One Significant Way Good People Can Go Bad

The mean men we’ve discussed on this blog come from diverse sectors of our economy and culture: from organized religion to politics to apparel companies. But one thing that their disparate trajectories have in common? They were all enabled for years—in some cases decades—by those who surrounded them. How could this happen? Even if we consider that some of these men are actually evil, surely most of those who worked for them—who literally followed their lead—were not. How did ordinary people witness years of abuse without stepping in and, in some cases, even participate in mean behavior themselves? Probably nobody is more qualified to answer this question than esteemed Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo. His real-life experiments have asked these questions and tested our shared notions about the boundary between good and evil—and the ease with which someone might cross it. He’s come to rather shocking conclusions.

In his now-famous Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, Zimbardo and several of his colleagues set out to answer the questions: What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does the institution take over or does humanity emerge? They chose twenty-four college-age male volunteers—all deemed to be normal, healthy, and well-adjusted—and randomly divided them into two groups: “guards” and “prisoners.” The prisoners were arrested and put in “jail,” and the guards were given custody over them. The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks.

Despite the fact that the students were all judged to be normal and healthy and were fully aware that they were participating in an experiment, by the sixth day, all hell had broken loose. Some of the guards were displaying alarmingly sadistic behaviors, and the prisoners showed worrying signs of depression and trauma. Zimbardo put a halt to the study. His findings have gone on to have profound effects on how we analyze the behaviors of humans in institutional settings.

Since that time, Zimbardo has dedicated his career to examining how ordinary people become capable of deplorable acts and, perhaps more importantly, how situational circumstances affect our behaviors—how the barrel, if you will, can poison the apples. He may also know more than anyone else about the monstrous realities of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, having served as an expert witness for one of the guards tried. Zimbardo testified that the guard was not innately evil or sadistic. Rather, the root of the problem was structural mismanagement (since the far-flung CIA ran the prison, there was no one qualified in an executive leadership role to establish a culture of civility) and horrendous working conditions. The guards were low-level, inexperienced military police, slogging through twelve-hour shifts for forty straight days, with no oversight to guide their actions under extreme stress.

The key factor missing in those who participated in the Abu Ghraib scandal was empathy. Long before this case even began, Zimbardo had found that in similar situations, it’s crucial to be able to see a given situation from different points of view. The only way for the suffering of the prisoners to become real for the guards was to have the guards see the situation through the prisoners’ eyes.

“Empathy,” as defined by Cambridge University neuropsychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, “occurs when we suspend our single-minded focus of attention and instead adopt a double-minded focus of attention.” Single-minded attention happens when we are thinking only about ourselves, our current thoughts and perceptions. But if we engage in double-minded attention, we are thinking of someone else at the very same time. When empathy is switched off, we focus only on our own interests. If we are capable of flipping the switch to “on,” we then focus on other people’s needs simultaneously with our own. Through those different points of view, we may not feel what other people are feeling, but we do see what they are seeing. Only then can we make a judgment.

This brings us back to Hannah Arendt and her indictment of Eichmann and his inability to take into consideration an “enlarged mentality.” If we are too narrow-minded, our judgment can become thoroughly invalid, out of whack. If we do not try to enlarge our mentality, we will never be able to think from another person’s point of view.

When people are in a situation in which they do not utilize double-minded attention, they’re prevented from identifying what others are thinking or feeling. The result is that they act out toward others in ways that, at the very least, are inappropriate. At worst, they can be diabolically mean. What Zimbardo’s experiment showed us is that this lack of empathy can become ingrained in an institution’s culture to the degree that otherwise normal people will act in deplorable ways.

One need not be a subclinical psychopath to be incapable of empathy and act egregiously toward others. Otherwise normal people are put in organizational contexts that turn off their empathy “switch” more often than we may think. I’ll bet we all can think of a time when this happened to us, when without our conscious awareness, the switch was turned to “off” and we acted in ways that shocked us or made us feel ashamed. It may be unpleasant to think about, but until we accept that empathy can be turned off, we can’t figure out how to turn it back on.