The Situationist

Situational Sources of Evil – Part III

Posted by Philip Zimbardo on March 3, 2007

// is the third 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. The second post summarized some of the real-world parallels to Milgram’s findings. This post describes ten lessons from the Milgram studies.

* * *

Milgram crafted his research paradigm to find out what strategies can seduce ordinary citizens to engage in apparently harmful behavior. Many of these methods have parallels to compliance strategies used by “influence professionals” in real-world settings, such as salespeople, cult and military recruiters, media advertisers, and others. Below are ten of the most effective.


Prearranging some form of contractual obligation, verbal or written, to control the individual’s behavior in pseudo-legal fashion. In Milgram’s obedience study, subjects publicly agreed to accept the tasks and the procedures.


Giving participants meaningful roles to play — “teacher,” “learner” — that carry with them previously learned positive values and automatically activate response scripts.


Presenting basic rules to be followed that seem to make sense before their actual use but can then be used arbitrarily and impersonally to justify mindless compliance. The authorities will change the rules as necessary but will insist that rules are rules and must be followed (as the researcher in the lab coat did in Milgram’s experiment).


Altering the semantics of the act, the actor, and the action — replacing unpleasant reality with desirable rhetoric, gilding the frame so that the real picture is disguised: from “hurting victims” to “helping the experimenter.” We can see the same semantic framing at work in advertising, where, for example, bad-tasting mouthwash is framed as good for you because it kills germs and tastes like medicine.


Creating opportunities for the diffusion of responsibility or abdication of responsibility for negative outcomes, such that the one who acts won’t be held liable. In Milgram’s experiment, the authority figure, when questioned by a teacher, said he would take responsibility for anything that happened to the learner.


Starting the path toward the ultimate evil act with a small, seemingly insignificant first step, the easy “foot in the door” that swings open subsequent greater compliance pressures. In the obedience study, the initial shock was only a mild 15 volts. This is also the operative principle in turning good kids into drug addicts with that first little hit or sniff.


Having successively increasing steps on the pathway that are gradual, so that they are hardly noticeably different from one’s most recent prior action. “Just a little bit more.”


Gradually changing the nature of the authority figure from initially “just” and reasonable to “unjust” and demanding, even irrational. This tactic elicits initial compliance and later confusion, since we expect consistency from authorities and friends. Not acknowledging that this transformation has occurred leads to mindless obedience. And it is part of many date rape scenarios and a reason why abused women stay with their abusing spouses.


Making the exit costs high and making the process of exiting difficult; allowing verbal dissent, which makes people feel better about themselves, while insisting on behavioral compliance.


Offering a “big lie” to justify the use of any means to achieve the seemingly desirable, essential goal. (In Milgram’s research the justification was that science will help people improve their memory by judicious use of reward and punishment.) In social psychology nazi-propaganda.jpgexperiments, this is known as the “cover story”; it is a cover-up for the procedures that follow, which do not make sense on their own. The real-world equivalent is an ideology. Most nations rely on an ideology, typically “threats to national security,” before going to war or suppressing political opposition. When citizens fear that their national security is being threatened, they become willing to surrender their basic freedoms in exchange. Erich Fromm’s classic analysis in Escape from Freedom made us aware of this trade-off, which Hitler and other dictators have long used to gain and maintain power.

Procedures like these are used when those in authority know that few would engage in the endgame without being prepared psychologically to do the unthinkable. But people who understand their own impulses to join with a group and to obey an authority may be able also to withstand those impulses at times when the mandate from outside comes into conflict with their own values and conscience. In the future, when you are in a compromising position where your compliance is at issue, thinking back to these ten stepping-stones to mindless obedience may enable you to step back and not go all the way down the path — their path. A good way to avoid crimes of obedience is to assert one’s personal authority and to always take full responsibility for one’s actions. Resist going on automatic pilot, be mindful of situational demands on you, engage your critical thinking skills, and be ready to admit an error in your initial compliance and to say, “Hell, no, I won’t go your way.”

