Christian Long

Philip Zimbardo: How People Become Monsters…or Heroes

In TED Talks on April 11, 2010 at 7:50 pm

Reflection by BENEDIKT K.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Philip Zimbardo: How People Become Monsters…or Heroes

“Philosophers, dramatists and theologians have grappled with this question for centuries: What makes people go wrong?”

For decades, Dr Zimbardo has been doing research on this age-old mystery. In 1971, Zimbardo conducted one of the most infamous experiments ever held in the field of human psychology, the Stanford prison experiment, in which he led a simulated prison of regular college students. This study had to be aborted after 6 days because of major mental breakdowns in prisoners and the brutal dehumanization of all participants. The study went so far to even cause its conductor to loose a sense of rationality, it showed that no individual is immune to evil. But to understand Dr Zimbardo’s research and to comprehend his writings and his speeches, we must first find a common definition of evil. Dr Zimbardo quite directly defines evil as the exercise of power, the use of this power to destroy another individuals ideas, to hurt them psychologically or physically and to commit “crimes against humanity”. While one could argue that some of the terms used in this definition are themselves close to impossible to define, it is a sufficient basis for conversation and collaboration. However, I find it extremely interesting that the definition of evil is given here in terms of one individual to another.

A particular case, similar to his prison experiment that Dr. Zimbardo presents in his talk is that of the Abu Ghraib prisoner mistreatments in 2003. But unlike the Bush administration, which was very quick to blame individual soldiers for the abuse and brutal torture they exercised in the prison.

Zimbardo finds fault not in the individual, but in the system, and recognizes patterns similar to those he observed when conducting the Stanford prison experiment. Guards in Tier 1A, the interrogation hold and military intelligence center were under heavy pressure, similar to the guards in his experiment. And both group of guards were given permission to cross certain set boundaries, boundaries of both humanity and regulation.

And the resulting torture and dehumanization can be seen in his Ted Talk from 5:18 to 6:50.

(Warning, the images are of extremely graphic in nature, both in violence and the abuse of sexuality).

It is not the individual soldier that gives in to some inner desire of his own here, but rather the soldier that is pressured by the system and slowly pushed further and further. Once a boundary is breached, it is easier to cross this boundary again. And so, bit by bit, the individual falls into the mass, the system and exerts evil.

But the actions of the individual are also evil, leading us to the problem that we cannot redefine the term evil to a system failure without suggesting that the individual did not act evil at this moment in time. And yes, I do think that it is the individual that acts in an evil manner, not the system. The system can only exist if individuals are part of it, and act upon it. Every human has some kernel of evil in himself, the system simply gives him a reason, an excuse to exert this evil. So we find ourselves with several different layers of evil, that of the individual and that of the system itself. But here comes another layer to our problem of defining, solving evil. The system created in Abu Ghraib was set up by another individual who, in turn, was influenced by the system he was in, which was created by another human being, or maybe elected by a group of people. In the end, can we really define evil as the evil of the individual OR that of the system, is evil really definable as one graspable term? Is it not much rather the combination of individuals, the community of existence that creates evil? Evil is like a disease, slowly spreading from being to being and turning the infected.

But no one is ever uninfected.

Anonymity aids the spread of evil, Dr. Zimbardo notices. When the situation is two individuals that know each other, one on one, rarely does one of them hurt the other. It is when we loose our sense of self, when we won’t be held responsible, but the group will be found fault in that we create our largest devils. To interrupt evil, it is simply necessary to remind yourself that the other being that you are standing, spitting on, is human, and that you are yourself. In the case of the Stanford prison experiment, it was an individual that broke the system. And yes, she was not part of the system, but if we look into the example of Abu Ghraib, we find that it was again an individual that broke the circle of torture, humiliation and death. And this time it was a part of the system, a simple private that did it. It takes but one being to destroy a circle, but many to create one.

Evil, it seems, is the creation of a group of humans, a network, a nation. The villain is simply the one that exerts the will of the group. It is not that he is innocent in doing so, but he is not significantly more at fault than the group behind him. It is the simple individual who is part of the group that can break out of the evil. It is a group that is the villain, and it is never a group of one. All bystanders simply help the villain in his path. But it is the individual human that is the hero. It is the individual human being in which it may be possible to define good.

  1. Great analysis. I like this line: “It takes but one being to destroy a circle, but many to create one.”

  2. When I started reading this post I noticed that you were saying that it is not the fault of the individual but the system. And I thought that that was the easy way out. It is always easy to blame the system, or the government, or fate, or the stars. It takes real courage however, to blame oneself. And so, reading on I saw that you also included the fact that it could in fact be the person themselves, the individual. I must commend you on your ability to not only play the easy side but also take up the more challenging and obviously more difficult to explain side.

    Also on a separate note, the idea of anonymity spreading evil resonates in today’s day. Often now, people feel braver when they are hidden behind a mask of anonymity (formspring, texting, Facebook etc.). These forms of Cyber Communication allow one to hide behind the guise of a random person. Of course, like all things, anonymity has two sides. And, like most things in today’s day and age, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

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