April 30, 2007 / 7:43 PM / 12 years ago

U.S. psychologist probes human evil, heroism

LOS ANGELES (Reuters Life!) - Social psychologist Philip Zimbardo has spent much of his career studying why otherwise good people do very bad things.

An Iraqi detainee gestures toward U.S. soldiers through bars of his cell at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad May 17, 2004. Social psychologist Philip Zimbardo has spent much of his career studying why otherwise good people do very bad things. Zimbardo's newest book, "The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil," goes deep into the subject while taking his work full circle -- asking why ordinary people are sometimes driven to heroic acts. Zimbardo also examined what led U.S. soldiers, who were on a mission to liberate Iraq from a brutal dictator, to torture and abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Zimbardo’s newest book, “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil,” goes deep into the subject while taking his work full circle — asking why ordinary people are sometimes driven to heroic acts.

“People are not born good or born evil. It’s not an impermeable line,” said Zimbardo, who led the Stanford Prison Experiment which illustrated the power of situational forces and group dynamics.

In the 1971 study, college students were assigned to act as guards or inmates in a mock prison. The experiment was stopped just six days later after participants, who were consumed by their new roles, morphed into sadistic guards or emotionally broken inmates.

Zimbardo, a Stanford University professor, challenges our concept of who we are, what we’re capable of and how well we know the people closest to us.

While most of us see ourselves as good, he said we rarely put ourselves in completely novel situations.

“When every day of your life is like yesterday, you’re going to be fine,” said Zimbardo, who examines what led U.S. soldiers, who were on a mission to liberate Iraq from a brutal dictator, to torture and abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison.

In Western cultures, good and evil are often viewed as opposites rather than two sides of the same coin. Zimbardo suggests considering evil in “incrementalist terms, as something of which we are all capable, depending on circumstances.”

The descent into evil — from widespread genocide to massive financial crime — is one of tiny actions rather than big leaps.

“When you first take those small steps, it’s hard to imagine the slippery slope,” he said.

It happens within groups where powerful people establish, overtly or not, acceptable behavior. In such a system low-status “bad apples” are blamed when things go wrong.

Zimbardo said we are also deluded about heroes and less likely to study what drives people to put the safety of others before their own physical safety, reputation or social status.

“There is no psychology of heroism,” he said.

Even heroes are prone to overestimating their fellow humans, often saying things like, “I did what anybody would do.”

If that were true, he said, Holocaust rescuers and whistle-blowers who spoke the truth would not be such rarities.

While people are capable of evil, they are also capable of extraordinary deeds, said Zimbardo, who thinks children should be taught to see themselves as “heroes in waiting.”

Zimbardo dedicated his book to his heroine. Graduate student Christina Maslach was dating Zimbardo during the Stanford Prison Experiment. He had been sucked into the group dynamic and she shocked him back to reality, telling him if that was who he was, she didn’t want to be with him.

Zimbardo stopped the experiment and has been married to her for 35 years.

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