Vocabulary: Situationist behavioral perspective

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A Situationist Perspective on the Psychology of Evil

Understanding How Good People Are Transformed into Perpetrators
Philip G Zimbardo

Situationist behavioral perspective: Theory which says that a person’s actions are dependent on and influenced by situation, not necessarily inherent traits.
Dispositional behavioral perspective: Theory which says that a person’s actions are dependent on and influenced by inherent personality/biological traits.
Antisocial: pervasive disregard for rights of others. Not “loner,” or “outcast.”
Paradigm: A pattern or model, exemplar.
Evil as defined by Zimbardo: “Intentionally behaving, or causing others to act, in ways that demean dehumanize, harm, destroy, or kill innocent people…excluding accidental or unintended harmful outcomes.” (22)
Introduction. (21)

  • Be clear on definition of antisocial behavior.(21)

  • “Evil” comes from situational (environmental/”nurture”) factors, not dispositional(genetic, “nature”)

  • “The basic paradigm presented in this chapter illustrates the relative ease with which ordinary, ‘good’ men and women can be induced into behaving in “evil” ways by turning on or off one or another social situational variable.” (22)

  • Be clear on Zimbardo’s definition of Evil. (22) (listed above)

Skip “Locating Evil Within Particular People: The Rush to the Dispositional.”
The Transformation of Good People into Agents of Destruction.”(25)

  • Zimbardo’s background/ethos of article:

    • background in experimental social psychology

    • grew up in poverty in Bronx

  • “I believe that dispositional orientations are more likely to correlate with affluence: The rich want to take full credit for their success, whereas the situationists hail more from the lower classes who want to explain the obvious dysfunctional lifestyles of those around them in terms of external circumstances rather than internal failures.” (Zimbardo, 25) Zimbardo argues here that the rich tend to be situationists and the poor tend to be

  • Interesting analogy: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (26)

  • Zimbardo’s intention/mission: “To understand better how virtually anyone could be recruited to engage in evil deeds that deprive other human beings of their dignity, humanity, and life.” (26)

  • “The dispositional analysis has the comforting side effect of enabling those who have not yet done wrong to righteously assert, ‘Not me, I am different from those kinds of people who did that evil deed!’ By positing a ‘me—us—them’ distinction, we live with the illusion that comes from not recognizing the set of situational and structural circumstances that e m powered others—like ourselves—to engage in deeds that they too often thought were alien to their nature. We take false pride in believing that ‘I am not that kind of person.’” (26)

    • Essentially, our pride in the fact that we haven’t done something evil is false and leads to a false dichotomy/dualism (us vs. them)

    • “I argue that the human mind is so marvelous that it can adapt to virtually any known environmental circumstance in order to survive, to create, and to destroy, as necessary. We are not born with tendencies toward good of evil but with mental templates to do either.” (26)

The Milgram Obedience Experiments.” (26)

    • Two thirds of people went all the way (450 volts) in the baseline.

    • 18 experimental variations.

    • Compliance rate of the maximum 450 volts could reach as high as 90% and as low as 10% based on a single variable.

    • Mob mentality: “Obedience is maximized when subjects first observed peers behaving obediently; it was dramatically reduced when peers rebelled” (27)

    • OR when the victim asked to be shocked.

    • Perception of scientists was way off from reality of situation. (they thought fewer than 1% would give the maximum voltage.

    • FAE: Fundamental Attribution Error—overemphasizing internal causes for actions, and downplaying social causes.

    • More information on set up in Zimbardo’s TED talk.

Ten Ingredients in the Situationist’s Recipe for Behavioral Transformations.” (27)

  1. Presenting an acceptable justification, or rationale, such as wanting to help people improve. This justification is known as a “cover story.”

  2. Arranging a contractual obligation, verbal or written, to enact the behavior. In other words, making a contract which requires the action.

