The Psychology of Evil by Philip Zimbardo (Transcript)

Philip Zimbardo, the author of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, in this TED Talk conference, answers of the grappling questions like, what makes people go wrong? Why do good people turn evil?

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Philip Zimbardo – Psychologist, Professor emeritus at Stanford University

Philosophers, dramatists, theologians have grappled with this question for centuries: what makes people go wrong? Interestingly, I asked this question when I was a little kid. When I was a kid growing up in the South Bronx, inner-city ghetto in New York, I was surrounded by evil, as all kids are who grew up in an inner city. And I had friends who were really good kids, who lived out the Dr. Jekyll Mr. Hyde scenario — Robert Louis Stevenson. That is, they took drugs, got in trouble, went to jail. Some got killed, and some did it without drug assistance.

So when I read Robert Louis Stevenson, that wasn’t fiction. The only question is, what was in the juice? And more importantly, that line between good and evil — which privileged people like to think is fixed and impermeable, with them on the good side, and the others on the bad side — I knew that line was movable, and it was permeable. Good people could be seduced across that line, and under good and some rare circumstances, bad kids could recover with help, with reform, with rehabilitation.

So I want to begin with this this wonderful illusion by Swiss artist M.C. Escher. If you look at it and focus on the white, what you see is a world full of angels. But let’s look more deeply, and as we do, what appears is the demons, the devils in the world. And that tells us several things.

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One, the world is, was, will always be filled with good and evil, because good and evil is the yin and yang of the human condition. It tells me something else. If you remember, God’s favorite angel was Lucifer. Apparently, Lucifer means “the light.” It also means “the morning star,” in some scripture. And apparently, he disobeyed God, and that’s the ultimate disobedience to authority. And when he did, Michael, the archangel, was sent to kick him out of heaven along with the other fallen angels. And so Lucifer descends into hell, becomes Satan, becomes the devil, and the force of evil in the universe begins.

Paradoxically, it was God who created hell as a place to store evil. He didn’t do a good job of keeping it there though. So, this arc of the cosmic transformation of God’s favorite angel into the Devil, for me, sets the context for understanding human beings who are transformed from good, ordinary people into perpetrators of evil.

So the Lucifer Effect, although it focuses on the negatives — the negatives that people can become, not the negatives that people are — leads me to a psychological definition. Evil is the exercise of power. And that’s the key: it’s about power. To intentionally harm people psychologically, to hurt people physically, to destroy people mortally, or ideas, and to commit crimes against humanity.

If you Google “evil,” a word that should surely have withered by now, you come up with 136 million hits in a third of a second. A few years ago — I am sure all of you were shocked, as I was, with the revelation of American soldiers abusing prisoners in a strange place in a controversial war, Abu Ghraib in Iraq. And these were men and women who were putting prisoners through unbelievable humiliation. I was shocked, but I wasn’t surprised, because I had seen those same visual parallels when I was the prison superintendent of the Stanford Prison Study.

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Immediately the Bush administration military said … what? What all administrations say when there’s a scandal. “Don’t blame us. It’s not the system. It’s the few bad apples, the few rogue soldiers.” My hypothesis is, American soldiers are good, usually. Maybe it was the barrel that was bad. But how am I going to — how am I going to deal with that hypothesis?

I became an expert witness for one of the guards, Sergeant Chip Frederick, and in that position, I had access to the dozen investigative reports. I had access to him. I could study him, have him come to my home, get to know him, do psychological analysis to see, was he a good apple or bad apple. And thirdly, I had access to all of the 1,000 pictures that these soldiers took. These pictures are of a violent or sexual nature. All of them come from the cameras of American soldiers. Because everybody has a digital camera or cell phone camera, they took pictures of everything. More than 1,000.

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