“What makes us evil?”

How is it possible that completely “normal” people can do such horrible things?

The Stanford Experiment is an example of how something so unbelievable can actually happen. In 1971 Phillip Zimbardo conducted an experiment that would help us better understand how power can affect people and how they can commit such evil against other human beings. Zimbardo wanted to know “what happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph?” (Zimbardo). In the experiment 24 undergraduate students from Stanford were randomly assigned the role of either guard or prisoner. The first day was without tumult, but after the first day the students began acting in their role. The guards started to take advantage of the power they had been given and became sadistic in their actions. The prisoners likewise began acting depressed and withdrawn. The experiment was supposed to last two weeks, but was ended on the sixth day because the experiment had become too horrific.

The experiment suggests that relatively good, normal people can do bad things in specific social surroundings and role expectations. According to Zimbardo, “good people can do terrible things, depending on their social surrounding and expectations. When thrown into a social context of unchecked authority, anonymity and high stress, average people can become exceptional monsters” (Pg. 209).

A stigma was placed on the prisoners. This label not only changed behaviors of people around them, such as the guards, but it also changed the way they saw themselves. The labeling theory of social deviance explains how these Stanford undergrads became so deeply embedded in their roles. Labeling theory states that people unconsciously read how other people see them and they act to these labels, and over time this label becomes part of the way that person views his or herself.

Another example of how social situations can cause individuals to do things they normally would not think of doing can be seen in the Milgram experiment, which was done in 1961 at Yale University. The study was set up to find out if the men in the Nazi party were pathological or just following orders. The study showed that regular individuals can take part in terrible acts against other people, without an intention or want to harm anyone, they just simply follow orders. It attempted to explain why people, specifically Nazi officers, would behave in pathological ways. Were they emotionally and psychologically imbalanced or did they just follow the orders given to them? The Milgram experiment tested to see just how far people could be pushed to follow orders when believing that they were being destructive to another human being. The results of this study showed that people will listen to authority even when the things they are asked to do are against their desire to respect others humanity.

Some psychologists argue, a different perspective, however, that there is no impact of society in these cases. That the behavior of these people is not related to the limitless power they are given but instead due to a psychological pre-disposition to act aggressively.

In the case of the Stanford Prison Experiment or the Milgram Experiment, was the limitless power given to the guards and guidelines given to them by the experimenters the cause of their brutal behavior? Was the stigma associated with being a prisoner an indicator of the emotional breakdowns and rebellious behavior seen in the experiment? Carnahan and Sam McFarland conducted their own experiment to evaluate whether the students who volunteered for a study of prison life have dispositions connected to abusive behaviors. Carnahan and McFarland used a similar newspaper ad like the ad that was used in the Stanford experiment to get student participants. Two ads were used one with “prison life” in the ad and one without any mention of it. The study found that the volunteers for the prison life study scored much higher on measures of abuse related dispositions such as aggressiveness, authoritarianism, narcissism, and social dominance, and lower on empathy and altruism.

A question that arises from looking at these experiments is whether or not these people are really ”normal” or on some level, pathologically take some enjoyment from the positions of power they are given? Are the reactions of all the subjects in fact only shaped by the social context? (ie. the guard-prisoner relationship)

Left: In the Stanford Prison Experiment, similar methods of humiliation were used by the guards to dehumanize the prisoners. Right: Soldiers in Iraq, at the Abu Ghraib prison, make fun of and humiliate prisoners by making them stand naked in a row with paper bags over their heads.

Left: Nazi soldiers forcing prisoners to do pushups as punishment in the concentration camps. Right: The guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment used the same punishment, pushups, to humiliate and discipline the prisoners.
The behaviors that the participants in the Stanford Prison experiment exhibited can lead us to make conclusions about other behaviors that we have as a society deemed to be evil. Can we really say that the behavior of Nazi officers made them evil people? Or was it just a result of the situations that they were placed in, the power that they were given, that made them commit atrocious crimes against Jews? Can the officers who were in command at Abu Ghraib really be held accountable for the degradation of the Iraqis prisoners? The media has to a large extent attempted to describe these crimes as the case of a few “bad apples” (209), bad soldiers who committed awful crimes all because they were evil people. Maybe there is more to be understood in these situations than simply a case of evil people who by nature commit atrocious crimes?