  3. Giving participants roles to play (e.g., teacher-student, guard-prisoner) which have ‘scripts’ they are already aware of.

  4. Presenting basic rules which make sense before their application. “All too many participants stopped engaging in such basic, obvious critical thinking endeavors as their confusion and stress mounted.” (28)

  5. Altering the semantics. Instead of hurting victims, the participant is helping learners.

  6. Creating opportunities for diffusion of responsibility for negative outcomes. In other words, making someone else to blame for anything bad that happens.

  7. Starting with something very small and insignificant. In the Milgram experiment, this is starting with only 15 volts.

  8. Increasing the level of aggression gradually. In the Milgram experiment, they increased the voltage by only 30 volts at a time.

  9. Gradually changing the nature of the influence authority from “just” to “unjust,” from reasonable and rational to unreasonable and irrational.

  10. Making the “exit costs” high, and the process of exiting difficult.

Skip “Lord of the Flies and the Psychology of Deindividuation,” “Halloween Disguises and Aggression in Children,” and “Cultural Wisdom of Changing Warriors’ Appearances,” but read them if you are interested! They are good!

Skip “The Theoretical...Disengagement”
Dehumanization in Action: ‘Animals’ by Any Other Name Are College Students.” (31)

  • Experimental background:

    • Four participants were led to believe that they were overhearing the research assistant tell the experimenter about the students.

    • In one of the groups, the participants overheard the assistant say that the students seemed “nice.”

    • In the second group, the participants overheard the assistant describe the students as “animals.”

    • In the third group, the assistant did not label the students.

    • The intensity of the shock reflected the situation. The highest levels of shock was used on those labeled as “animals.”

    • The least intense shock was given to those labeled “nice.”

    • The unlabeled group was in the middle.

    • Look at Zimbardo’s use of the word “intelligent” on page 32. Is this as manipulative as the experiment? Are there unintelligent college students?

    • The participants shocked more aggressively over time. They began to even get pleasure shocking the “animals.”

    • Difference from Milgram experiment: In Milgram experiment, there is a clear authority figure. In this experiment, the opportunity is made available to the participants, but they are not directly, explicitly, instructed to.

Skip “Environmental Anonymity Breeds Vandalism”

The Faces Of The ‘Enemy’: Propaganda Images Condition Us To Kill Abstractions.” (34)

  • This section focuses on the ways in which people are conditioned to hate and kill the enemy.

  • Relates to ALWG? Definitely to our knowledge of the Holocaust.

  • Films Faces of the Enemy and The Art of Enemy Making by Sam Keen, about the use of propaganda to change national perceptions.

  • “The more we see the opposite side as unredeemably evil, the more we do evil in order to combat them.” ( Keen)


  • Keen video


  • Blue eyed children vs. Brown Eyed Children


Ordinary Men Murder Ordinary Men, Women, and Children: Jewish Enemies.”(34)

  • “In March 1942, about 80% of all victims of the Holocaust were still alive.”

  • “11 months later, about 80% were dead.”

  • The soldiers recruited to carry out the “Final Solution” were different from the required soldiers at the front.

  • “Reserve Battalion 101 was a unit of about 500 men from Hamburg Germany.”

  • They were too old to be drafted, and were from working and lower middle-class families.

  • Reserve Battalion 101 had no military or police experience.

  • “In just 4 months they had shot to death at point blank range at least 38,000 Jews, and had deported another 45,000 to the concentration camp.” (35)

  • They were given the opportunity to refuse to kill if they wanted.

  • “At first about half the men refused…but over time, social modeling processes [and] guilt-induced persuasion” led to the success rate moving to 90%.

  • Noted that these men were “ordinary…until they were put into a situation in which they had ‘official’ permission, even encouragement, to act sadistically and brutishly against those arbitrarily labeled as ‘the enemy’” (35)

Skip “The War on Iraq: A Spurious Creation of Evil Terrorists and Infusion of National Fears.”

