Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

How Good People Turn Evil

This is a subject that fascinates me – how even “good” people can do very very bad things . . . The article and interview is from science/discoveries and you can read the entire article and view a videotape by clicking on the blue type.

TED 2008: How Good People Turn Evil, From Stanford to Abu Ghraib
By Kim Zetter 02.28.08 | 12:00 AM

MONTEREY, California — Psychologist Philip Zimbardo has seen good people turn evil, and he thinks he knows why. Zimbardo will speak Thursday afternoon at the TED conference, where he plans to illustrate his points by showing a three-minute video, obtained by, that features many previously unseen photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq (disturbing content).

In March 2006, published 279 photos and 19 videos from Abu Ghraib, one of the most extensive documentations to date of abuse in the notorious prison. Zimbardo claims, however, that many images in his video — which he obtained while serving as an expert witness for an Abu Ghraib defendant — have never before been published.

The Abu Ghraib prison made international headlines in 2004 when photographs of military personnel abusing Iraqi prisoners were published around the world. Seven soldiers were convicted in courts martial and two, including Specialist Lynndie England, were sentenced to prison.

Zimbardo conducted a now-famous experiment at Stanford University in 1971, involving students who posed as prisoners and guards. Five days into the experiment, Zimbardo halted the study when the student guards began abusing the prisoners, forcing them to strip naked and simulate sex acts.

His book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, explores how a “perfect storm” of conditions can make ordinary people commit horrendous acts.

He spoke with about what Abu Ghraib and his prison study can teach us about evil and why heroes are, by nature, social deviants.

Wired: Your work suggests that we all have the capacity for evil, and that it’s simply environmental influences that tip the balance from good to bad. Doesn’t that absolve people from taking responsibility for their choices?

Philip Zimbardo: No. People are always personally accountable for their behavior. If they kill, they are accountable. However, what I’m saying is that if the killing can be shown to be a product of the influence of a powerful situation within a powerful system, then it’s as if they are experiencing diminished capacity and have lost their free will or their full reasoning capacity.

Situations can be sufficiently powerful to undercut empathy, altruism, morality and to get ordinary people, even good people, to be seduced into doing really bad things — but only in that situation.

Understanding the reason for someone’s behavior is not the same as excusing it. Understanding why somebody did something — where that why has to do with situational influences — leads to a totally different way of dealing with evil. It leads to developing prevention strategies to change those evil-generating situations, rather than the current strategy, which is to change the person.

You can read the rest of the article and view the video HERE.

March 2, 2008 - Posted by | Books, Bureaucracy, Character, Crime, Experiment, Living Conditions, Political Issues, Social Issues, Spiritual | ,


  1. In my book, good and evil are only relative terms – even temporal. 🙂

    ” How good people turn evil. ”

    I wonder if that has anything to do with ” When Bad things happen to Good People.”

    Comment by Arrested Development | March 2, 2008 | Reply

  2. Ok, so if you change the environment in which people have the tendency to turn evil then those same people won’t do anything evil?

    Personally I believe that some people have terrible personalities and the only thing that prevents them from acting upon their wretched tendencies is the fear of getting caught. So if by changing the environment he means placing more checks and balances, punishing fairly but quickly, and giving less authority to any one single entity then yeah that makes sense to me.

    But then how much can you really do that? Change everyone’s environment so that those who are shameless fear punishment enough to refrain from doing what they really want to do?

    Comment by 7zaya | March 2, 2008 | Reply

  3. Power and authority lead ppl to think that they can do whatever they want. The more power a person is given, the more he tries to see what he can get away with.
    You don’t have to go far to see that, go to any school, and see the school “bully” or the most powerful student in school and what he can do to students.
    Or look at frats and sororities and wat the older sisters and brothers do to the pledges. In those cases, the pledges allow the bros and sisters to do stuff to them because they want to fit in and be part of the group.

    Comment by Chirp | March 2, 2008 | Reply

  4. Hello, BL, welcome back.

    Intentionally causing mental and/or physical harm to another being is evil in my book.

    And while at first I was going to say, no no no to it having anything to do with “when bad things happen to good people” I had to stop and think . . . hmm. . . sometimes the things we want the most – money, power, popularity . . . can change us for the worst when we achieve them . . . so now I need to think about that some more. You have a way of doing that, making us think from another point of view. . .

    7zaya – There are people who believe environment and opportunity play a big part. Haven’t you ever seen someone in a powerful position who shouldn’t be there and can’t handle it? Have you ever seen anyone in power who abuses it?