Additional Readings:




By Ashley Burgess and Charlotte Brown


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5 responses to ““What makes us evil?”

  1. 02kristencattoi

    The concepts mentioned in this post reminded me of Jane Elliott’s “Blue Eye/Brown Eye” experiment about racial socialization. In this 1968 experiment, Elliott, a third grade teacher in Iowa, divided her class into blue-eyed children and brown-eyed children. She gave the two groups different privileges and treated each child differently based on his or her eye color. The experiment was an attempt to help the children understand how it feels to be a member of group that is treated unfairly, such as African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement (here is the link from class that explains the experiment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JCjDxAwfXV0&feature=related). The brown-eyed children, who were treated as inferior to the blue-eyed children, internalized their teacher’s stereotypes, and the experiment ultimately revealed how people live up to stereotypes. The experiment illustrated the social construction of reality and how people can attribute meaning or value to social systems. Elliott’s work also showed how such physical attributes like race can become achieved statuses; people perform to the expectations that others hold for them, which was evident when brown-eyed children performed at a lower level than expected and blue-eyed children performed at a higher level than expected on academic tests at the conclusion of the experiment.

    In this experiment, the brown-eyed children experienced the stigma associated with their eye color. Their behavior was affected when they became distant and upset as the day progressed. The blue-eyed children were similarly affected by the stigma; they treated the brown-eyed children as inferiors though they had initially laughed at and contested their teacher’s claim that blue-eyed children were more intelligent and “better” than the other kids.

    The effect of a particular role on a person’s personality is an important study in sociology. How might outside factors, such a person’s uniform or his or her conceived “superiority” over another group, affect behavior or personality? Some may argue that people’s morals should dictate their reactions, though sociological experiments prove otherwise. The power of a stigma certainly wasn’t lost to the intelligent Stanford students in the prison experiment or to the innocent third-graders in Elliott’s class.

  2. 03laurienordlund

    Another experiment took place in Palo Alto, California in 1967 at Cubberley High School. Ron Jones, a history teacher, created this experiment to teach his class about how people became Nazis. He created rules, drilled his students until they met his demands, created a salute, among other things. Within days more students joined the class and they reported students who were not following the rules. At the end of the experiment he brought all the students together and introduced them to their leader, Hitler. He showed them a film about Nazi Germany and explained to them that they were just as easily corruptible. The students were shocked when they realize that they had followed these rules so willingly.
    Here is a link to a 1981 film reenacting the experiment: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=4689717947890475769
    Even though we think we are different and that we could never be “evil,” we all are capable of blindly following a leader. The minority will rebel from the beginning, but until the true horrors of whatever it is you are doing are made clear, many will follow. I am not saying that people as individuals are evil, only many are afraid to stand up for what they believe and go against their friends and authority figures.
    To answer your question, I believe that people do react to the situations they are placed in and the authority they are given. However, that does not mean they cannot be held accountable for their actions. If a few can speak out for what is right, then others are capable of doing the same even if it is dangerous and unpopular to do so.

  3. 02reganloper

    First, humans do have a conscious that keeps the amount of evil we commit in check. That is the very reason this article was written, and the same reason we are considering this whole question. In some way, it worries us all that humans would act in that way towards others. One of the guards even stated the fact. Although he didn’t feel regretful while he was degrading and dehumanizing the inmates, later his conscious stepped in and brought on repentance. To me, this proves the theory that humans are not inherently evil creatures, because they have a conscious that tells them not to cause harm to others. Let’s keep that in mind when considering these experiments. In typical social situations, wouldn’t the conscious be crucial in retarding evil actions?

