The Circumstance of Evil

by: Mormon Heretic

March 3, 2014

We would like to think that we would always choose good over evil, but is that always the case?

This is part 3 of my series on a documentary, The Science of Evil.  In Part 1, I discussed Jeffrey’s Dahmer and his baptism.  In Part 2, we discussed whether there is a soul, or whether the soul can be identified based on parts of the brain that control decision-making.  In Part 3, I want to look at the circumstances of good and evil.  Do the circumstances we are in help us make good or evil decisions?

As we look at the world, how quickly things deteriorate can be startling:  the 1965 Watts Riots, the Rodney King Riots of 1991, the overthrow of Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy in 2013, the revolution in Egypt, even the sectarian violence of Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Serbia.  It is rather startling how friends can instantly become enemies.

Philip Zimbardo sought to look at how circumstances affect our choices of good and evil.  He designed “The Stanford Prison” experiment, and the results are a bit unsettling.

Philip Zimbardo, Stanford University, “For me, one of the most important things about trying to understand how evil can exist, how evil flourishes is to realize that usually what we see is the end of the line.  We see the end product.  We see Hitler’s final solution.  We see the destruction at Virginia Tech.  What we don’t see is the process of evil.”

In 1971, Philip Zimbardo, a psychology professor at the Stanford University set out to study a process of transformation that leads ordinary people to commit so-called evil.  He arranged to have nine young men arrested.

Zimbardo, “After putting each prisoner in a squad car, they turn on the lights and the sirens are wailing, neighbors are looking around.  Everybody’s wondering what this good kid could have done to get into that trouble.”

None of them had done anything wrong.

Zimbardo, “They were normal and healthy in every way, no history of crime, no history of drug abuse, no mental or physical problems.”

The young men were volunteers in a behavioral study.

Zimbardo, “They were selected from a large sample of 75 people who answered our ad in the city newspaper for a  study of prison life.”

And waiting for Zimbardo’s ‘prisoners’ in the basement of Stanford’s Psychology Department were nine more young men, also volunteers who were designated prison guards.  Zimbardo and his team turned the basement of the psychology department into a functioning prison.

Zimbardo, “The Stanford prison experiment was one of the very first studies to explore the power of situations, to influence individual behavior.  How much of us is that loving, caring, unselfish, altruistic being?  And how much of us are those people who could very easily become murderers, killers and participate in genocide?”

The prisoner-volunteers were incarcerated, three to a cell.  And, as in a real prison, uniforms and i.d. numbers were used to strip them of their individuality.

Zimbardo, “The guards, as you see, have military style uniforms.  The prisoners really are just given smocks with a number sewn on the back.  That number will replace their name.  That number will become their identity, 86124157.  In a very short time, they will be that number.”

The guards all wore sunglasses.  Zimbardo had a logic for every detail.

Zimbardo, “The silver reflecting sunglasses just take away your humanity.  Most of our humanity when we interact comes really through visual contact, through people looking at our eyes.  So when you cover that over, it just makes it easier for people to abuse other people.”

The next five days shocked the world of science.

Zimbardo, “For me evil is really about the exercise of destructive power.  It’s watching someone crush someone else’s sandcastle and it’s instant whereas it took hours to create the sandcastle. “

On the morning of the second day, there was a full-scale prison rebellion.

Zimbardo, “Rebellion took the form of barricading the prison doors so the guards couldn’t get in, stripping off their numbers because they didn’t want to be anonymous, cursing the guards to their face and refusing to come out of the cells.”

Their authority in question, outnumbered three to one, the guards turned to the prison superintendent.

Zimbardo, “The guards came to me and said, ‘What are we going to do?’  And I said ‘It’s your prison.  You have to make that decision.’  “

Reinforcements were called and the guards acted decisively.

Zimbardo, “They decide they’re going to break open the doors.  They’re going to strip the prisoners naked.  They’re going to kick out their beds, chain the prisoners, put the ringleaders of the rebellion in solitary confinement as long as is necessary.  So here’s one of the guards spraying skin-chilling carbon dioxide fire extinguisher into the cell.  Sadism often requires some degree of resourcefulness, and in this case of creativity.”

The prison rebellion was suppressed and the guards had their first taste of real power, but with that power came a new challenge.

Zimbardo, “So how are they going to control the potential for further outbreaks or further rebellion in the prisons and the answer was simple:  we are going to crush their spirit.  After only 36 hours, the first prisoner, 8612, has an emotional breakdown, screaming, irrational thinking, crying.  The psychological torment worked.”

A startling transformation had begun.

Zimbardo, “So this was the kind of tipping point of a bunch of kids playing cops and robbers to people beginning to assume the role of guards.”

The transformation of the guards that had begun with the suppression of the prisoner rebellion was by day four all but complete.

Zimbardo, “One of the guards who was the most evil if you will, most sadistic, most creatively inventive in developing tactics to break prisoner resistance, the prisoner rebellion, was nicknamed by the prisoners John Wayne.  They named him that because he was like a Wild West Cowboy.  He was this tough macho guy.  “

‘John Wayne’ became a source of terror and intimidation for Zimbardo’s prisoners.

