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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 Wired.com 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 Wired.com, that features many previously unseen photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq (disturbing content).

In March 2006, Salon.com 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 Wired.com 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 | , | 19 Comments