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Chapter 1: The Psychology of Evil 
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Post Chapter 1: The Psychology of Evil
Initial Impressions

I have to say that this was probably one the most depressing chapters I've ever read - at least for non-fiction. Zimbardo manages to cover most of the major atrocities of the twentieth century. The excerpts from interviews with some of the Hutu murderers were particularly chilling, mostly because it becomes obvious that these people were not psychopaths. What they did was normal human behaviour. They smashed in the skulls' of neighbours' children they had known just because they'd been told they were the enemy. Zimbardo manages to dismiss most of the usual explanations we get for atrocities like this. Hutus killed neighbours who they'd known and interacted with regularly and normally.

Pauline Nyiramasuhuko is a terrifying figure. It's heartbreaking to think that some sort of social worker who spent her days talking about empowering women would order her own son to rape somebody. Likewise, the militia man who spoke of genocide as a sport was just plain creepy. But what adds to the creepiness of these people is their normality. They're not crazy. They're relatively simple people. No demons ordering them to do crazy stuff, it's not unthinking, it's just stupid, cowardly, accepting and above all, it seems to be about conformity.

One complaint, Zimbardo's definition of evil is a little simplistic for my liking, though understandably so, given that entire libraries could probably be filled with book attempting to define it.

For those who don't have the book yet, Zimbardo writes:

Quote:
Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanise, 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."


For me, this raises questions regarding necessary evil, the nature of intent and unintended consequences. The inclusion of the word innocent is a little perplexing. What should these victims be innocent of?



Sun Nov 11, 2007 11:43 am
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I really liked the comparison of the dispositional/situational approach to the medical health/public health. (Second paragraph, page 8).

The region I live in has a large population of First Nations people. The local residential school closed in 1981. A large segment of the First Nation population is dysfunctional, with drug and alcohol addictions, and abuse is rampant.

Some of the more redneck members of the community just cannot understand that the problem stems from the residential school situation, and it will take a few generations and lots of understanding to repair the damage.

The explanation by Zimbardo sums the problem up nicely.



Sun Nov 11, 2007 12:55 pm
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I also found the first chapter to be very depressing. Two things were especially awful: The brutal ways that the Tutsi's were betrayed and killed by their former friends and neighbors ( it's sad that humans have such an awful and strong cruel streak) And depressing because while most people don't think that they could EVER do what the Hutus did there must be a lot of people who are capable of that kind of cruelty because genocide is something that never seems to go out of style for humans.



Sun Nov 11, 2007 1:37 pm
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Niall, I wonder if your dissatisfaction with Zimbardo's definition of evil isn't that it presupposes a moral perspective without providing some justification for that moral perspective. On some level it seems fairly intuitive that we should call those particular behaviors evil, but then, we don't necessarily want to rely on intuition in a book of this sort. I haven't picked up a copy of the book, but if there isn't more to Zimbardo's discussion of what is meant by evil, then it may be that he simply takes so much for granted.

Talking about evil in a scientific context is iffy like that. It's a term that arose in a completely different context, and I'm not at all sure that science is well-equipped to handle the term. Which isn't to say that there's anything particularly wrong with the book. It may simply be better to pause every time you see the word evil and substitute for it some less culturally loaded term.


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Sun Nov 11, 2007 1:50 pm
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Well, I've only read the first chapter so far, so it may be that Zimbardo tackles treats the question in more depth later in the book (there are several references to it in the Index), but I think he may want to avoid getting bogged down in what constitutes evil and instead wants to examine what makes people do things that most of us would regard as evil or bad.

I think that this would be a mistake under any circumstance, but particularly in this book. I'm lead to believe that the Stamford prison experiments and the Milgram experiment are central to the book. Both of these experiments are often cited as being unethical and/or immoral, however there is no denying the fact that these studies have been of great benefit. Was it worth it? Could it ever have been worth it?

Zimbardo permitted the guards to demean the prisoners. But what was his intent? The demeaning of the prisoners was not his intent, so does that mean the act wasn't evil? Could the Hutus not make the same claim. Could they claim that their aggression was defensive?



Sun Nov 11, 2007 2:20 pm
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Niall, thanks for starting a discussion of the first chapter, which provides plenty to talk about.
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Niall: Pauline Nyiramasuhuko is a terrifying figure. It's heartbreaking to think that some sort of social worker who spent her days talking about empowering women would order her own son to rape somebody.

That was particularly chilling. In part, I expect more from women, at least to the extent that they don't reach the depths of depravity that men do. (That may be a double standard, but it's my honest reaction.) Also, a specific named individual seems more real than a some generic solider/guard/tribesman.
Quote:
Niall: One complaint, Zimbardo's definition of evil is a little simplistic for my liking, though understandably so, given that entire libraries could probably be filled with book attempting to define it.

His definition of evil made sense to me. It clearly includes actions like murder, rape, and torture that should be considered evil. However, it omits stuff like "Microsoft is evil" and "Homsexuality is evil", which agrees with my internal sense.

