The Banality of Evil, Part II

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We started this conversation last week with our first show on Hannah Arendt and the “banality of evil.” An hour wasn’t enough. Now it’s time for part two.

Arendt resisted making an explicitly psychological analysis of Nazi official Adolf Eichmann in her lengthy report of his 1961 trial. Her assessment was that Eichmann’s ability to do evil came from his inability to think from others’ points of view, or to have an internal dialogue with himself. Evil itself was banal, she said, in that it was “thought-defying.”

All of the court psychologists who examined Eichmann pronounced him “normal.”

And yet, one wonders. What was going through his head? How is it that this seemingly normal German bureaucrat could be swept up in the tide of Nazism to become one of history’s most perplexing criminals? What explains the participation of thousands of ordinary Germans just like him, concentration camp guards and civilians alike? These questions broaden to become both more personal and more universal. What would I do if faced with these circumstances? Would I act for good, or would I succumb to evil?

Inmates in the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Stanford Prison Experiment “inmates.” [Philip Zimbardo]

Probably nobody is more qualified to answer these questions than Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo. His true to life experiments have asked these questions and tested our shared notions about the boundaries between good and evil to shocking and edifying conclusions.

In his most famous experiment, the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, 24 normal, healthy, well-adjusted, college-age males were randomly divided into “guards” and “prisoners.” The “prisoners” were arrested and put in “jail,” and the guards were given custody over them. The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks. But by day two all hell broke loose; the guards were behaving sadistically and the prisoners were rebelling and having mental breakdowns.

The prisoners even nicknamed the most macho and brutal guard in our study ‘John Wayne.’ Later, we learned that the most notorious guard in a Nazi prison near Buchenwald was named ‘Tom Mix’ — the John Wayne of an earlier generation — because of his ‘Wild West’ cowboy macho image in abusing camp inmates.

Where had our ‘John Wayne’ learned to become such a guard? How could he and others move so readily into that role? How could intelligent, mentally healthy, ‘ordinary’ men become perpetrators of evil so quickly? These were questions we were forced to ask.

Philip Zimbardo, The Stanford Prison Experiment, 1999

Zimbardo stopped the experiment by day six.

Scenes of torture at Abu Ghraib prison.

A few bad apples or a poisoned barrel? [Dennis Dunleavy / Flickr. Originally secured by FOIA request, The New Yorker.]

Since that time he has dedicated his career to examining how ordinary people become capable of deplorable acts, and perhaps more importantly, how situational circumstances – the barrel, if you will – can poison the apples. He may also know more than anyone else about the monstrous realities of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, after serving as an expert witness for of one of the guards tried. (The defense asked Zimbardo to testify that the guard was not innately evil or sadistic. Rather, it was structural mismanagement and horrendous working conditions at the prison, including 12-hour shifts for 40 straight days and no oversight, that contributed to the guard’s actions.)

Dr. Zimbardo has a new book out; he’ll join us for part two of our look at the banality of evil, and inject his own new thoughts about the flip-side of the banality of evil, what he calls the banality of heroism.

We want your answers to the big questions we’ve been tackling the last few weeks (including how empathy plays into all this), but we also want to hear your stories. Have you or someone you know been faced with an opportunity for wrong-doing or heroism? How did you react, and what was going through your head?

Philip Zimbardo

Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Stanford University

Author, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

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