This is the second of a multi-part series of blog postings on the situational sources of evil. Parts of the series, including this post, are taken from an article in the most recent Yale Alumni magazine, which was adapted from my forthcoming book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (Random House, March 2007). My first post summarized Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiments and some of the other related, more recent studies that it inspired. Milgram’s experiments were among the first to demonstrate in dramatic and disturbing fashion the extent to which the situational forces often unexpectedly overwhelm the sort of dispositional forces that most of us assume are moving us.
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This post picks up there and asks the question that must be posed of all such research: what is its external validity, what are real-world parallels to the laboratory demonstration of authority power?
In 1963, the social philosopher Hannah Arendt published what was to become a classic of our times, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. She provides a detailed analysis of the war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi figure who personally arranged for the murder of millions of Jews. Eichmann’s defense of his actions was similar to the testimony of other Nazi leaders: “I was only following orders.” What is most striking in Arendt’s account of Eichmann is all the ways in which he seemed absolutely ordinary: half a dozen psychiatrists had certified him as “normal.” Arendt’s famous conclusion: “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”
Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil” continues to resonate because genocide has been unleashed around the world and torture and terrorism continue to be common features of our global landscape. A few years ago, the sociologist and Brazil expert Martha Huggins, the Greek psychologist and torture expert Mika Haritos-Fatouros, and I interviewed several dozen torturers. These men did their daily dirty deeds for years in Brazil as policemen, sanctioned by the government to get confessions by torturing “subversive” enemies of the state.
The systematic torture by men of their fellow men and women represents one of the darkest sides of human nature. Surely, my colleagues and I reasoned, here was a place where dispositional evil would be manifest. The torturers shared a common enemy: men, women, and children who, though citizens of their state, even neighbors, were declared by “the System” to be threats to the country’s national security — as socialists and Communists. Some had to be eliminated efficiently, while others, who might hold secret information, had to be made to yield it up by torture, confess and then be killed.
Torture always involves a personal relationship; it is essential for the torturer to understand what kind of torture to employ, what intensity of torture to use on a certain person at a certain time. Wrong kind or too little — no confession. Too much — the victim dies before confessing. In either case, the torturer fails to deliver the goods and incurs the wrath of the senior officers. Learning to determine the right kind and degree of torture that yields up the desired information elicits abounding rewards and flowing praise from one’s superiors. It took time and emerging insights into human weaknesses for these torturers to become adept at their craft.
What kind of men could do such deeds? Did they need to rely on sadistic impulses and a history of sociopathic life experiences to rip and tear the flesh of fellow beings day in and day out for years on end?
In a recent study of 400 al-Qaeda members, 90% came from caring, intact families.
We found that sadists are selected out of the training process by trainers because they are not controllable. They get off on the pleasure of inflicting pain, and thus do not sustain the focus on the goal of extracting confessions. From all the evidence we could muster, torturers were not unusual or deviant in any way prior to practicing their new roles, nor were there any persisting deviant tendencies or pathologies among any of them in the years following their work as torturers and executioners. Their transformation was entirely explainable as being the consequence of a number of situational and systemic factors, such as the training they were given to play this new role; their group camaraderie; acceptance of the national security ideology; and their learned belief in socialists and Communists as enemies of their state.
Amazingly, the transformation of these men into violence workers is comparable to the transformation of young Palestinians into suicide bombers intent on killing innocent Israeli civilians. In a recent study, the forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman [at the Solomon Asch Center] found evidence of the normalcy of 400 al-Qaeda members. Three-quarters came from the upper or middle class. Ninety percent came from caring, intact families. Two-thirds had gone to college; two-thirds were married; and most had children and jobs in science and engineering. In many ways, Sageman concludes, “these are the best and brightest of their society.”
