Sunday, February 10, 2008

How Good People Turn Evil

Last Tuesday, February 5th, I was at the JCC SF to hear Philip Zimbardo lecture on "How Good People Turn Evil". He gave a 90 minute talk, to an audience of about 400, based on his book The Lucifer Effect. Zimbardo is responsible for the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, which demonstrated the extent to which situation, not personality, affected the expression of sadistic behavior. The parallel to Abu Ghraib is inescapable.

Zimbardo came to the podium wearing a black T-shirt with a devil design on it. His talk was part theology, part history, part psychology, & part inspirational message. He quoted Milton as readily as he cited academic studies. His belief in the importance of his topic was unquestionable, & he came across as a very compassionate person.

Zimbardo is an entertaining & humorous speaker, but there was plenty of rough stuff as well. He showed more Abu Ghraib photos beside the few well-circulated by the mass media. He drew comparisons to the trophy photos of lynchings, of which he had many chilling examples. We also saw pages from a Nazi children's comic book showing Jews being kicked out of town. The basic insight is that there exists in each of us the potential for evil behavior, & this potential can be realized by particular circumstances.

But after this hard lesson, he ended on a hopeful note. He gave examples of "everyday heroes" who stand as paradigms of the good side of our nature. We can all be everyday heroes as easily as we can be devils.

No comments: