The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil
New York: Random House, 2007
576 pp, $27.95 (hbk)
Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide & Mass Killing (2nd ed.)
New York: Oxford University Press, 2007
384 pp, $24.99 (pbk)
Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide
Toronto: Viking Canada, 2007
248 pp, C $30.00
To prevent future genocides, we must understand the conditions and the forces that produced such unimaginable horrors. Unless and until we see past the myths about the causes of such slaughters, which have claimed the lives of fifty to sixty million people in the last century, they are certain to be repeated – especially given the numerous dangers which are now threatening to undermine social and political stability around the globe.
Three recent books have attempted just this task, with varying degrees of success: The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, by Philip Zimbardo; Becoming Evil, by James Waller; and Barbara Coloroso’s Extraordinary Evil. While there is a fair amount of agreement among these authors, each approaches the subject of atrocity and its root causes from different angles.
The most powerful and insightful effort is by Zimbardo, who is, of course, the pioneering social psychologist most noted for his (in)famous “Stanford Prison Experiment” in 1971, in which male students were randomly assigned to take on the roles of either prisoners or guards in a study originally planned to last for two weeks. The experiment had to be terminated less than halfway through, because of the deleterious and dangerous changes that affected both groups of subjects. The power that the guards were given created a strong tendency for them to act brutally and sadistically towards their fellow classmates. Those assigned to the role of prisoner, on the other hand, became by and large passive, fearful, and subservient. In fact, half of them had to be released even before the “prison” was closed early.
About a third of Zimbardo’s book consists of his detailed analysis of the Stanford Prison Experiment, which is the starting point for his investigation of the forces that compel otherwise ordinary people to commits acts of extraordinary horror and brutality. He offers three fundamental explanations for human behavior. The first and most common approach he labels dispositional. This view focuses primarily on the level of the individual and his or her personality, experiences, genetic inheritance, abilities, and beliefs. It holds that, most of the time, the locus of control over actions is internal. By this psychological explanation, individuals are held to be usually, indeed almost completely, responsible for their actions – regardless of any other external explanations or forces. Nelson Mandela, for example, is a hero primarily because of the type of person that he is (compassionate, intelligent, and principled), while Saddam Hussein was a villain because of his personal vices (sadism, a hunger for power, vanity).
The problem with this focus is that most of the people who commit atrocities are not psychopaths, and individual variables alone can account for only a relatively small part of their actions. Indeed, after carrying out their crimes, most return to their “normal” lives and never again exhibit such pathological behaviour. Zimbardo therefore offers a second level of explanation, based on situational variables outside of individuals that usually provide more robust and comprehensive answers about the sources of inhuman behavior. At this level of analysis, factors such as ideology, deindividuation, domination, socialization, and dehumanization contribute to producing irrational and cruel actions. This focus on social dynamics does not deny the role of personal qualities, but it assumes that on most occasions, there is an interaction between individual and their environment in which the latter is most salient for most people in most circumstances.
For all three authors considered here, this view is the most essential: that given the right “situational variables,” practically anyone will do terrible things to other human beings. Zimbardo stresses the insight, also made by Waller and Coloroso, that mass slaughters can be committed by “normal” people because human behavior is extremely malleable, allowing contradictory behaviors to be manifested by the same person in different situations. He writes: “Perhaps we are born with a full range of capacities, each of which is activated and developed depending on the social and cultural circumstances that govern our lives. I will argue that the potential for perversion is inherent in the very processes that make human beings do all the wonderful things that we do” (p. 229). In other words, the simplistic dualism of believing that “an unbridgeable chasm separates good people from bad people” ignores the reality that human behaviour is characterized by its variability, so that evil is “something of which we are all capable, depending on circumstances” (ibid).
The problems begin when socialization accentuates the negative potential present in us all. A telling example is the almost automatic tendency to divide people into categories of “us” and “them” – a function which can easily be exaggerated, so that those defined as the “Other” appear both threatening and less than human. In one telling study, subjects who “accidentally” overheard a remark that students in a test were “animals” gave them higher levels of electric shocks than subjects who did not hear the “animal” comment. Moreover, subjects who overheard a reference to the students as “nice guys” gave the mildest shocks of all (p. 308-9).
