Is Evil Not So Banal After All?

The Psychologist, the flagship journal of the British Psychological Society, has published an article by S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher that challenges what the authors call the “clear consensus amongst social psychologists, historians and philosophers that everyone succumbs to the power of the group and hence no one can resist evil once in its midst.”

Relying on a number of recent and soon-to-be-published studies, and re-analyses of old studies, they reject Hannah Arendt’s famous conclusion that Adolf Eichman and others like him are not immoral “monsters” who can be easily distinguished from the “normal” people but, rather, are entirely ordinary individuals caught up social currents beyond their ability to control or disengage themselves from. Arendt’s conclusion was instrumental in the famous experiments of Asch, Milgram, and Zimbardo, [SEE CORRECTION BELOW] which apparently confirmed the idea that ordinary people could do extraordinarily bad things when placed in the right (or wrong) social situations. Instead, the authors argue, “both studies [Milgram and Zimbardo] (and also the historical evidence) suggest that brutality occurs when people identify strongly with groups that have a brutal ideology. This leads them to advance that ideology knowingly, creatively and even proudly.”

Although the article points to a number of interesting subtle aspects of the problem, my own view is that it misfires by attacking a straw man. I don’t know that anyone significant in this debate has ever concluded as broadly as the authors claim that “no one can resist evil once in its midst.” The issue is, instead, that ordinary people can sometimes be influenced to do nasty and violent things they would not otherwise do when placed in certain kinds of social situations. The issue is not that everyone will always do such things, but that many people will do them much more willingly than we were inclined to believe before this line of research was first conducted. That it might be easier to persuade people to do such things when they are already in agreement with the stated goals of the action (as it turned out that Eichmann, for one, was) comes as little surprise. That many people who have no set opinion on the goal in question, or even a vague disinclination toward it (as Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s subjects almost certainly did), will do outrageous things when respected or feared authorities tell them to continues to be a matter of extreme interest (and worry).

Although the article rehearses a number of long-standing criticisms of the Milgram experiment, it surprisingly fails to mention the replication that was conducted on ABC’s show Primetime last year (6-min summary, full 27-min episode embedded in a post at “The Situationist”). Little, it appears, has changed in the intervening 40+ years, and if there is, as the authors of this article contend, some important psychological difference between those who will and will not shock another person to near-death for the sake of a simple learning experiment, the proportion of people willing to do so is so large that it remains an extremely widespread phenomenon.

Tip o’ the hat to Mind Hacks, which alerted me to this article.

CORRECTION (12 Jan 08): Mike Palij of NYU has pointed out to me that Asch’s work on conformity (1953) was published a decade before Arendt’s study of Eichmann (1963) and so the latter could not have been “instrumental” to the former. Arednt’s book also came out only after Milgram’s initial studies were conducted, but almost simultaneously with Eichmann’s trial in mid-1961. So, contrary to the common claim which I repeated, it was Eichmann’s trial itself, rather than Arendt’s writings on it, that helped to impel Milgram to study obedience to authority.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.