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.

The Banality of Meanness

Mean. Uncivil. Abusive. Controlling. All of these words could easily describe Barry Freundel, Mark Driscoll, and the other men I’ve discussed on this blog. In my countless interviews with victims of mean, an even more sinister descriptor emerges: these guys aren’t just jerks; they’re evil. Looking at our last two case studies of Driscoll and Freundel, we find it’s not so hard to make the leap. These are men who invoked the divine for their own selfish ends and caused a great deal of pain and suffering in the process. But where exactly is that line between bad and evil?

We often characterize evil as an aberration of human nature because it’s so difficult to rationalize. This difficulty of getting our brains around evil behaviors often leads us to create narratives around those responsible. Perhaps, we suspect, the evil is in response to unbearable circumstances a person may have experienced earlier in life. Or maybe the person is a psychopath, is innately evil. To this way of thinking, the evildoer is damaged or crazy or both.

But there’s an alternate school of thought that tells us that evil might not be such an aberration after all.

In her groundbreaking 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, philosopher Hannah Arendt tried to reconcile the actions of Adolf Eichmann—a Nazi SS lieutenant colonel and one of the major organizers of the Holocaust—with Eichmann the person. In her reporting on his trial, she makes a highly controversial argument that remains polarizing to this day: neither Eichmann nor his fellow Nazis were motivated to commit their acts out of hatred and malevolence. Rather, they were the result of lack of thought, imagination, and memory. Eichmann, she adamantly believed, was incapable of empathizing with his victims’ suffering because he lacked the judgment needed to perceive it. He was not smart enough to think for himself and therefore was “just doing his job” as he claimed in court.

Arendt enraged many people with her views on Eichmann as being “ordinary.” She resisted making an explicitly psychological analysis of him in her lengthy report of his 1961 trial. Her assessment was that Eichmann’s ability to do evil came from his inability to think from others’ points of view or to have an internal dialogue with himself. Evil itself was banal, she said, in that it was “thought-defying.”

Her conclusions were profound. People who do evil are not necessarily monsters; sometimes they’re just bureaucrats. The Eichmann she observed on trial was neither brilliant nor a psychopath. He was described by the attending court psychiatrist as a “completely normal man, more normal, at any rate, than I am after examining him.” Evil, Arendt suggested, can be extraordinary acts committed by otherwise unremarkable people. All of the court psychologists who examined Eichmann pronounced him “normal.”

Still, one wonders what could possibly have been going through Eichmann’s mind to allow him to commit such atrocities. How is it that this seemingly normal German bureaucrat could be swept up in the tide of Nazism to become one of history’s most hated and perplexing criminals? What explains the participation of thousands of ordinary Germans just like him in the events of the Holocaust, from concentration camp guards to civilians who turned a blind eye? These questions broaden to become both more personal and more universal, and therefore more distressing, as we ask ourselves, What would I do if faced with these circumstances? Would I act for good, or would I succumb to evil?

Two years after the trial, Arendt reflected:

The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, that is, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words of others, or even the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.

Arendt had a supporter in Richard Sonnenfeldt, the chief US translator at the Nuremberg trials. He too believed that Eichmann and his peers seemed without intellect or insight, distinguished only by being susceptible to flattery and ambition. “Dictators have no peers,” he said at the time. “Only sycophants to do their bidding.”

Arendt felt very keenly that what really connects us to one another is the commitment to try to see the world from others’ points of view—not to subscribe to their points of view or to merge with their points of view, but to be able to walk around and see what the world looks like from where they’re standing. She was all about dialogue. In Eichmann’s case it was precisely the incapacity and lack of interest in that perspective that she found to be at the core of Eichmann’s banality and Eichmann’s evil. It was his thoughtlessness, his inability to think from any other point of view but his own.

While Arendt and others argue that evil is banal, empathy is not. It is not common to all, pervasive, ordinary, or unremarkable. If you are capable of empathy, you may assume that most people are capable of it. You take it for granted that what you see and feel is obvious. It is not. Someone who is capable of empathy is at the upper end of psychological health. Empathy, some experts suggest, may even be relatively rare.

Could it be that knowing how to skillfully practice empathy is the key to minimizing and managing mean?