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When Good People Do Evil by Prof. Philip Zimbardo


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45 years ago, Stanley Milgram’s classic experiments showed that, under orders, decent human beings will do anything.

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When Good People Do Evil by Prof. Philip Zimbardo

  1. 1. when good people do evil 45 years ago, Stanley Milgram’s classic experiments showed that, under orders, decent human beings will do anything. Philip Zimbardo ’59PhD 40 yale alumni magazine | january/february 2007
  2. 2. a l l p h o t o g r a p h s f r o m t h e f i l m o b e d i e n c e © 1 9 6 5 b y s ta n l e y m i l g r a m , © r e n e w e d 1 9 9 1 b y a l e x a n d r a m i l g r a m a n d d i s t r i b u t e d b y p e n n s tat e m e d i a s a l e s . imagine that you have responded to an adver- to press the next switch. The control panel shows In scenes from Milgram’s tisement in the New Haven newspaper seeking sub- both the voltage of each switch and a description. documentary film, Obedience, three men press jects for a study of memory. A researcher whose seri- The tenth level (150 volts) is “Strong Shock”; the levers on the apparatus ous demeanor and laboratory coat convey scientific 17th level (255 volts) is “Intense Shock”; the 25th they believed would deliver importance greets you and another applicant at your level (375 volts) is “Danger, Severe Shock.” At the increasingly powerful elec- arrival at a Yale laboratory in Linsly-Chittenden 29th and 30th levels (435 and 450 volts) the control tric shocks. Hall. You are here to help science find ways to panel is marked simply with an ominous XXX: the improve people’s learning and memory through the pornography of ultimate pain and power. use of punishment. The researcher tells you why this You and another volunteer draw straws to see work may have important consequences. The task who will play each role; you are to be the teacher, is straightforward: one of you will be the “teacher” and the other volunteer will be the learner. He is a who gives the “learner” a set of word pairings to mild-mannered, middle-aged man whom you help memorize. During the test, the teacher will give escort to the next chamber. “Okay, now we are going each key word, and the learner must respond with to set up the learner so he can get some punishment,” the correct association. When the learner is right, the experimenter tells you both. The learner’s arms the teacher gives a verbal reward, such as “Good” are strapped down and an electrode is attached to or “That’s right.” When the learner is wrong, the his right wrist. The generator in the next room will teacher is to press a lever on an impressive-looking deliver the shocks. The two of you communicate apparatus that delivers an immediate shock to pun- over an intercom, with the experimenter standing ish the error. next to you. You get a sample shock of 45 volts—the The shock generator has 30 switches, starting third level, a slight tingly pain—so you have a sense from a low level of 15 volts and increasing by 15 volts of what the shock levels mean. The researcher then to each higher level. The experimenter tells you that signals you to start. every time the learner makes a mistake, you have Initially, your pupil does well, but soon he begins yale alumni magazine | january/february 2007 41
  3. 3. making errors, and you start pressing the shock building where we taught Introductory Psychology switches. He complains that the shocks are starting courses. That is where Milgram was to conduct his to hurt. You look at the experimenter, who nods to classic and controversial experiments on blind obe- continue. As the shock levels increase in intensity, dience to authority. so do the learner’s screams, saying he does not think Milgram’s interest in the problem of obedience he wants to continue. You hesitate and question came from deep personal concerns about how read- whether you should go on. But the experimenter ily the Nazis had obediently killed Jews during the insists that you have no choice. Holocaust. His laboratory paradigm, he wrote years later, “gave scientific expression to a more gen- in 1949, seated next to me in senior class at eral concern about authority, a concern forced upon James Monroe High School in the Bronx, New York, members of my generation, in particular upon Jews was my classmate, Stanley Milgram. We were both such as myself, by the atrocities of World War II.” skinny kids, full of ambition and a desire to make As Milgram described it, he hit upon the concept something of ourselves, so that we might escape life for his experiment while musing about a study in in the confines of our ghetto experience. Stanley was which one of his professors, Solomon Asch, had test- the little smart one who we went to for authoritative ed how far subjects would conform to the judgment answers. I was the tall popular one, the smiling guy of a group. Asch had put each subject in a group of other kids would go to for social advice. coached confederates