The Psychology of Evil

I listened to a TED lecture yesterday entitled “Philip Zimbardo on the Psychology of Evil”.  As I was listening I realized that this would be brilliant material to bring here and apply to the creation of new characters.

According to Zimbardo evil is:

  • The exercise of power to
  • Intentionally
  • Harm (psychologically),
  • Hurt (physically), and/or
  • Destroy (morally) and
  • Commit Crimes against humanity

Psychologists state that only a scant 1% of the public are considered sadistic by nature.  Considering that more than that 1% are committing crimes or are showing their sinister side, what is causing the change?  What turns a good person into a bad one?

We turn to another slide from the presentation for an explanation:

How do psychologists understand such transformations of human character

  • Dispositional: inside of individuals: the bad apples
  • Situational: external: the bad barrel
  • Systemic: broad influences, political, economic, legal-power: the bad barrel makers

The bad apples represent the 1%.  Good people in certain situations can make bad choices, those situations can be a result of influences caused by the system.  Zimbardo was involved with the investigation of Abu Ghraib and the prisoner abuse and torture that occured there.  The soldiers in general weren’t bad people, but they were placed in a situation where a series of bad decisions without any circumstances lead from one atrocity to another.  If the system had been better regulated then the problems might not have had the chance to arise.

But this was war and those were soldiers, what about normal people?  The Milgram study tested what a normal “good” person would do if given a chance.  In this study one participant was the “teacher” and the other the “learner”.  The learner was hooked up to a set of electrodes and received a shock when they answered incorrectly starting at a hardly noticeable 15 volts all the way to a dangerous 450 volts.  After being told that they were not personally responsible for the safety of the learner 2/3 of the teachers went all the way to the top.

Zimbardo’s slide on why this happened:

7 Social processes that grease the slippery slope of evil

  • Mindlessly taking the first small step
  • Dehumanization of others
  • De-individualization of self (anonymity)
  • Diffusion of personal responsibility
  • Blind obedience to authority
  • Uncritical conformity to group norms
  • Passive tolerance of evil through inaction/indifference
  • in new or unfamiliar situations

When creating an evil character in our stories we as writers must know how they developed into that character.  Are they just bad apples, or were they placed in a situation where they got caught in the slippery slope and are now trapped by their decisions?  Either way clues and tidbits need to pop up in the text to show how it happened.


Direct Link to Philip Zimbardo’s Presentation

The TED Lectures Main Page

Wikipedia: Philip Zimbardo

Wikipedia: Milgram Experiment

Wikipedia: Abu Ghraib


About Jodi

Jodi L. Milner is a writer, mandala enthusiast, and educator. Her epic fantasy novel, Stonebearer’s Betrayal, was published in November 2018 and rereleased in Jan 2020. She has been published in several anthologies. When not writing, she can be found folding children and feeding the laundry, occasionally in that order.
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6 Responses to The Psychology of Evil

  1. This is powerful stuff. But then, I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed by a TED presentation.

    A modern philosopher I have met a couple of times says this of evil: Most people aren’t. What passes for evil in most cases is actually “unthinking-ness”.

    I think that for the most part I agree with that. It takes some real planning, skill, and a lot of work to be truly evil.

    This doesn’t mean that people can’t DO evil–again from neglect or unthinkingness, but to BE evil is really hard.

    • tsuchigari says:

      It was a really heavy presentation, not the material I normally gravitate towards. At the very end he tagged on his bit about how you can flip the scenario to create heroes as well and society should encourage the mindset that encourages heroism.

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  3. tikiman1962 says:

    I have a thoery of Infused Dualism. If we accept the Big Bang Theory of Creation, that ALL matter that existed and all contrasting aspects (black and white, good and evil, day and night, male and female etc.) existed prior to this Big Bang, then the force that created life did not separate these contrasting aspects but merely fused them into individual beings.
    Therefore, each and every thing that exists has these same contrasting aspects within them.
    How else can we explain men who believe they are women onside them or wholesome and devout individuals spewing words of hate or priests being molesters? A trigger mechanism then causes the balance to be shifted from one side to another, perhaps temporarily, perhaps irrevocably.
    “That’s not me” is no longer an acceptable excuse. “I would never do that” is no longer an argument that is valid.
    This ideology in some way embraces the notion of hard-wired characteristics and traits that we can’t avoid. But we CAN overcome.

    • tsuchigari says:

      It’s an intriguing view on the world, I like it. We are all giant jigsaw puzzles made up of hundreds of different components just waiting to be solved so we can see our big picture, which is different for everyone.

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