Another natural tendency that can be twisted is the need for community and for connections with nature (or “first nature” and “second nature,” as Murray Bookchin called it). Frans de Waal, one of the world’s leading researchers on primate behaviour, writes: “There was never a point at which we became social: descended from highly social ancestors – a long line of monkeys and apes – we have been group-living forever … life in groups is not an option, but a survival strategy.” As a result of this evolutionary heritage, de Waal explains, “sociality has become ever more deeply ingrained in primate biology and psychology.” In fact, the main reason for the large cortex in human brains is our need to associate in complex social groups.
One problem, however, is that the fear of feeling isolated and alone, if combined with the mental categories of “us and them,” may be twisted into an unhealthy form of nationalism and arrogance, while dehumanizing the Other, whose life counts for little.
This polarization is much more likely to occur when people are fearful, a problem that is clearly illustrated by the changing relationship between Serbs and Croatians over the last sixty years. For centuries, the history of these two peoples was drenched in blood, and mutual hostility was part of their cultural legacy. After the Second World War, however, the new Yugoslav government under Tito designed political and social arrangements which stressed peaceful cooperation and unity among all peoples of Yugoslavia. The economic situation of the ordinary Yugoslav improved dramatically, and over a relatively short period of time the ancient hostility eased. Serbs and Croatians began to live together, work together, and even marry one another. Human nature did not change in these few decades, but the social environment did, and that made all the difference. Anger and hatred were replaced by empathy, friendship, and in some cases, love.
When economic and political conditions began to deteriorate in the 1980s, however, many people experienced insecurity and fear. Those feelings played a large part in nationalist appeals that led to the rebirth of communal violence, producing horrible atrocities and the genocide of “ethnic cleansing.” In some cases, the very same people who had been neighbours and friends just a few years earlier now turned on each other, committing violent and inhuman acts. Clearly, when people believe their very lives are at stake, they are more likely to do what they are told – including, if “necessary,” slaughtering other people.
The Yugoslav example points to a larger problem regarding the so-called “realist” view that human beings are innately aggressive and that war is in our genes. Zimbardo’s research leads him to inquire about the nature and origin of those situations that foster war and violence in general, and genocide in particular. He explains situational variables by reference to an even more fundamental factor, that of “systems of power” (p. 10) which create diverse situations and manipulate people in ways that benefit those in control – the “power elite,” to cite the concept advanced by the sociologist C. Wright Mills.
For Zimbardo, the “military-corporate-religious complex is the ultimate megasystem controlling much of the resources and quality of life of many Americans today.” (ibid.) To his credit, he is not afraid to name names. After examining the lies that spawned the illegal invasion of Iraq and the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo concludes that the blame rests with “the very top of the long chain of command – all the way up to Vice President Dick Cheney (‘the Vice President of Torture’) and President George W. Bush” (p. 432, quoting the Washington Post, October 26 2005).
In the second edition of his incisive work, Becoming Evil, James Waller takes a somewhat more general approach than Zimbardo. He makes a similar point, namely that it is mostly “ordinary people committing extraordinary evil,” and adds that it is not simply a matter of a person having a “pathological or faulty personality.” Among the evidence he adduces is the finding by half a dozen psychologists that the Nazi génocidaire Adolf Eichmann was normal, rather than diabolical. Throughout the book, Waller emphasizes the unsettling thought that, “given the right confluence of contributing factors, we are all capable of some terrible deeds” (p. 161).
Along the same lines, Waller effectively deconstructs the view that a given society must be pathological if it carries out mass murder and genocide. He accomplishes this by reviewing Daniel Goldhagen’s influential book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, the main thesis of which is that the Nazi Holocaust resulted from an especially virulent strain of antisemitism in German culture. On the contrary, Waller not only shows that “there is little evidence that the antisemitism of Germans was eliminationist” before the rise of Hitler, but also demonstrates that Goldhagen’s belief “that eliminationist anti-Semitism was the central motive of the Holocaust fares no better. The fixation on one over-arching explanation – rather than many overlapping, reinforcing, perhaps partially competing explanations – is too simplistic” (p. 52).
