us from doing right versus doing wrong. Zimbardo estimates that perhaps ten percent of us are natural “heroes,” almost always disposed to the correct path. There are three levels to be considered: the individual, the situational, and the systemic. The research reported in this post shows the role of situational factors. There is also a systemic factor and that factor is poverty, the factor he saw in the South Bronx, and a factor that is endemic throughout the world.

Note that Zimbardo is not discounting the individual factor. It is an important factor and Zimbaro’s current work in his “retirement” is how how to develop this individual factor so that more of us can be heroes most often. The next healthymemory blog post will discuss this project.


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