Where Does Evil Come From?

Are people inherently good or bad? The answer is likely a big fat no.

There is no line dividing the two extremes of good and bad people, we all move back and forth between right and wrong, and it’s usually due to situational and systemic factors.

Perhaps the most knowledgable person in the realm of good and evil is Philip Zimbardo.

The psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University is most well known for conducting the Stanford prison experiment. The study took everyday, mentally healthy, usually “good” people and placed them into a situation where some became prison guards while others became prisoners.

It took all of two days for things to get completely out of hand. The guards began mistreating the prisoners to the point that some had mental breakdowns. The experiment, originally scheduled to last two weeks, was called off after 6 days.

The Lucifer Effect

Many of us still cling to the notion that some people are good and some are evil, but what Zimbardo has found is the that line separating these constructs is exceedingly permeable.

While dispositional factors such as personality do play a part, we often fail to see the huge impact of the context of each situation, and the system that brings out these behaviors.


Screen shot 2015-11-20 at 11.57.59 AM


Screen shot 2015-11-20 at 11.57.59 AM


His book, The Lucifer Effect, helps to highlight this fact.

Philip ZimbardoOur personal identities are socially situated. We are where we live, eat, work and make love. … Our sense of identity is in large measure conferred on us by others in the ways they treat or mistreat us, recognize or ignore us, praise us or punish us. — Philip Zimbardo

Much focus has been placed on our dispositional attributes, these internal characteristics have long been assumed as the main factor influencing behavior.

Now, more attention is being used to examine situational factors, on the social context and circumstance that people find themselves in.

Good people can be induced, seduced, and initiated into behaving in evil ways. They can also be led to act in irrational, stupid, self-destructive, antisocial, and mindless ways when they are immersed in ‘total situations’ that impact human nature in ways that challenge our sense of the stability and consistency of individual personality, of character, and of morality. — Philip Zimbardo

The Stanford prison experiment shows us just how people we might call good can suddenly become evil. Zimbardo believes the same effect has been seen in military situations involving hostages or prisoners, especially Abu Ghraib, although in these types of circumstance the offenders are put to trial.

Of course, someone that commits a horrendous act is still to be punished, but more attention needs to be paid to the situation that allowed it to occur. If we lay the blame entirely with the person and never take a second look at the circumstances, chances are high others will find themselves in the same spot.

So what are the circumstances that elicit evil?

The Pillars of Evil

  1. Dehumanization: Occurs when certain people or groups of people are seen as being less than human, and as such, unworthy of human treatment. Discrimination, racial slurs, and negative stereotypes are examples of this. The Nazis treatment of the Jews could be largely accredited to dehumanization.
  2. Deindividuation: The loss of identity and self-awareness within groups. Consider that when large groups gather around people standing on ledges contemplating suicide, the crowd will often taunt them. Psychologist David Myers notes that deindividuation requires three constructs: arousal, group size, and anonymity.
  3. Anonymity: When we think we cannot be personally held responsible, we can do some horrible things. Think of cyber bullies and internet trolls, the masked uniforms of the KKK, or the makeup and materials used in tribal warfare–these also increase the deindividuation effect.
  4. Obedience: We’ll obey rules even when we feel them unfair or downright awful, but a key is to take small steps towards the mistreatment. The Milgram experiment highlights this–a participant, under the command of a researcher in a white lab coat, needed to electrically shock another person (an actor) for answering questions incorrectly. For every question they got wrong, the voltage would increase. 65% of participants went all the way to the full level, even after the person they were shocking had been screaming and then went completely silent.

These factors make for a lethal combination. While we’d all like to think of ourselves as good-natured, well-meaning people, take away our individuality, make us anonymous, and give us a set of rules we need to follow with an authority figure ensuring we do, and we might end up as evil as the people we despise and condemn.

In the Milgram experiment, after the lead psychologist Stanley Milgram compiled the surprising results, there was a survey sent out asking other researchers what number of participants they thought would go all the way in shocking innocent people.

They believed only 1% of the participants would go all the way to the 450 volt mark. Saying those who do so are sadists.

This discrepancy occurs due to the fundamental attribution error–where we attribute others behavior only to their internal characteristics and not to the situation, but when we judge our own behavior, we look predominantly at the situation rather than our internal selves, supposedly given we are more aware of our own actions.

The New Question

Good and evil are subjective and relative terms. Each of us has a different idea of what constitutes an evil deed, and that deed itself is more or less evil when compared to other actions.

Zimbardo chooses to define evil simply as “knowing better but doing worse.”

Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others—or using one’s authority and systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf. In short, it is “knowing better but doing worse.” — Philip Zimbardo

Whatever the solution is, however we manage to get people to start doing the right thing and avoiding the bad, Zimbardo knows that we need to start by asking the right question in relation to this madness.

Instead of asking “who is to blame,” we should be asking what is to blame.”

Extra Material:

The Stanford Prison Experiment:

The Milgram Experiment:

A lecture by Philip Zimbardo:

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