Zimbardo, “Each day the level of aggression, the level of abuse escalates.  And as we watch these acts of degradation, you have to realize that the guards worked eight-hour shifts.  That meant they went home for 16 hours and they had time to think about the terrible things they were doing to these innocent prisoners.  And so we assumed that when they came back, they would feel somewhat guilty, somewhat shamed, and they would ease up.  To the contrary.”

‘John Wayne’ and the other guards’ sadism began to take on a sexual dimension.

Zimbardo, “and then the next level up is to say, okay, ‘half of you are female camels.  The other half are male camels.  Stand behind them and now you’re going to hump them.’  So it’s a play on words.  The guards are laughing.  But what you got to see is prisoners simulating sodomy under the commands of the guards.  Remember, these are all college students in an experiment on psychology of prison.“

They had entered the experiment, normal, healthy young men, but were unrecognizable as they began to derive sadistic pleasure from humiliating their physically and morally broken prisoners.

Zimbardo, “And as I watched the sexual degradation beginning to escalate, I began to realize that the guards were now too much into their role, that the various levels of sadistic behavior were beginning to unfold.”

Abu Ghraib prisoneer in Afghanistan smeared with blood and mud.

Zimbardo, “And no different from everything I know about the army reservists at Abu Ghraib, who I studied intensively.  In 2004, reports of abuses against inmates at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq emerged.  American soldiers and intelligence officers were accused of torture.”

Zimbardo, “Before going down to that dungeon, they were normal, healthy, good American soldiers.  You put them in that place and every one of them on that nightshift in Tier 1A participated in these horrendous abuses and torture of prisoners.”

The documented abuses included various forms of imaginative sadism and accusations of homicide.

Zimbardo, “You take them out, guess what?  They don’t continue to do bad things whether or not they’re in prison.  They go back to being where they were.  “

If Zimbardo’s hypothesis proves true, given the right situation, any one of us is capable of evil.

Zimbardo began the Stanford prison experiment with the intent of observing the impact of situational forces on human behavior.  But by the end, one of the most chilling observations was about himself.

Zimbardo, “It’s the evening of day four.  It’s visitors’ night.  Our prisoners who have family or friends in the vicinity invited them down.  And this is one of the few times you see me on the yard.  [He points to a video screen]  There I am coming in to supervise visiting.  When I looked at this video, what I was surprised at was my posture, my non-verbal behavior.  Because as I walked out of the yard, I had my hands clasped behind my back.  And this is the posture that you see authority figures do when a military person or a political person reviews troops when they’re all lined up.  When I looked at that, I realized I had become the superintendent of the Stanford prison experiment.”

Zimbardo had become a participant in his own experiment.  In hindsight, this realization should have been enough for him to end it, but he didn’t.  He allowed the experiment to continue.  It wasn’t until day five when Zimbardo invited professional colleagues in for a tour, that he realized the extent of what he had done.

Zimbardo, “Well, one of the people who came down was a woman, Christina Masleck, who had been a graduate student of mine.  She was now an assistant professor at Berkeley.  What she sees is the insanity of this place.  Prisoners with bags over their heads, or blindfolds, chained, guards yelling at them and walking like zombies with their hands over their shoulders, guards shouting obscenities at them.  And I look up and I say, ‘Hey Chris.  Look at this.  This is a crucible of human nature.  Look at this behavior in action.  Nobody’s ever seen anything like this.’  She says, ‘Stop it.’  She says, ‘It’s terrible what you’re doing to those boys.  You are responsible.’  I began to do more self-reflection about how much this situation had changed me, how distorted my perception, my reality had become.”

On August 20, 1971, after five days of prisoner abuse by Zimbardo’s prison guards, the Stanford prison experiment was terminated, one week early.

Zimbardo, “I had lost the perspective about ethics.  I’d lost the perspective about caring.  And so that’s something that, that’s the kind of guilt I’ve had to live with all these years.”

Now, 36 years after the Stanford prison experiment, Zimbardo is still confronting the darkness he exposed through the light of scientific research, a chilling example of what he calls ‘situationally created evil’ caused him to be called as an expert defense witness in the 2004 court martial of one of the American officers accused of criminal acts at the Abu Ghraib Prison.

Zimbardo, “You have to say, what is the underlying system that is creating and perpetrating and maintaining this kind of evil?”

Against his recommendations to blame the system not just the individual, nearly every one of the low-ranking US Army reservists was found guilty of abuse and prosecuted.

Zimbardo, “It tells me that we have underestimated the power of situations to undermine human nature, to corrupt the best and brightest of us.  Yet, until we begin to realize that we have to keep our eye on how those situations evolve and are created, who maintains them, evil will persist.

Zimbardo, “My argument simply is that the human mind has an infinite capacity to make us kind or cruel, caring or indifferent, selfish or generous, and to make some of us villains and make others of us heroes.  And that’s the wonderful thing about the human mind.”