    That said, humans change their behavior towards the worse when placed in a certain role or trying to attain a certain role. When guards are told their role is to keep inmates in line, they will act according to that role, just as one “guard” in the video explained. In the case of the guards, their role is primarily based on the actions of inmates. Therefore, they feel the need to exert their authority over the prisoners, and this can be portrayed in a number of ways.

    In the guard-prisoner relationship, people would rather have control than be controlled. So guards want to act in a way that shows their control over prisoners. They aren’t being evil for the sake of being evil. The love of authority makes them want to constantly assert their position on top.

  4. 03jerricaraglin

    It’s hard to comment on exactly what makes us evil. There are a number of factors that could account for this type of behavior.

    One thing I noticed in the Stanford Experiment was the creation of an imaginary primary deviance. The students who were picked as the prisoners took on the “deviant” label, even though they committed no crimes. This imaginary label influenced, in a way, the actions the student guards carried out against the prisoners. This seems to be the cause of the “evilness” and not the labeling theory mentioned in your post. When the prisoners refuse to follow the humiliating orders of the guards, they commit the true primary deviance. However, in this created society, they are committing secondary deviance. This gives the guards a real reason to punish the prisoners, thus escalating the violence and bringing the experiment to an early end.

    Given that these terms are important in understanding social control and deviance, it makes one wonder about the ethics behind Zimbardo’s experiment.

  5. 03annaalexander

    Several examples have been given of experiments that have tested the ease in which a person falls into an aggressive authoritarian role. To complement these examples, I would like to add another study that was done to test the effect of the environment on a patient’s “sanity.” In 1973, David Rosenhan published his study “On Being Sane in Insane Places.” In this study, he organized 8 volunteers who were willing to check themselves into psychiatric institutions with the symptom of hearing voices. This presentation of psychotic symptoms is known as a primary deviance, which allowed and secured the label of “schizophrenic.” Unbeknownst to the doctors or staff, the pseudopatients were actually sane, and once admitted into the hospital as schizophrenic, their goal was to prove their sanity. The study found that it was very difficult to erase the label of “schizophrenic,” especially in the environment of an institute for the mentally ill.

    Under the watch of the medical staff, every action of the pseudopatients was scrutinized and critiqued. Simple behaviors such as pacing in the hall or getting upset were automatically credited to their “mental illness,” without any thought about environmental triggers, such as boredom or unfairness. They were assumed to be mentally ill and treated in that manner. Eventually, these patients began to feel the pressures of the “insane” environment and had to actively work against them. Some, who in reality were trained psychologists, began to counsel other patients and another even tried to have a relationship with a nurse. They were fighting a phenomenon called the self-fulfilling prophecy. This theory states that if a patient is treated like he is mentally ill for an extended period of time, he will eventually start to believe it and act in a manner characteristic of the mentally ill. These psuedopatients had essentially fallen under the labeling theory; however, they were able to consciously recognize the effects that it had on them as patients.

    Rosenhan’s study brought up an important question: If these patients can be mistaken for “insane,” how many people in our hospitals have also unjustifiably fallen into this label and are unable to shake it? I found the results and conclusion of this study to be convincing and motivating, similar to that of the Stanford experiment. They both show a direct link between behavior and the environment; however, you have proposed the question of whether behavior can be solely based in the environment. My opinion is that it can not. I agree with the other comments in saying that just as there are people who are actually “mentally ill,” there are people who would willingly rise to the occasion of unlimited authority. Every case of a mental disorder cannot be written off as an effect of society, and it is the same with every violent act or sign of evil. We must recognize the difference between personally-based actions and societal-based behaviors. The effects of the labeling theory are very strong and we cannot let it take control of society. As seen with the example of Rosenhan’s study, the labeling theory affects all outlets of society, not only the penal system.

    URL for the study “On Being Sane in Insane Places”: