In today’s Wired is an article pronouncing that a psychologist will speak this afternoon at TED, to reveal his learnings on how good people turn bad.
Wired: Your work suggests that we all have the capacity for evil, and that it’s simply environmental influences that tip the balance from good to bad. Doesn’t that absolve people from taking responsibility for their choices?
Philip Zimbardo: No. People are always personally accountable for their behavior. If they kill, they are accountable. However, what I’m saying is that if the killing can be shown to be a product of the influence of a powerful situation within a powerful system, then it’s as if they are experiencing diminished capacity and have lost their free will or their full reasoning capacity.
Situations can be sufficiently powerful to undercut empathy, altruism, morality and to get ordinary people, even good people, to be seduced into doing really bad things — but only in that situation.
Understanding the reason for someone’s behavior is not the same as excusing it. Understanding why somebody did something — where that why has to do with situational influences — leads to a totally different way of dealing with evil. It leads to developing prevention strategies to change those evil-generating situations, rather than the current strategy, which is to change the person.
This reminds me of the reduced crime rate in NYC, due to cleaning up the environment – not the people. (E.g. cleaning graffiti off the subways, lighting dark streets, etc.) Hm… this is an angle we don’t see played by environmentalists. Yes, the association is loose, but if we want to support a positive “powerful system,” then pumping our environment full of “evil” (waste, garbage, chemicals) makes all other attempts moot. E.g. you walk into a dark, dirty, ransacked store for milk. do you leave your cash on the counter and grab the milk or do you simply take the milk? now what if you enter a clean, brightly lit and breezy coop … are you tempted to take the milk and run?
On another note, on how good companies turn bankrupt, check out Sharper Image.