    It’s all part of that heredity vs environment debate, isn’t it, and trying to figure out how it all works together. And yeh, I think you are right, checks and balances – accountability – oversight – those are good things.

    Comment by intlxpatr | March 2, 2008 | Reply

  5. Not necessarily, Chirp. We have the concept of the “servant king,” that with great power comes great responsibility. Not every person in power abuses the power. But you are right, SOME do, and some seem not to even think the normal rules apply to them.

    You are right, those bullies and those sororities and fraternities, those police, those jailers – some people lose their sense of right and wrong when they find themselves in a position of authority. God willing, for most it is an aberration. But I find myself very glad people are studying how and why it happens, and trying to help us find ways to place limits – on ourselves!

    Comment by intlxpatr | March 2, 2008 | Reply

  6. This is a question humanity has pondered from the beginning, with many answers given – although none are a ‘one fits all’ response. I suppose, given my field of experience, I would have to look at it from the other side… what can be done to make bad people good?
    Consider this, whether we are ever able to understand it or not (as every single circumstances differs from the one before, as well as the one to follow), people are going to do horrible things to each other. Call it human nature, if you like. Children aren’t taught to be selfish, they’re born that way. And, like 7zaya said, even many who don’t act on it are thinking about it.
    I believe we would see more improvement in the world if we knew how to make bad people good. Having spent my entire adult life working in a prison setting, dealing with those whose thoughts have lead to actions, in turn leading to incarceration, and eventually (in most cases) to a return to society, it is apparent to me that our system of ‘punishment’ isn’t effective for anything more than segregating the ‘bad’ from the ‘good.’ Warehousing, if you will. Don’t get me wrong, in Texas we offer high school/college educations, vocational training and certifications, and even assist with job placement upon release. Yet we still see a large percentage of felons return within a short time, having committed yet another offense. And they’re getting younger all the time.
    As you wrote, people are trying to help us find ways to place limits – on ourselves. But the truth is, it’s still up to the individual to maintain adherence.
    Good post… thanks!

    Comment by Lofter | March 2, 2008 | Reply

  7. I’m glad you checked in on this one, Lofter, with all your experience. I have heard that there are actually men who are happier in prison than out of prison, that they NEED the structure to keep their tendencies under control, and they know it. I have heard of some who deliberately re-offend almost as soon as they get out, because they know they can’t control themselves and they want to be in prison for their own sake – and ours. Have you ever seen that?

    I also have friends who have been involved from the corrections side in Texas, and I have heard it is one of the best in the nation.

    I don’t believe any child is born “bad” but I believe many become badly damaged. So how do we heal those who go “bad?” I have heard that Islam is making a huge difference in the recividism rate among the black prison population – have you seen that?

    What have YOU seen make a difference?

    Comment by intlxpatr | March 3, 2008 | Reply

  8. Yes I have definitely seen people who have powerful positions who can’t handle it but I don’t think it’s their position that leads them to abuse it in most cases but rather that they are abusive by nature, or rather be character. The thing is, with such people you can see the signs that this is their character even without giving them power. If they don’t abuse their employees they abuse their wives and if they don’t abuse their wives they abuse their kids and if they don’t have a wife or kids they bully their classmates and so on.

    I don’t believe that anyone would be born inheriting evil though. That doesn’t make sense to me.

    Comment by 7zaya | March 3, 2008 | Reply

  9. 7zaya – You make some good points. There is talk of people who are born “bad seeds” but I tend to agree with you, we are all born with flaws in our character, and it is whether we succumb to the temptation for fight the flaw that tells who we really are. At least that is how it seems to me . .. I know I have made some bad choices now and then – and paid the price.

    Some people have low impulse control – and I think some are born with some tendencies, like alcoholism. Do you know the story that ends “which wolf will you feed?”

    Comment by intlxpatr | March 3, 2008 | Reply

  10. No never heard of it?

    Comment by 7zaya | March 3, 2008 | Reply

  11. The story is told as an old Indian legend. The old Indian shaman tells his son about two wolves living inside, one which helps you to be kind and good and generous and helps you to live a happy life and one which makes you greedy and harsh and mean and jealous and harmful to others. The two wolves fight for your spirt.

    The young man asks “which wolf will win?”

    The old man responds “the one you feed.”