The Socialization of Evil: How the ‘Nazi Hate Primers’ Prepared and Conditioned the Minds of German Youth to Hate Jews.”(37)

  • “Education/socialization enacted within school programs and supported by parents and teachers” can lead ‘good’ people to do ‘evil.

  • “German children in the 1930s and 1940s were systematically indoctrinated to hate Jews, to view them as the all-purpose enemy of the new (post-World War I) German nation. “ (37)

  • “Knowledge is ruin to my young men.” Hitler (Zimbardo, 37)

  • “This institutionalized evil was spread pervasively and insidiously through a perverted educational system that turned away from the types of critical thinking exercises that open students’ minds to new ideas and toward thinking uncritically and close-mindedly about those targeted as the enemy of the people.” (38)


  • Blue eyed vs Brown eyed

  • http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/divided/etc/view.html

The Stanford Prison Experiment: A Crucible of Human Nature Where Good Boys Encountered an Evil Place.” (38)

  • 1971- intended to be a two week period

  • Roles assigned- prisoner or guard

  • Prisoners lived in a simulated prison setting day and night.

  • Guards worked for 8-hour shifts

  • Participants had to be physically healthy and have no history of violence, crime, or drug use.

  • Participants had no prior knowledge on norms for roles.

  • Dichotomous relationships: power—powerlessness, dominance—submission, freedom—servitude, control—rebellion, identity—anonymity, coersive rules—restrictive roles.

  • Uniforms, set construction, and props helped codify previous belief system.

  • No windows, no clocks, no names…(numbers)

  • Equal background checks for prisoners and guards.

  • Terminated after 6 days

  • “Pacifistic young men were behaving sadistically in their role as guards, inflicting humiliation and pain and suffering on other young men who had the inferior status of prisoner. Some ‘guards’ evn reported enjoying doing so. Many of the intelligent, healthy college students who were occupying the role of prisoner showed signs of ‘emotional breakdown’ so extreme that five of them had to be removed from the experiment within the first week.” (40)

  • Zimbardo also felt his roles change throughout the process


  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=760lwYmpXbc

  • www.prisonexp.org

Skip “The Failure of the Social Experiment of the U.S. Correctional System.”

The Evil of Inaction.” (42)

  • Nonaction can be a form of evil, when assistance, dissent, and disobedience are needed.

  • Kitty Genovese case: 39 people heard murdered did nothing to help.

  • “People are less likely to help when they are in a group, when they perceive that others are available who could help, than when those people are alone. The presence of others diffuses the sense of personal responsibility of any individual” (Zimbardo, 42)

  • 90% of people in a hurry are unlikely to help you if you are in distress…EVEN WHEN THE PEOPLE WHO WOULD HELP ARE GOING TO DELIVER A TALK ON HELPING PEOPLE!!!!

Skip “The Worst of the apples in the evil barrel: Torturers and Executioners?” and “Suicide Bombers: Senseless Fanatics or Martyrs for a Cause?”

Conclusions.” (46)

  • Situations exert more influence than most people—civilians and professionals—give them credit for.

  • However, most contemporary Anglo-American psychology is based on more dispositional factors.

  • Metaphor: “While a few bad apples might spoil the barrel (filled with good fruit/people), a barrel filled with vinegar will always transform sweet cucumbers into sour pickles—regardless of the best intentions, resilience, and genetic nature of those cucumbers.” (47)

  • Don’t immediately embracing the high moral ground that distances us good folks from those bad ones.

  • Instead, understand that any deed, for good or evil, that any human being has ever performed or committed, you and I could also perform or commit—given the same situational forces.” (Zimbardo, 48)

All supplemental materials, both listed above and not:

  • The Art of Enemy Making” by Keen http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bryXdyv8lOA


  • Zimbardo Prison Experiment


  • Stanford Prison Experiment Official Site


  • Zimbardo Ted Talk


  • Bullying Bystander Experiment


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