The heart of Waller’s study are the chapters devoted to examining the conditions that contribute to mass violence. At the cultural level, he considers such models as “authority orientation” and “social dominance,” which may help to construct ideologies that in turn serve to legitimize mass violence. Waller then studies the psychological factors that make it possible to dehumanize people as Others without rights – even the right to exist. Indeed, it helps psychologically to consider such Others as a threat to one’s own values. Finally, Waller examines the “social construction of cruelty,” in an analysis that, like Zimbardo’s, dissects the situational variables that allow people to commit atrocities, including deindividuation and peer pressure.
Finally, although Waller argues that “social conflict is ubiquitous” throughout human history (p. xiv), he is not referring to Marx’s view that history “is the history of class struggle.” Indeed, class plays almost no role in Waller’s explanation of mass killing and genocide. One wonders, though, if it is entirely irrelevant that the capitalist classes in Germany offered Hitler “their full support and cooperation” as the Nazis crushed the trade union movement and established an extremely profitable “military-industrial complex” as a preparation for war? Or that “The Fuehrer personally stressed time and again during talks with … industrial leaders … that he considered free enterprise and competition as absolutely necessary”? ii
Closer to home, is the lack of action by the United States, Canada, and other G-8 nations in Rwanda and Darfur connected to the lack of economic interest on the part of the business classes in those countries? In his postscript, Waller admits that “the UN and the United States have been very slow” to take any serious actions to halt the genocide in Darfur (p. 302). But there is little attempt to explain that inaction.
The relationship between bullying and genocide is the central metaphor in Barbara Coloroso’s, Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide. Coloroso argues that “the concept of genocide in general, and the Rwandan genocide in particular, are macrocosms of the drama known as bullying” (p. xx). She does a reasonable job of pointing out similarities between these phenomena, such as the social origins of much cruel behavior. But the metaphor is stretched thin at times. Coloroso is at her best in describing some of the psychological aspects of violence, and especially the other side of the coin – when “ordinary” people perform extraordinary feats of bravery to help victims of mass violence. One famous example of mass heroism occurred in Denmark under Nazi occupation:
When the Nazis invaded Denmark in 1940, citizens of all ages united to form a strong resistance movement. Refusing to cooperate with the planned deportation of Jews, the Danes began spiriting their neighbors and relatives across the channel to Sweden in small fishing vessels. Scientists and fishermen worked together to come up with ways to numb the noses of dogs used by the Nazis to search the vessel for stowaways. The small boats, with their undetected human cargo, met up with larger Swedish ships in the channel. In all, 7,200 of the 7,800 Danish Jews and 700 or their non-Jewish relatives were smuggled safely out of Denmark (pp. 125-26).
On the other hand, there is a surprising void when it comes to considering the inaction of the United States, and President Clinton in particular, during the genocide in Rwanda. While Coloroso notes that Clinton eventually apologized to the survivors, she passes over the question of his guilt in silence. She does quote Canadian scholar Gerald Caplan, who argues that nothing “can substitute for political will among the powers-that-can” (p. 20). But there is no indication that Caplan has also pointed to “Five Culprits of Genocide” in Rwanda, including the UN, France, the Catholic Church, Belgium, and the United States. In fact, Caplan is the author of “Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide”, a report of the international panel of eminent persons that investigated the 1994 slaughter. He later wrote:
During the genocide, it was the U.S.’s turn to betray Rwanda…the craven Clinton administration, under pressure from the Republicans, ensured that the UN Security Council would do nothing…Thanks entirely to contrived American stalling tactics…not a single reinforcement of man or machine from abroad had reached Rwanda. iii
In spite of the long litany of depressing and horrific stories of violence and cruelty, all these authors agree that things can be done to reduce mass violence. At the core of these prescriptions is the need for critical thought, compassion, and action. Ultimately, systems of power need to be democratized and every human being needs to be treated with respect.
There is another question that all three authors tackle, and on which all three are found wanting – the question of personal responsibility. For instance, while Zimbardo challenges “the rigid Fundamental Attribution Error that locates the inner qualities of people as the main source of their actions,” he adds that this position does not “negate the responsibility”of individuals, “nor their guilt” (p. 445).
