Monday, March 14, 2011

The hero in your mind

More than two years ago I wrote a blog titled “The devil in your mind”. I explained there that Hannah Arendt attributed the evil done by people like Eichmann to their thoughtlessness and not to a diabolic attitude within them. This is in keeping with studies by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo insofar as they have shown that in most cases behaviour that causes harm to other people (which can go as far as torture) is not the consequence of a certain evil trait in the perpetrator but that basically everybody is able to do it. Most people are simply lucky that the devil doesn’t come out. But what is it then that makes that the devil comes out?
Some fifty years ago Zimbardo organized a prison experiment for which he selected about twenty test subjects. All of them had the same background characteristics. Zimbardo assigned them at random to two groups, one group being the prisoners, the other group being the prison warders. Although there was no initial fundamental difference between the test subjects in both groups, after one-two days both the prisoners and the prison warders acted very differently in a way that went beyond their particular roles. After already such a short time the warders begun to torture the prisoners, psychologically as well as physically (within limits, for outright physical violence was not allowed). For this reason Zimbardo had to break off the experiment after six days, although it had been planned to last two weeks. Since the differences between the test subjects were negligible and since all of them were psychologically healthy, Zimbardo concluded after a thorough analysis that it are not psychological dispositions that make people behave in an evil way but that it is the situation that brings people that far. Only very few people are able to resist the pressure of the situation that “leads” them into a certain direction and also only very few display evil behaviour because of a disposition.
However, Zimbardo’s conclusion has two sides, for it is not only true for the evil we do. In the same degree it is true for the good we do as well. Most people do good because, by way of speaking, the situation they happen to be in “forces” them to do so. There is not only a “banality of evil” (Arendt) but also a “banality of heroism” (Zimbardo). People are not inherently, genetically, bad or good (with the exception of the few who are apparently mental ill). Most people can do well and can do bad, and what they’ll do depends on the situation they are in and on the pressure exerted there on them that makes that they cannot stay passive but have to act (here I have paraphrased Zimbardo; see his The Lucifer Effect ch. 16). Admittedly, it is not only the circumstances that make who you are and what you do. Zimbardo doesn’t say that, but at least they have an important influence on how you think and act. They can make you both a devil and a hero. And isn’t it this what we see now in the Middle East where so many people have behaved and behave like heroes despite themselves? Who of them would have thought before that s/he had a hero in the mind?

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