Israeli psychologist Ariel Merari, who has studied this phenomenon extensively for many years, outlines the common steps on the path to these explosive deaths. First, senior members of an extremist group identify young people who, based on their declarations at a public rally against Israel or their support of some Islamic cause or Palestinian action, appear to have an intense patriotic fervor. Next, they are invited to discuss how seriously they love their country and hate Israel. They are asked to commit to being trained. Those who do then become part of a small secret cell of three to five youths. From their elders, they learn bomb making, disguise, and selecting and timing targets. Finally, they make public their private commitment by making a videotape, declaring themselves to be “the living martyr” for Islam. The recruits are also told the Big Lie: their relatives will be entitled to a high place in Heaven, and they themselves will earn a place beside Allah. Of course, the rhetoric of dehumanization serves to deny the humanity and innocence of their victims.
The die is cast; their minds have been carefully prepared to do what is ordinarily unthinkable. In these systematic ways a host of normal, angry young men and women become transformed into true believers. The suicide, the murder, of any young person is a gash in the fabric of the human family that we elders from every nation must unite to prevent. To encourage the sacrifice of youth for the sake of advancing the ideologies of the old must be considered a form of evil that transcends local politics and expedient strategies.
A host of normal, angry young men and women become transformed into true believers.
Our final extension of the social psychology of evil from artificial laboratory experiments to real-world contexts comes to us from the jungles of Guyana. There, on November 28, 1978, an American religious leader persuaded more than 900 of his followers to commit mass suicide. In the ultimate test of blind obedience to authority, many of them killed their children on his command.
Jim Jones, the pastor of Peoples Temple congregations in San Francisco and Los Angeles, had set out to create a socialist utopia in Guyana. But over time Jones was transformed from the caring, spiritual “father” of a large Protestant congregation into an Angel of Death. He instituted extended forced labor, armed guards, semistarvation diets, and daily punishments amounting to torture for the slightest breach of any of his many rules. Concerned relatives convinced a congressman and media crew to inspect the compound. But Jones arranged for them to be murdered as they left. He then gathered almost all the members at the compound and gave a long speech in which he exhorted them to take their lives by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.
Jones was surely an egomaniac; he had all of his speeches and proclamations, even his torture sessions, tape-recorded — including his final suicide harangue. In it Jones distorts, lies, pleads, makes false analogies, appeals to ideology and to transcendent future life, and outright insists that his orders be followed, all while his staff is efficiently distributing deadly poison to the hundreds gathered around him. Some excerpts from that last hour convey a sense of the death-dealing tactics he used to induce total obedience to an authority gone mad:
Please get us some medication. It’s simple. It’s simple. There’s no convulsions with it. [Of course there are, especially for the children.] . . . Don’t be afraid to die. You’ll see, there’ll be a few people land[ing] out here. They’ll torture some of our children here. They’ll torture our people. They’ll torture our seniors. We cannot have this. . . . Please, can we hasten? Can we hasten with that medication? . . . We’ve lived — we’ve lived as no other people lived and loved. We’ve had as much of this world as you’re gonna get. Let’s just be done with it. (Applause.). . . . Who wants to go with their child has a right to go with their child. I think it’s humane. . . . Lay down your life with dignity. Don’t lay down with tears and agony. There’s nothing to death. . . . It’s just stepping over to another plane. Don’t be this way. Stop this hysterics. . . . Look, children, it’s just something to put you to rest. Oh, God. (Children crying.). . . . Mother, Mother, Mother, Mother, Mother, please. Mother, please, please, please. Don’t — don’t do this. Don’t do this. Lay down your life with your child.
And they did, and they died for “Dad.”
A fitting conclusion comes from psychologist Mahrzarin Banaji: “What social psychology has given to an understanding of human nature is the discovery that forces larger than ourselves determine our mental life and our actions — chief among these forces [is] the power of the social situation.”
The most dramatic instances of directed behavior change and “mind control” are not the consequence of exotic forms of influence such as hypnosis, psychotropic drugs, or “brainwashing.” They are, rather, the systematic manipulation of the most mundane aspects of human nature over time in confining settings. Motives and needs that ordinarily serve us well can lead us astray when they are aroused, amplified, or manipulated by situational forces that we fail to recognize as potent. This is why evil is so pervasive. Its temptation is just a small turn away, a slight detour on the path of life, a blur in our sideview mirror, leading to disaster.
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My next post will summarize ten significant lessons to be learned from the Milgram studies.