    Comment by intlxpatr | March 3, 2008 | Reply

  12. Yes, I have seen the things you speak of. I had a 72-year old man come into my office one day, crying like a child. He begged me to do something to make them keep him in prison. He was incarcerated at age 22, with a 50 year sentence. He did his time day-for-day, committing the occasional rule violation just to keep from accruing any good time. You see, his wife had died, and his children (two as I recall) never knew him – and didn’t want to. He had nothing, no one on the outside. The only life he’d really known was inside. I couldn’t keep him, and he left broken and afraid. I don’t know what happened to him, and it’s just as well, I think.
    I had another inmate who worked for me for several years. He made his parole and went home to his mother. Approximately six months later, he showed back up sitting outside my office wanting me to assign him a job. I brought him in and listened as he explained how he’d burned his mother’s house down and received a new 5-year sentence. I was furious with him. He was in him late 40’s/early 50’s, which put his mother in her 60’s at best. She agreed to allow him to parole to her, so he could be released from prison. She offered him everything she had, and that’s exactly what he took. Seeing my anger, he explained that his mother was in poor health and couldn’t afford the upkeep on her house. So, he sent her away for a week to visit relatives. While she was gone, he burned down her house. To him, it made perfect sense. His mother collected on the insurance policy, and he got to come back to prison, where he wanted to be.
    People can become institutionalized. The movie “Shawshank Redemption,” while fictional, has a good bit of reality to it. But the truth is always stranger than the fiction.

    In over a quarter century, I can honestly say that religion (Christianity, Islam, Judaism… even Native American) does have an impact on a very small segment of inmates. However, with respect to Islam, I can honestly say the version being ‘practiced’ by many of the black inmates is more in line with Louis Farrakhan than anything else. Very militant and not very tolerant. That, I do not consider a religious belief, but more of a gang activity. But that’s just me…

    Sorry for the length of this comment! I’ll be brief next time! 🙂

    I don’t think children are born evil, but do believe they must be taught to be good. It’s easier to be anything else, especially in this world we’ve created for ourselves.

    Comment by Lofter | March 4, 2008 | Reply

  13. Lofter, just as real life trumps blogging, content trumps a brief comment. The length matters far less than the fact that the response added so much to the discussion, especially because you are talking first hand experience, and you seem to have a lot of compassion for these characters.

    Even education doesn’t combat recividism?

    Comment by intlxpatr | March 4, 2008 | Reply

  14. Education helps, but it doesn’t turn the corner completely. When the job market is flooded with bachelor’s degrees, their value is significantly diminished. You’d be amazed at how many prison guards now have degrees – it’s never been required, but they’ve got them anyway. Add on top of that the millstone of being a convicted felon, and the job market can close extremely quick. Add the final layer of familiarity with making money through the sale of drugs – which if far more profitable (monetarily) than a regular job any day of the week, and you end up with a good degree of recidivism.
    Bottom line, when people are hungry and/or addicted, they turn to what they know best. If that is illegal activity, then the old adage of ‘keep on doing what you’re doing and you’ll keep on getting what you’ve got’ proves itself valid.
    The simple truth is, most people in prison are normal people who made bad choices. The vast majority just want to do their time and go home. It’s the smaller percentage – those who enjoy violence and have no concept of respect or decency – that garner all the press. The former I do have compassion for. The latter… well, they’re where they belong.

    Comment by Lofter | March 4, 2008 | Reply

  15. Ahhh. I had some remodeling done this last summer, and I felt very sure that many of the painters, carpenters, dry-wall people, etc had done some time. They all belonged to the same church, most of the crews, and the church was helping them get back on their feet. I imagine it can’t be easy.

    My son says the same things about people making bad choices. I worked with the homeless for a while, and found something similar – in my mind, for some, it is almost an addiction to making bad choices. You’ve been there before, you know the consequences – and you do it anyway. Mostly, I feel sorry for the children in those circumstances.

    As for those who enjoy the violence – where they belong and where they need to be. How do they pass their time in prison?

    Comment by intlxpatr | March 5, 2008 | Reply

  16. Far too often (for my taste) they pass their time quite gleefully, living off the extortion of weaker inmates. Things don’t change that much for them on the inside – they just know where their next meal comes from and which bunk is theirs.

    Comment by Lofter | March 6, 2008 | Reply

  17. Ouch. So they are predators encaged with a herd of captive prey? Not a pretty picture. Shawshank Redemption is one of my all time favorite movies, by the way, and I always wonder where I would hide (like the library) if I found myself incarcerated.

    Comment by intlxpatr | March 6, 2008 | Reply

  18. I REALLY AM INTERESTED IN THE THOUGHT OF WHY PEOPLE TURN BAD i am doung a research on this why are people good or bad very interesting topic and artical.

    Comment by cynthiapettit | February 22, 2010 | Reply

  19. It’s a rich field for research, Cynthia.

    Comment by intlxpatr | February 23, 2010 | Reply

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