Sunday, March 9, 2008

Will Evil Prevail?

Philip Zimbardo, social psychologist, is the author of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How GOod People Turn Evil.

He started by describing the famous (infamous) experiment where volunteers were recruited, ostensibly to help other volunteers to learn by applying electrical shocks. The experiment starts with them applying 15V, which is clearly not painful to the shockees. As the experiment progresses, at the encouragement of the experimenters who say that the learners are clearly not getting enough yet to cause the desired improvement in learning, the shockers apply larger and larger shocks, even to levels where the voltage levels on the equipment are clearly marked as dangerous and the shockers can see the obvious pain of the learners. In this experiment, fully 2/3 of the shockers went up to 450V(!), the limit on the dial clearly marked as a red zone, which caused the learners to writhe in pain. Zimbardo’s lesson – all evil starts with 15V.

Zimbardo himself conducted a prisoner experiment where two sets of college students were recruited to play prisoners and guards. Over the course of a few days, the brutality of the guards deteriorated so badly that a student not part of the experiment with the objectivity to see it from the outside, came to him and protested that the experiment should be terminated. Without someone with the courage to take him on and jolt him out of his complacency, the experiment could well have continued, although some students had already suffered psychological damage. (As an aside he pointed out that this courageous woman had become his wife). He felt the dehumanization of the uniforms (both prisoners and guards were in uniforms that overrode their individuality) was a factor in the emergence of such evil behaviour by the 'guards'.

That and other experiments are the basis of his theory that most ordinary people can succumb to evil under the right circumstances.

As part of his study of evil, he had become an expert witness in the trial of one of the accused from the Abu Ghraib prison, and showed us a series of photos of the misdeeds in the prison. While we’ve all seen a photo in a newspaper, it was truly a different level of experience to see a series. He told of the American soldier who had first reported the Abu Ghraib who had paid for his courage by attacks on him and his family. In fact, his family had to go into hiding.

After all his study, he has categorized people into 3 categories:
1 People who are evil – the bad apples
2. People who can become evil in certain circumstances – the bad barrel
3. Systems that create circumstances where people can become evil – bad barrelmakers

He categorizes Abu Ghraib in Category 3, because of the orders that a bunch of relatively untrained National Guards were given to go to all lengths to extract information.

He ended on a more positive note. He noted the courage of his wife and the American soldier and stated that ordinary people are responsible for most heroic acts. We need to stop the adulation of the very special people who could be ‘expected’ to be heroic and to cultivate admiration of the ‘ordinary heroes’, and in fact to train young people to be ready to step up when their moment for heroism appears. In a post-conference note, he marvelled at the response he had received at TED, with many people approaching him to understand how they could help with this Hero Project. As corny as it sounds, TED really helps so many people make connections that might just possibly contribute to a better world.

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