and asked every member, one I had just returned to Monroe High from a hor- by one, to compare a set of lines in order of length. rible year at North Hollywood High School, where When the confederates all started giving the same I had been shunned and friendless (because, as I obviously false answers, 70 percent of the subjects later learned, there was a rumor circulating that I agreed with them at least some of the time. was from a New York Sicilian Mafia family). Back at Milgram wondered whether there was a way Monroe, I would be chosen “Jimmy Monroe”—most to craft a conformity experiment that would be popular boy in Monroe High School’s senior class. “more humanly significant” than judgments about The vast majority of people shocked the victim over and over again, despite his increasingly desperate pleas to stop. Stanley and I once discussed how that transfor- line length. He wrote later: “I wondered whether mation could happen. We agreed that I had not groups could pressure a person into performing an changed; the situation was what mattered. act whose human import was more readily appar- Situational psychology is the study of the human ent; perhaps behaving aggressively toward another response to features of our social environment, the person, say by administering increasingly severe external behavioral context, above all to the other shocks to him. But to study the group effect . . . you’d people around us. Stanley Milgram and I, budding have to know how the subject performed without situationists in 1949, both went on to become aca- any group pressure. At that instant, my thought demic social psychologists. We met again at Yale in shifted, zeroing in on this experimental control. Just 1960 as beginning assistant professors—him start- how far would a person go under the experimenter’s ing out at Yale, me at NYU. Some of Milgram’s new orders?” research was conducted in a modified laboratory that I had fabricated a few years earlier as a graduate how far up the scale do you predict that you student—in the basement of Linsly-Chittenden, the would go under those orders? Put yourself back in the basement with the fake shock apparatus and the other “volunteer”—actually the experimenter’s p h i li p z i m b a r d o ’59PhD, professor emeritus of confederate, who always plays the learner because psychology at Stanford, created the well-known “Stanford the “drawing” is rigged—strapped down in the next Prison Experiments” on the psychology of incarceration. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book, The room. As the shocks proceed, the learner begins Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil complaining about his heart condition. You dissent, (Random House, March 2007). but the experimenter still insists that you continue. 42 yale alumni magazine | january/february 2007
  4. 4. The learner makes errors galore. You plead with your pupil to concentrate; you don’t want to hurt him. But your concerns and motivational messages are to no avail. He gets the answers wrong again and again. As the shocks intensify, he shouts out, “I can’t stand the pain, let me out of here!” Then he says to the experimenter, “You have no right to keep me here!” Another level up, he screams, “I absolutely refuse to answer any more! You can’t hold me here! My heart’s bothering me!” Obviously you want nothing more to do with this experiment. You tell the experimenter that you refuse to continue. You are not the kind of person who harms other people in this way. You want would engage in such sadistic behavior, and that Milgram coached a confed- out. But the experimenter continues to insist that most people would drop out at the tenth level of 150 erate to play the role of the you go on. He reminds you of the contract, of your volts. They could not have been more wrong. “learner” whose incorrect answers had to be pun- agreement to participate fully. Moreover, he claims In Milgram’s experiment, two of every three (65 ished. Here, the learner sits responsibility for the consequences of your shock- percent) of the volunteers went all the way up to the strapped into a chair with ing actions. After you press the 300-volt switch, maximum shock level of 450 volts. The vast major- an “electrode” attached to you read the next keyword, but the learner doesn’t ity of people shocked the victim over and over again one wrist. answer. “He’s not responding,” you tell the experi- despite his increasingly desperate pleas to stop. menter. You want him to go into the other room Most participants dissented from time to time and and check on the learner to see if he is all right. The said they did not want to go on, but the researcher experimenter is impassive; he is not going to check would prod them to continue. on the learner. Instead he tells you, “If the learner Over the course of a year, Milgram carried out 19 doesn’t answer in a reasonable time, about five sec- different experiments, each one a different varia- onds, consider it wrong,” since errors of omission tion of the basic paradigm. In each of these stud- must be punished