Without even meeting you, I can assume that you believe you’re a good person. I assert the same for myself. Sure, we’re not all Mother Teresas, but we’d probably put ourselves above the level of murderers and Nazis. There’s no way, no circumstance where we would ever commit such atrocities, right?
That’s probably what they thought too.
From Dr. Jekyll’s transformation into Mr. Hyde, to civilians who eventually supervised concentration camps, history provides countless examples of ordinary people performing unexpected acts of malevolence. Since studying for AP Psychology last year, I’ve become more interested in the factors that influence our every action. But what contributes to perhaps the most drastic personality change of all: the flip from good to evil?
Apart from being the title of a book written by Phillip Zimbardo (the psychologist who conducted the famous Stanford Prison Experiment), the Lucifer effect describes the point in time when an ordinary, normal person first crosses the boundary between good and evil to engage in an evil action. And while people consistently overstate the responsibility of genetic factors and predisposition in a world brimming with the evils of terrorism, school shootings, abuse, and countless other forms of devastation, the Lucifer effect may tell us otherwise. After reading Zimbardo’s research, I’ve identified three main psychological factors in the Lucifer effect: obedience to authorities, deindividuation, and dehumanization.
The word obedience generally has pretty good associations. When the obedience is to an authority of dubious moral standing, however, individuals can begin to exhibit destructive behaviors. Nearly a century ago, the German military oath ordered soldiers to render unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler. When World War II ended, the subsequent questioning of many Nazi soldiers yielded the Nuremberg defense, an infamous plea eschewing responsibility for immoral actions because they were just following orders. Although initially viewed with skepticism, a recent study conducting a modified version of Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments revealed that participants showed reduced brain activity when coerced. This means that when they acted under command, their brain physically processed the action less. Therefore, by subconsciously distancing themselves from the consequences of commands, individuals can further discount their own responsibility in crimes.
While obedient perpetrators still work under higher influences, immorality can originate from deindividuation, demonstrating the human capacity to ignore societal standards when retribution is sufficiently minimized. Deindividuation diffuses responsibility among a group, and when individuals recognize their lessened accountability they are more likely to act wrongly. We see this all the time (cyberbullying, riots, etc.) but a classic example for this is the Stanford prison experiment. The group of college students acting as guards dropped their personal identities and exhibited malicious intent almost immediately, a turnaround so sudden and so concerning that Zimbardo terminated the experiment after only six days.
Another factor in play is anonymity. Although seemingly insignificant, the primary deterrent for criminal activity is the fear of jeopardizing one’s reputation. When individuals’ identities are hidden, their reputations are in a sense “safe”, making them much more likely to act recklessly. War often exemplifies this; when examining the relationship between anonymity and violence in warriors, Harvard anthropologist John Watson noted that societies that concealed their appearances tortured or mutilated their enemies much more often than societies that did not conceal their appearance. His results are striking confirmation that anonymity promotes destructive behavior. With anonymity in place, the responsibility of a person to act in a socially acceptable way can be repressed without consequence, creating the potential for depravity.
Finally, classical criminology states that if the benefits from an illegal activity outweigh the harms, the action will be done. Thus, if someone believes that the harms to victims are minimal or even justified, they validate the crime to themselves. By dehumanizing victims with various types of propaganda, perpetrators are trained to think uncritically and close-mindedly about those targeted as enemies. And this isn’t a new tactic. From the Jewish “rats” in World War II to the comparison of Tutsis to “cockroaches that necessitated extermination” during the Rwandan Genocide, examples of dehumanization are widespread across history.
In the case of the Stanford prison experiment, the dehumanization of the prisoners came by the degrading initiation process where guards humiliated and emasculated the prisoners. Not only did this process instill notions of inferiority and worthlessness in the prisoners, but it provided the guards with an opportunity to view the prisoners as deserving of punishment, especially when they justifiably fought back. The impact on the prisoners was profound; previously confident students behaved like prisoners of war or hospitalized mental patients, feeling powerless to resist the oppressive prison environment. Guards experienced the opposite effect, displaying heightened bravado and aggressive behaviors, demonstrating the corrupting influence of dehumanization. By fostering the perception that victims are sub-human or deserve torment, ordinary people are transformed into indifferent or even wanton perpetrators of evil.
So, what do you think?
Or more accurately, how are you thinking? What’s influencing your thought processes right now?
Maybe we don’t know. But what we do know is that socially approved roles, legitimizing ideologies, and institutional support diminishes individual capacity for choice. Examples from Nazi concentration camps all the way to experiments held in the psychology departments of prestigious universities successfully demonstrate the factors that influence good people to perpetuate evil. What is especially notable is that these factors are all situationally dependent, not innate. Thus, recognizing that any deed that any human being has ever done, however horrible, is possible for anyone to do under the wrong situational pressures, it might be time to reconsider the confidence we have in what we would or would not do when put into new behavioral settings.
Until next time,