Thursday, February 28, 2008

TED... "Will Evil Prevail?"

Professor Phillip Zimbardo comes up to the stage. He's a social psychologist from Stanford and wrote the book, The Lucifer Effect.

He's best known for conducting the Stanford prison experiment in 1971 where a mock prison experiment went astray. The student participants played the roles of guards and prisoners. The guards rapidly succumbed to their power and abused the prisoners.

Zimbardo asks, "What makes people go wrong?"

Evil is the "exercise of power to intentionally harm people psychologically, destroy them physically and commit crimes against humanity." I'm wondering if this is all that evil is?

He continues on to discuss the abuses at Abu Ghraib abuses. Zimbardo's hypothesis is that the soldiers were good but the barrel was bad. He says not who but what is responsible for these horrific prison abuses.

How do psychologists understand such transformations of Human character?

Dispositional: inside of individuals: The Bad Apples
Situational: External: The Bad Barrel
Systemic: Bad System

Zimbardo is now discussing Stanley Milgram's famous experiment at Yale. He explored these questions and others:

Could the holocaust occur again in America?
Would you electrocute a stranger if Hitler asked you to?

Milgram asked a group of 40 psychologists what percentage of these people would go to the end of the power dial where they would knowingly kill someone? 1% said most of the 40 psychologists.

What actually happened was that 2/3 of the people went all the way to 450 volts. He continued this experiment and the percentages increased. He had the fake people rebel and 90% went all the way.

Jim Jones is a modern "Lucifer Effect"... "Understanding is not excusing"

His positive takeaways... Heroism is the Antidote to Evil. Promote heroic stories and role models.

Great session.

I probably have differences with Professor Zimbardo, especially on the definition of evil. Evil is not the just extreme actions and horrific crimes against humanity. Evil can be the subtle actions between people. Is lying to your mother evil? Is cheating on an exam evil? Is greed or obsession with money evil? When a person fully capable of taking care of their sick, faultless father and ignores his suffering is it evil? If a person sleeps with his brother's wife, is this evil? I would say "yes" to all of these, but I don't believe this falls into Zimbardo's definition of evil.

I like the dictionary definition better:

a: morally reprehensible : sinful, wicked b: arising from actual or imputed bad character or conduct

Professor Zimbardo referred to Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There is a great scene in the book where Dr. Jekyll is sitting on a park bench without the potion and he begins to look down upon others who where doing charity work like him but he questions their character and intent. Through his vanity and judgmental heart he transforms into Mr. Hyde for the first time without the potion. So it's not only the murders and rapes that define evil, but the subtle actions of the heart and mind. Especially since these lead to the greater evils of humanity that were the primary focus in Zimbardo's presentation.

In a similar story in the Bible, "The Rich and Lazarus" (Luke 16:19-31), the rich man didn't get into heaven not because he was rich, but because it consumed him. It was his motivation for being and source of his pride to the point that he despised those without wealth. He despised and looked down upon the poor.


Other summaries...
"TED2008: Lucifer or hero?" Ethan Zuckerman's blog

"TED2008: Will Evil Prevail?" TEDBlog


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