in the same way as errors of com- ies he varied one social psychological variable and mission—that is a rule. observed its impact. In one study, he added women; As you continue up to even more dangerous in others he varied the physical proximity or remote- shock levels, there is no sound coming from your ness of either the experimenter-teacher link or the pupil’s shock chamber. He may be unconscious or teacher-learner link; had peers rebel or obey before worse. You are truly disturbed and want to quit, the teacher had the chance to begin; and more. but nothing you say works to get your exit from this In one set of experiments, Milgram wanted to unexpectedly distressing situation. You are told to show that his results were not due to the authority follow the rules and keep posing the test items and power of Yale University. So he transplanted his lab- shocking the errors. oratory to a run-down office building in downtown Now try to imagine fully what your participation Bridgeport, Connecticut, and repeated the experi- as the teacher would be. If you actually go all the ment as a project ostensibly of a private research way to the last of the shock levels, the experimenterfirm with no connection to Yale. It made hardly any will insist that you repeat that XXX switch two difference; the participants fell under the same spell more times. I am sure you are saying, “No way would of this situational power. I ever go all the way!” Obviously, you would have The data clearly revealed the extreme pliability of dissented, then disobeyed and just walked out. You human nature: depending on the situation, almost would never sell out your morality. Right? everyone could be totally obedient or almost every- one could resist authority pressures. Milgram was milgram once described his shock experiment able to demonstrate that compliance rates could to a group of 40 psychiatrists and asked them to soar to over 90 percent of people continuing to the estimate the percentage of American citizens who 450-volt maximum or be reduced to less than 10 would go to each of the 30 levels in the experiment. percent—by introducing just one crucial variable On average, they predicted that less than 1 percent into the compliance recipe. would go all the way to the end, that only sadists Want maximum obedience? Make the subject a yale alumni magazine | january/february 2007 43
  5. 5. Ten lessons from the Milgram studies Milgram crafted his research paradigm to find out what ence professionals” in real-world settings, such as sales- strategies can seduce ordinary citizens to engage in people, cult and military recruiters, media advertisers, apparently harmful behavior. Many of these methods and others. Below are ten of the most effective. have parallels to compliance strategies used by “influ- 3 Presenting basic rules to 5 be followed that seem to Creating opportunities for make sense before their the diffusion of respon- 1 actual use but can then sibility or abdication of Prearranging some form be used arbitrarily and responsibility for negative of contractual obliga- impersonally to justify outcomes, such that the 7 9 tion, verbal or written, to mindless compliance. The one who acts won’t be Having successively Making the exit costs high control the individual’s authorities will change the held liable. In Milgram’s increasing steps on the and making the process behavior in pseudo-legal rules as necessary but will experiment, the authority pathway that are gradual, of exiting difficult; allow- fashion. In Milgram’s insist that rules are rules figure, when questioned so that they are hardly ing verbal dissent, which obedience study, subjects and must be followed by a teacher, said he would noticeably different from makes people feel better publicly agreed to accept (as the researcher in the take responsibility for one’s most recent prior about themselves, while the tasks and the proce- lab coat did in Milgram’s anything that happened to action. “Just a little bit insisting on behavioral dures. experiment). the learner. more.” compliance. 2 4 6 8 10 Giving participants Altering the semantics Starting the path toward Gradually changing the Offering a “big lie” to jus- meaningful roles to play— of the act, the actor, and the ultimate evil act with nature of the authority tify the use of any means “teacher,” “learner”—that the action—replacing a small, seemingly insig- figure from initially “just” to achieve the seemingly carry with them previous- unpleasant reality with nificant first step, the easy and reasonable to “unjust” desirable, essential goal. ly learned positive values desirable rhetoric, gilding “foot in the door” that and demanding, even irra- (In Milgram’s research and automatically activate the frame so that the real swings open subsequent tional. This tactic elicits the justification was that response scripts. picture is disguised: from greater compliance pres- initial compliance and science will help people “hurting victims” to “help- sures. In the obedience later confusion, since we improve their memory by ing the experimenter.” We