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
- 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.