Now that you bring it up, it seems like Zimbardo should have devoted more than a sentence to defining evil. For example, the words like intentionally and innocent others in his definition are necessary to exclude cases like car accidents or killing in self-defense, which few people would consider evil.
Quote:
Mad: Niall, I wonder if your dissatisfaction with Zimbardo's definition of evil isn't that it presupposes a moral perspective without providing some justification for that moral perspective.

Basically, Zimbardo approaches his subject as a psychologist, not a philosopher. He seeks to understand human behavior, as opposed to seeking the metaphysical basis for defining good and evil. In Zimbardo's mind, evil involves one person causing unnecessary extreme suffering in another. Ambiguities in his definition don't interfere with comprehending his subsequent arguments.

Also, his definition of evil is superior that presented by many philosophers. For example, in Just and Unjust Wars, Michael Walzer neglects the enormous human suffering that arises in all wars. That omission makes Walzer's arguments vacuous. Zimbardo's focus on the human impact is far more relevant.



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JulianTheApostate wrote:
He seeks to understand human behavior, as opposed to seeking the metaphysical basis for defining good and evil. In Zimbardo's mind, evil involves one person causing unnecessary extreme suffering in another. Ambiguities in his definition don't interfere with comprehending his subsequent arguments.



One thing we may want to acknowledge is that the definition of evil Zimbardo uses nicely introduces and fits with what his experiment was designed to test. A self serving definition IMO.

Throughout my reading on the Stanford experiment as put forth in this book, I have had a feeling that Zimbardo was steering things to produce the results he wanted to find. Maybe I am off on this, but it certainly seems that way to me. He tolerates escalation beyond the rules and contracts the participants signed, he structured the guards look and most likely mindset on the movie "Cool Hand Luke" and all in all, it seems that he is actually enjoying (or appreciating) the progress of abuse against the prisoners.

To me...the experiment reads like people who are playing a role and got carried away with that role. I do not accept that these people were convinced this was a real prison, as Zimbardo intones throughout the book thusfar. Zimbardo, upon devising this experiment, may just have had a certain definition of evil or had a desired outcome in mind as to what he wanted his experiment to show as I see it.

Mr. P.


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Mon Nov 12, 2007 1:45 pm
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JulianTheApostate wrote:
Basically, Zimbardo approaches his subject as a psychologist, not a philosopher. He seeks to understand human behavior, as opposed to seeking the metaphysical basis for defining good and evil.


Oh, I recognize that much, even without having read the book. I just wonder whether or not the term "evil" really has any place in a book that doesn't dirty its hands with either philosophy or religion. Is there a place in psychology as a scientific discipline for a concept like evil? How does psychology really deal with evil? Or is evil, in this case, being used as a shorthand for a set of behaviors that Zimbardo can deal with in a psychological framework, whle simultaneously excluding anything that he can't?

Understand, I'm not questioning his use of the word "evil" as a way of questioning any of the conclusions he draws. I just wonder whether or not the conclusions he draws are necessarily applicable to the question of evil as it's usually understood, or if we're to understand those conclusions as applicable to another set of specifically psychological questions.

And if someone were to tell me that this is a topic for another thread, I'd readily agree.


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Mon Nov 12, 2007 6:33 pm
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One of the things that struck me about the abusive behavior of the guards was the way they first came to despise the prisoners. The prisoners were degraded in the eyes of the guards by their vulnerable dress, their submissiveness, eventually their smell, and above all their dependency. These factors also seemed to cause them to lose the respect not only of the guards but of each other as well. It appeared to me that the crux of this "despicable" condition was their powerlessness, which was translated in the minds of the guards and the prisoners to "weakness." This translation is a subtle shift of responsibility for their condition from the situation to themselves, making the victim somehow responsible for his own degradation. Once this translation had been made, it enabled a guard to actually take pleasure in humiliating another human being (who then "deserved" it, and "needed to be taught a lesson")--the very essence of sadism. We see the same dynamic at work when adults abuse children. The powerlessness and dependency of the child makes it despicable in the eyes of the powerful adult.



Mon Nov 12, 2007 7:47 pm
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seeker wrote:
One of the things that struck me about the abusive behavior of the guards was the way they first came to despise the prisoners. The prisoners were degraded in the eyes of the guards by their vulnerable dress, their submissiveness, eventually their smell, and above all their dependency.


The real interesting thing about this thought is that the guards CREATED these conditions in the first place...they made them submissive and made them smell and made them dependent. So was the feeling of destestation there from the beginning?


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Mon Nov 12, 2007 8:21 pm
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Post Chapter 11: The SPE: Ethics and Extensions
One of the things that strikes me here is that the critical factor in the abusive situation seems to be the differential in the level of power, rather than the absolute degree of power of either party (abuser or victim). It raises a question in my mind as to whether any differential in power between individuals is a situation ripe for abuse. The follow-on question is whether it is possible to construct social organizations within which no individual has power over another. Given that students of animal behavior and of the evolutionary development of societies generally find the power hierarchy to be the root and enabling factor in the formation of culture, I find the prospect unlikely. However, if history proves anything it is that the future is unpredictable and that creativity is unlimited.