study, the initial shock expect consistency from judicious use of reward can see the same semantic was only a mild 15 volts. authorities and friends. and punishment.) In social framing at work in adver- This is also the operative Not acknowledging that psychology experiments, tising, where, for example, principle in turning good this transformation has this is known as the “cover bad-tasting mouthwash kids into drug addicts with occurred leads to mindless story”; it is a cover-up for is framed as good for you that first little hit or sniff. obedience. And it is part the procedures that fol- because it kills germs and of many date rape sce- low, which do not make tastes like medicine. narios and a reason why sense on their own. The abused women stay with real-world equivalent is their abusing spouses. an ideology. Most nations rely on an ideology, typi- cally “threats to national Procedures like these are used when those in authority know that few security,” before going would engage in the endgame without being prepared psychologically to to war or suppressing do the unthinkable. But people who understand their own impulses to join political opposition. When with a group and to obey an authority may be able also to withstand those citizens fear that their impulses at times when the mandate from outside comes into conflict with national security is being their own values and conscience. In the future, when you are in a compro- threatened, they become mising position where your compliance is at issue, thinking back to these willing to surrender ten stepping-stones to mindless obedience may enable you to step back and their basic freedoms in not go all the way down the path—their path. A good way to avoid crimes exchange. Erich Fromm’s of obedience is to assert one’s personal authority and to always take full classic analysis in Escape responsibility for one’s actions. Resist going on automatic pilot, be mind- from Freedom made us ful of situational demands on you, engage your critical thinking skills, and aware of this trade-off, be ready to admit an error in your initial compliance and to say, “Hell, no, I which Hitler and other dic- won’t go your way.” tators have long used to gain and maintain power. 44 yale alumni magazine | january/february 2007
  6. 6. member of a “teaching team,” in which the job of In still another, a group of 20 high school students Milgram’s diagram for the pulling the shock lever to punish the victim is given joined a history teacher’s supposed authoritarian control panel of the sup- to another person (a confederate), while the subject political movement, and within a week had expelled posed shock apparatus. assists with other parts of the procedure. Want their fellows from class and recruited nearly 200 resistance to authority pressures? Provide social others from around the school to the cause. models—peers who rebel. Participants also refused now we ask the question that must be posed of to deliver the shocks if the learner said he wanted all such research: what is its external validity, what to be shocked; that’s masochistic, and they are not are real-world parallels to the laboratory demon- sadists. They were also reluctant to give high lev- stration of authority power? els of shock when the experimenter filled in as the In 1963, the social philosopher Hannah Arendt learner. They were more likely to shock when the published what was to become a classic of our times, learner was remote than in proximity. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality In each of the other variations on this diverse of Evil. She provides a detailed analysis of the war range of ordinary American citizens, of widely vary- crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi figure who ing ages and occupations and of both genders, it personally arranged for the murder of millions of was possible to elicit low, medium, or high levels of Jews. Eichmann’s defense of his actions was similar compliant obedience with a flick of the situational to the testimony of other Nazi leaders: “I was only switch. Milgram’s large sample—a thousand ordi- following orders.” What is most striking in Arendt’s nary citizens from varied backgrounds—makes the account of Eichmann is all the ways in which he results of his obedience studies among the most seemed absolutely ordinary: half a dozen psychia- generalizable in all the social sciences. His classic trists had certified him as “normal.” Arendt’s famous study has been replicated and extended by many conclusion: “The trouble with Eichmann was pre- other researchers in many countries. cisely that so many were like him, and that the many Recently, Thomas Blass of the University of were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, Maryland–Baltimore County analyzed the rates of and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.” obedience in eight studies conducted in the United Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil” continues States and nine replications in European, African, to resonate because genocide has been unleashed and