Zimbardo believes that ordinary people are not only capable of infinite cruelty, but that we are all equally capable of great good.

Zimbardo, “As we try to understand what makes people do evil deeds, what’s really critical is not only to hold up a mirror to human nature, it’s to hold up a mirror to ourselves.”

In the LDS Church, we have been taught that we were foreordained to join the Church.  This is supported by Alma 13:3 that tells us church members are

acalled and bprepared from the cfoundation of the world according to the dforeknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works; in the first place being left to echoose good or evil; therefore they having chosen good, and exercising exceedingly great ffaith, are gcalled with a holy calling, yea, with that holy calling which was prepared with, and according to, a preparatory redemption for such.

But what would we do if we were born into a homeless family, or in a war zone, or to drug-addicted parents.  Would be be capable of getting out of that mess because of our prior “exceeding faith and good works”?  Is it true that the circumstances we find ourselves in help us become good or evil?

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6 Responses to The Circumstance of Evil

  1. hm on March 3, 2014 at 4:11 AM

    If you want to read an excellent book that covers this exact topic from a real life Mormon family perspective, check out Ezra and Hadassah: A Portrait of American Royalty. It is about two kids in foster care who are adopted by a messed up Mormon family and how the kids handle the abuse. Very informative about the foster care/adoptive system and it makes clear how we all have choices to make, against all odds. It is a rare person who survives abuse without perpetuating the same situation.

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  2. Howard on March 3, 2014 at 10:20 AM

    I think your series invites some interesting questions. What is evil? What does it mean to be human? We all habituate it’s a time saving feature not a bug. We are all more or less suceptable to peer pressure, it’s part of belonging. We lovingly embrace Downs syndrome without judging their 1st estate yet Dahmer is evil rather than defective?

    My interest in psychology makes me an exorcist rather than a healer? Genetics can produce some problems but so can unhealthy parenting. I think evidenced based investigation explains religious allegory. How does an intelligent God simply explain man’s inhumanity to man to early largely ignorant humankind? Through the binomial of good vs. evil! In one simple explanation he sets Good bias incentive in motion amoung unlearned people. Today we are capable of a more neuanced understanding.

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  3. Howard on March 3, 2014 at 10:41 AM

    If we are fallen it’s largely because we lack awareness rather than obediance. With a little work most of us are capable of becomming our own thought quality control and our own thought manager and we can enjoy greater communication with the spirit, in other words we are capable of autonomy and/or decipleship in place of having the church do it rotely for us with LDS checklists and worthiness tests. Jesus left us with the beatitudes and the spirit, these are Christian principals (neauance) no mention of bright line rules (binomial) those were Mosaic and eclipsed by Christianity.

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  4. Nate on March 3, 2014 at 12:59 PM

    MH, I’m curious why you added the little bit about being “foreordained…thanks to their good works.”

    Is this because you want to distance yourself from your own potential to be a torturous prison guard, by evoking some kind of preexistant superiority?

    I’m sorry, that’s not very kind of me to say, I’m sure your reason is more nuanced than that.

    But I think your evocation of the preexistance is natural, and I’ve done it myself when trying to understand why I feel “more righteous” than the subjects in a study like this. It’s impossible to imagine I would ever be like that.

    But take a group of average Mormons in southern Utah, and you can put them in situations where they collectively all become mass murderers at MMM. So what does this pre-existence thing mean anyway? I personally don’t think it means much.

    MMM helps me accept my potential for evil, and my kinship with Nazi concentration camp guards. I see myself as one of them, given certain circumstances.

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  5. Stephen R. Marsh on March 3, 2014 at 4:19 PM

    What is really interesting is the discussion of “The Stanford Prison” by the Freakeconomics guys. One has tried to replicate a number of those experiments and has not been able to get the same results.

    He correlates that with recent interviews of some of the subjects who stated that they were acting out as they felt that Zimbardo wanted them to. Fascinating stuff.

    http://freakonomics.com/2012/09/14/fear-thy-nature-a-new-freakonomics-radio-podcast/

    See also http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4102

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  6. Mormon Heretic on March 3, 2014 at 9:52 PM

    Nate, I should have added MMM to the discussion. Thanks for pointing that out. I think it represents this idea extremely well.

    I brought up pre-existence works because I question whether it is real. I think plenty of members of the Church rely on this idea too heavily. Since I was a teen, I as well as other teens have been told we are a royal generation, that God saved the most valiant for the last days, etc, etc. Just as the blacks being fence-sitters in the pre-existence is a suspect doctrine, I think that this idea that church members were fore-ordained to hold the priesthood is just as suspect of a doctrine. If we had been born in Communist China, or as a homeless Buddhist in India’s caste system, I question how many of us would have sought out the LDS Church. Much of the circumstances we find ourselves in are the lottery of birth.

    Steve, thanks for the skeptoid link–I think that has some interesting rebuttals to Zimbardo’s work. I”m still listening to the freakonomics episode.

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