For his part, Waller rightly warns of the danger of dealing with evil “from the heights of moral condemnation rather than the depths of human understanding,” but then declares that, nevertheless, “we are all responsible for our deeds – evil or otherwise” (pp. 18-19). In her insightful chapter, “Restoring Community,” Coloroso explores important ideas about necessity of forgiveness, restitution, and reconciliation, but insists that those “who have committed crimes against humanity” must “take full responsibility for their actions” (p. 208).
There are at least four major problems with the notion of individual moral responsibility and guilt. The first is that all three authors have done a very convincing job of showing how a multitude of forces beyond individual control – social, economic, cultural, situational, psychological, and so on – can combine to elicit very uncharacteristic behaviour from a person, behaviour they would never exhibit in less extreme circumstances. Therefore, is it logical or fair to assign “full responsibility” from “the heights of moral condemnation” to those hapless individuals? Is this not making the same “Fundamental Attribution Error”?
In addition, according to cognitive scientist George Lakoff, research has discovered that there is “a vast landscape of unconscious thought – the 98 percent of thinking your brain does that you’re not aware of.” iv Does it make sense, therefore, to condemn someone who – like all of us – is aware of only two percent of the thoughts and feelings that drive their actions?
Third, I believe it is arrogant to pretend to godlike omniscience and claim to fully understand the contributions of all of the above-cited variables to an individual’s actions. Human understanding is limited. Moreover, as the authors remind us many times, any one of us might do horrible things in the “wrong” situation.
Last, not only does a focus on individuals at the bottom of the chain of command obscure the responsibility of those at the top, but more importantly it diverts attention from the ultimate cause of most mass inhumanity – the systems of Power which Zimbardo emphasizes.
Perhaps the most desirable road is to focus more on the prevention of mass killing than to waste time in futile debates about “guilt.” As Coloroso wisely points out, forgiveness is a “gift” that victims can give to themselves, as part of the process of healing.
All three writers stress that there are always some people who are able to resist the inhumanity that takes place around them, and the authors provide many examples of such heroes – people who may have led “ordinary” lives until they found themselves in a situation that brought out the best in them. As critical as those actions may be, Zimbardo is right when he says that “disobedience by the individuals must get translated into systemic disobedience” if it is going to have a significant impact (p. 459). Such widespread disobedience on the part of US citizens – and within the armed forces – was one of the main reasons that Washington was forced to end its attack on Vietnam, and why Nixon could not carry out his threats to attack the Vietnamese with nuclear weapons.
Of all the stories of the heroic resistance to the Vietnam War, perhaps the most moving is that of the late Hugh Thompson, who was a US helicopter pilot in Vietnam in 1968, when he came across the My Lai massacre while it was in progress. As Zimbardo relates the tale:
An estimated 504 Vietnamese civilians were rounded up and killed … the soldiers gathered up all the inhabitants of the village – elderly men, women, children, and babies – and machine gunned them to death (some they burned alive, raped, and scalped).
While the massacre was unfolding, a helicopter piloted by Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr. set down to help a group of Vietnamese civilians … They saw Captain [Ernest] Medina and other soldiers running over to shoot the wounded. Thompson flew his helicopter back over My Lai village … ordered the massacre to stop and threatened to open fire with the helicopter’s heavy machine gun on any American soldier or officer who refused his order… He then ordered two other helicopters to fly in for medical evacuation of the eleven wounded Vietnamese. His plane returned to rescue a baby he had spotted still clinging to its dead mother (pp 475-75).
Thompson and his crew embodied the appeal made over a decade earlier by Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, when they called on the people of the world to “Above all, remember your humanity.” v
Most acts of resistance to the evils demanded by systems of Power and the situations that they create will not be as heroic as that Hugh Thompson. But the most hopeful aspects of these studies are the examples they supply of individuals who in the most terrible situations, from Auschwitz to Abu Ghraib, remembered their own humanity, as well as that of the people around them.
Notes and references:
i (de Waal, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. 2006, p. 4).
ii (Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. 1960, p. 201).
iii (Caplan, “A Ridiculously Brief History of Rwanda” in The Walrus, October 2004).
iv (Lakoff, The Political Mind. 2008, p.3).
v (Russell and Einstein, The Russell-Einstein Manifesto. 9 July 1955 www.pugwash.org/about/manifesto.htm).
The How Good People Turn Evil by The Primal Mind, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.