The second observation I have of the SPE and subsequent similar experiments is how sensitive humans beings are to even subtle power differentials. These experiments were very limited in time, circumstances, and amount of power held by potential abusers. Yet even sharply circumscribed and well-defined role-playing situations were capable of eliciting extreme emotional reactions from the less-powerful subjects. Given such hyper-sensitivity, observations by Arendt about how quickly peaceful citizens, with no overt coercion, adapted to Nazi philosophies, make more sense.



Wed Nov 14, 2007 7:11 pm
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Post Re: Chapter 11: The SPE: Ethics and Extensions
seeker wrote:
It raises a question in my mind as to whether any differential in power between individuals is a situation ripe for abuse.


If by "ripe for abuse" you mean "capable of being abused", then I'd say, yes, any differential in power (and I think we should recognize that power is, in this sense, a metaphor for different roles played in a social relationship, and reinforced by the use of certain tools -- ie. cages, guns, uniforms, etc.) -- ahem, any differential in power inherently makes misuse possible. But that doesn't necessarily imply that power inevitably leads to misuse, or even that it suggests abuse. It may fall outside the perview of the book to contrast the Stanford experiments to situations in which power differentials have failed to result in abuse, but I think such a contrast would be useful for situating these instances in the broader context of human phenomena.

Quote:
The follow-on question is whether it is possible to construct social organizations within which no individual has power over another.


That probably seems to most modern people to be the obvious next question. But there's another alternative, one that would have had some appeal to thinkers prior to, say, the 17th century. That is, is it possible to construct social organizations in which person's of different rank or power interact harmoniously and to their mutual benefit?

Of course, many of us would tend to look on such a question with a kind of smiling contempt. "If that were possible, surely they would have done it, and we never would have needed to revolutionize political science with the notions of equality and liberty." But the fact of the matter is, that the modern age has seen social violence surpass viral epidemic and natural disaster as the most worrisome agents of sudden mass death. Despite or best intentions, we have found human society incredibly resistent to attempts to peacefully level out power differentials.

Quote:
However, if history proves anything it is that the future is unpredictable and that creativity is unlimited.


The future is unpredictable, yes, but I'm not so sure about the limits of creativity. I'm currently reading "The Man Who Saw Through Time", Loren Eiseley's panegyric to Francis Bacon, and while Eiseley is able to wax rhapsodic about the immense humanity of Bacon's view of the potential of science, his more realistic perspective on how Bacon's progeny have realized that potential seems to point to a different conclusion. It may be that our creativity with regards to science's promise is even more limited than that of Bacon; in practice, science seems no better equipped than any other discipline to make us better people, and it has, on more than one occasion, invited us to be significantly worse.


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Wed Nov 14, 2007 7:37 pm
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MadArchitect wrote:
I just wonder whether or not the term "evil" really has any place in a book that doesn't dirty its hands with either philosophy or religion. Is there a place in psychology as a scientific discipline for a concept like evil? How does psychology really deal with evil? Or is evil, in this case, being used as a shorthand for a set of behaviors that Zimbardo can deal with in a psychological framework, whle simultaneously excluding anything that he can't?

As a psychologist, Zimbardo studies human behavior, and one prominent aspect of human behavior is that people are sometimes incredibly nasty to each other. The word "evil" is a reasonable, though emotionally laden, way to characterize that nastiness.

In any case, even though the book's title is The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil and Zimbardo defines "evil" in the first chapter, the remainder of the book doesn't mention "evil" that often.
MadArchitect wrote:
I just wonder whether or not the conclusions he draws are necessarily applicable to the question of evil as it's usually understood, or if we're to understand those conclusions as applicable to another set of specifically psychological questions.

What do you mean by "as it's usually understood"? The actions that I'd classify as evil fit Zimbardo's definition rather well.



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JulianTheApostate wrote:
What do you mean by "as it's usually understood"?


Well, specifically I have the moral connotations in mind. People don't usually use the term evil simply to group a set of actions into one category. By using the term, they usually intend to convey a moral judgment, and I'm not sure that there's room within a strict psychological discipline for that sort of judgment -- just as there's no much room to make moral evaluations from the perspective of chemistry or biology. But then, I could be wrong. Maybe psychology as a field is somehow different.


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Sat Nov 17, 2007 2:04 am
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MadArchitect wrote:
JulianTheApostate wrote:
What do you mean by "as it's usually understood"?


Well, specifically I have the moral connotations in mind. People don't usually use the term evil simply to group a set of actions into one category.

However, Zimbardo's moral beliefs clearly shaped his definition of evil. Zimbardo probably started with specific actions that he considered evil: the Holocaust, the Rwanda genocide, etc., and defined a category that encompassed them all. He didn't take something arbitrary, like obsessive hand-washing, and classify it as evil.

It's true that Zimbardo's definition is more abstract than the specific examples that inspired it. That's to be expected, since most intellectual discourse, especially in fields like psychology and philosophy, involves some level of abstraction.



Sat Nov 17, 2007 2:46 am
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