Asian countries. He found comparably high around the world and torture and terrorism con- levels of compliance in all. The 61 percent mean tinue to be common features of our global land- obedience rate found in the U.S. was matched by the scape. A few years ago, the sociologist and Brazil 66 percent rate found across all the other national expert Martha Huggins, the Greek psychologist and samples. The degree of obedience was not affected torture expert Mika Haritos-Fatouros, and I inter- s ta n l e y m i l g r a m , o b e d i e n c e t o a u t h o r i t y, h a r p e r a n d r o w 1 9 74 by the timing of the studies, which ranged from viewed several dozen torturers. These men did their 1963 to 1985. daily dirty deeds for years in Brazil as policemen, Other studies based on Milgram’s have shown sanctioned by the government to get confessions by how powerful the obedience effect can be when torturing “subversive” enemies of the state. legitimate authorities exercise their power within The systematic torture by men of their fellow their power domains. In one study, most college stu- men and women represents one of the darkest dents administered shocks to whimpering puppies sides of human nature. Surely, my colleagues and I when required to do so by a professor. In another, reasoned, here was a place where dispositional evil all but one of 22 nurses flouted their hospital’s pro- would be manifest. The torturers shared a common cedure by obeying a phone order from an unknown enemy: men, women, and children who, though citi- doctor to administer an excessive amount of a drug zens of their state, even neighbors, were declared by (actually a placebo); that solitary disobedient nurse “the System” to be threats to the country’s national should have been given a raise and a hero’s medal. security—as socialists and Communists. Some had yale alumni magazine | january/february 2007 45
  7. 7. to be eliminated efficiently, while others, who might enemies of their state. hold secret information, had to be made to yield it Amazingly, the transformation of these men into up by torture, confess and then be killed. violence workers is comparable to the transformation Torture always involves a personal relationship; it of young Palestinians into suicide bombers intent on is essential for the torturer to understand what kind killing innocent Israeli civilians. In a recent study, of torture to employ, what intensity of torture to use the forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman found evi- on a certain person at a certain time. Wrong kind or dence of the normalcy of 400 al-Qaeda members. too little—no confession. Too much—the victim dies Three-quarters came from the upper or middle before confessing. In either case, the torturer fails to class. Ninety percent came from caring, intact fami- deliver the goods and incurs the wrath of the senior lies. Two-thirds had gone to college; two-thirds were officers. Learning to determine the right kind and married; and most had children and jobs in science degree of torture that yields up the desired informa- and engineering. In many ways, Sageman concludes, tion elicits abounding rewards and flowing praise “these are the best and brightest of their society.” from one’s superiors. It took time and emerging Israeli psychologist Ariel Merari, who has studied insights into human weaknesses for these torturers this phenomenon extensively for many years, out- to become adept at their craft. lines the common steps on the path to these explo- What kind of men could do such deeds? Did sive deaths. First, senior members of an extremist they need to rely on sadistic impulses and a history group identify young people who, based on their of sociopathic life experiences to rip and tear the declarations at a public rally against Israel or their flesh of fellow beings day in and day out for years support of some Islamic cause or Palestinian action, on end? appear to have an intense patriotic fervor. Next, they We found that sadists are selected out of the are invited to discuss how seriously they love their training process by trainers because they are not country and hate Israel. They are asked to commit controllable. They get off on the pleasure of inflict- to being trained. Those who do then become part Eichmann’s defense of his actions was similar to the testimony of other Nazi leaders: “I was only following orders.” ing pain, and thus do not sustain the focus on the of a small secret cell of three to five youths. From goal of extracting confessions. From all the evi- their elders, they learn bomb making, disguise, and dence we could muster, torturers were not unusual selecting and timing targets. Finally, they make or deviant in any way prior to practicing their new public their private commitment by making a video- roles, nor were there any persisting deviant tenden- tape, declaring themselves to be “the living martyr” cies or pathologies among any of them in the years for Islam. The recruits are also told the Big Lie: their following their work as torturers and executioners. relatives will be entitled to a high place in Heaven, Their transformation was entirely explainable as and they themselves will earn a place beside Allah. being the consequence of a number of situational Of course, the rhetoric of dehumanization serves to and systemic factors, such as the training they were deny the humanity and innocence of their victims. given to play this new role; their group camaraderie; The die is cast; their minds have been carefully acceptance of the national security ideology; and prepared to do what is ordinarily unthinkable. In their learned belief in socialists and Communists as these systematic ways a host of normal, angry young 46 yale alumni magazine | january/february 2007
