Of course I'm liberal, I believe in liberty.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Nurture of Evil

I've always felt the great lesson of Nazi Germany had nothing to do with Hitler. It's never really bothered me that people like Hitler exist; some small percentage of the population is capable of incredible, horrible evils that most of us could never imagine, let alone accept. That's the way I like to think of humanity, just a few bad apples. But that wasn't the lesson, because millions of Germans went along with Hitler's plans. Millions of perfectly ordinary people. Just like us.

There is a fascinating interview with Philip Zimbardo over at Edge (now linked permanently in my sidebar under science). Zimbardo is most famous for the Stanford Prison Experiment in which perfectly ordinary people became sadistic prison wardens or paranoid prisoners, depending on which role they were randomly assigned. This experiment has been in the news lately, for the worst of reasons.
When you put that set of horrendous work conditions and external factors together, it creates an evil barrel. You could put virtually anybody in it and you're going to get this kind of evil behavior. The Pentagon and the military say that the Abu Ghraib scandal is the result of a few bad apples in an otherwise good barrel. That's the dispositional analysis. The social psychologist in me, and the consensus among many of my colleagues in experimental social psychology, says that's the wrong analysis. It's not the bad apples, it's the bad barrels that corrupt good people. Understanding the abuses at this Iraqi prison starts with an analysis of both the situational and systematic forces operating on those soldiers working the night shift in that 'little shop of horrors.'

A Talk with Philip Zimbardo
Check it out.