*****See also Part I and Part II of this Series.*****


11 Responses to “Situational Sources of Evil – Part III”

  1. […] Situational Sources of Evil – Part III […]

  2. […] seems fabulous all around; but note in particular a current series call The Sources of Evil. The third part addresses the famous Milgram Experiments and offers advice for those blinded or controlled by an […]

  3. I really loved the series, but I can’t get to the first post anymore. The prison study was one of the reasons I got into reform work.

  4. […] Philip Zimbardo, en av de ledande forskarna på auktoritet och upphovsmannen till “The Stanford Prison Experiment”, kommer snart ut med en bok på ett liknande tema: The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Han har i en artikel på PsyBlog sammanfattat tio lärdomar från Milgrams forskning. […]

  5. […] situational influences on on empathy or compassion, see “Too Many To Care,” or “Situational Sources of Evil, Part III.”   And, for a sample of posts discussing how situation influences ethics, see […]

  6. Austin said

    When reading Part One I found myself thinking, as a child of torture and abuse, I don’t give a flying flip WHY others torture. I don’t care why a good person goes bad. How could they be good in the first place and then turn around and torture? I read on despite being terribly uncomfortable. I read Part 2 and found myself interested not in WHY the “students” went to the extremes but HOW the teacher got them to go to extremes. This helps me personally in that I can see the same tactics my mother used to control me, my sister and my brother. There isn’t a total correlation because the three of us were the ones being tortured. But I could see some of my mother’s words above. (I hope this comment makes sense.)

    I understand this series was about teaching others to torture and how far the average normal person would go but I could see so many correlations in how I was brought up to think about the world and to be as loyal as one could be. The consequences of disloyalty were severe. My mother was effective with handing out pain. An engineer with a clean upstanding position in the community was able and willing to tear the flesh of her own children. She did it for no other cause than her own. Her actions are different from the subjects here because as you pointed out sadists were weeded out of certain programs because they weren’t able to get the desired results since they loved torture so much. My mother is certainly a sadist.

    Part of the series mentioned that one must know the person he will torture to know what works “best” for the desired result. My mother knew there was one thing that would make me crumble and she’d bring out that tool and I’d do whatever it took to make her not use it. Reading this article I see how she switched up on torture techniques, some for one result and some for another but not enough to kill me. This lets me know just how controlled I was and allows me to feel like less of a little b*tch for crumbling. She knew what to do and how to do it because she knew me and my tolerance for this or that act.

    When I finally separated my personal experience and focused on HOW the instructor was able to manipulate I was able to see the article for what it is. I was able to see that it wasn’t giving an excuse for those who torture but explaining how it is you can get a relatively normal person to go to the extreme. This understanding is hard to come to when you see in your head a past full of painful memories. What I appreciate most is the ending where it says to assert personal authority and know what the steps are others will take for control. Knowledge and self respect will take a person far. Without it we are sitting ducks for hunters.

    I apologize if this was a jumbled comment. It was rather difficult to concentrate. I still hesitate to push the submit comment button but I’m going to in hopes something on this comment actually makes sense.

    Austin of Sundrip

  7. […] Social psychologists have identified many of the conditions that tend to promote this type of wrongful obedience . . . . [For a related list, see Zimbardo’s Situationist post here.] […]

  8. […] Sources of Evil – Part I, Part II, & Part III (by Phil […]

  9. […] சிம்பார்டோ (Philip Zimbardo) என்பவர் எழுதிய வன்செயலுக்கு இடம்தரும் சூழல் என்ற கட்டுரையிலிருந்து […]

  10. […] Parts I, II, and III of his recent posts on the Situational Sources of Evil, Phil Zimbardo makes the case that we too […]

  11. adult match maker…

    […]Situational Sources of Evil – Part III « The Situationist[…]…

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