  8. 8. men and women become transformed into true Please get us some medication. It’s simple. It’s believers. The suicide, the murder, of any young per- simple. There’s no convulsions with it. [Of course son is a gash in the fabric of the human family that there are, especially for the children.] . . . Don’t be we elders from every nation must unite to prevent. afraid to die. You’ll see, there’ll be a few people To encourage the sacrifice of youth for the sake of land[ing] out here. They’ll torture some of our advancing the ideologies of the old must be consid- children here. They’ll torture our people. They’ll ered a form of evil that transcends local politics and torture our seniors. We cannot have this. . . . Please, expedient strategies. can we hasten? Can we hasten with that medica- tion? . . . We’ve lived—we’ve lived as no other our final extension of the social psychology of people lived and loved. We’ve had as much of this evil from artificial laboratory experiments to real- world as you’re gonna get. Let’s just be done with world contexts comes to us from the jungles of it. (Applause.). . . . Who wants to go with their Most participants in Guyana. There, on November 28, 1978, an American child has a right to go with their child. I think it’s Milgram’s experiments religious leader persuaded more than 900 of his fol- humane. . . . Lay down your life with dignity. Don’t dissented from time to time and said they did not lowers to commit mass suicide. In the ultimate test lay down with tears and agony. There’s nothing to want to go on. But the of blind obedience to authority, many of them killed death. . . . It’s just stepping over to another plane. researcher would prod their children on his command. Don’t be this way. Stop this hysterics. . . . Look, them to continue. Jim Jones, the pastor of Peoples Temple congre- children, it’s just something to put you to rest. gations in San Francisco and Los Angeles, had set Oh, God. (Children crying.). . . . Mother, Mother, out to create a socialist utopia in Guyana. But over Mother, Mother, Mother, please. Mother, please, time Jones was transformed from the caring, spiri- please, please. Don’t—don’t do this. Don’t do this. tual “father” of a large Protestant congregation into Lay down your life with your child. an Angel of Death. He instituted extended forced labor, armed guards, semistarvation diets, and daily And they did, and they died for “Dad.” punishments amounting to torture for the slightest A fitting conclusion comes from psychologist breach of any of his many rules. Concerned rela- Mahrzarin Banaji: “What social psychology has tives convinced a congressman and media crew to given to an understanding of human nature is the inspect the compound. But Jones arranged for them discovery that forces larger than ourselves deter- to be murdered as they left. He then gathered almost mine our mental life and our actions—chief among all the members at the compound and gave a long these forces [is] the power of the social situation.” speech in which he exhorted them to take their lives The most dramatic instances of directed behavior by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. change and “mind control” are not the consequence Jones was surely an egomaniac; he had all of of exotic forms of influence such as hypnosis, psy- his speeches and proclamations, even his torture chotropic drugs, or “brainwashing.” They are, rather, sessions, tape-recorded—including his final suicide the systematic manipulation of the most mundane harangue. In it Jones distorts, lies, pleads, makes aspects of human nature over time in confining false analogies, appeals to ideology and to transcen- settings. Motives and needs that ordinarily serve dent future life, and outright insists that his orders us well can lead us astray when they are aroused, be followed, all while his staff is efficiently distribut- amplified, or manipulated by situational forces that ing deadly poison to the hundreds gathered around we fail to recognize as potent. This is why evil is so him. Some excerpts from that last hour convey a pervasive. Its temptation is just a small turn away, sense of the death-dealing tactics he used to induce a slight detour on the path of life, a blur in our total obedience to an authority gone mad: sideview mirror, leading to disaster. yale alumni magazine | january/february 2007 47