Good and Evil [2/2] – Why do good people do bad things?

Photography by Josh Rawlinson:

Whilst the hard sciences may be a long way away from being able to tackle (let alone explain) such hefty concepts as good and evil, psychology has offered some insight into why good people do bad things.

In 1963, the world was still reeling from the seemingly inexplicable acts of the Nazis, and Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram made some attempt to explain what drove normal citizens to contribute to a doctrine focused on discrimination and nationalism.

The study asked average volunteers to electrocute their peers, who remained unseen behind a wall, when they answered a quiz incorrectly – or so they thought. In reality, there was only an actor screaming behind the wall, yet the unsuspecting participants weren’t informed of this. They were told when to electrocute by an ‘authority figure’, which in this scenario was a researcher adorning a lab coat and a stern expression. Milgram claimed his study showed that when pushed to do bad things by someone in charge, the average Joe will cave. His volunteers cranked up the fictional voltage, surprisingly, electrocuting their invisible peers despite their cries of pain.

Since its occurrence, the Milgram experiment has undergone extensive critique with regard to its ethical validity. Some participants of his experiment reported that they were never debriefed, and held the false belief that they had unwittingly killed someone for most of their life. Some felt traumatised by this, although conversely, the debriefed individuals felt they’d learned an important lesson – to question authority at every opportunity.

Another infamous experiment of the same nature was carried out in 1966, in which Hofling et al found that a significant number of nurses would have given an overdose of a fictional drug when instructed by an unknown doctor. Once again, the authority figure was capable of getting an individual to commit a deadly act despite common sense and regulations.

Collectively, these studies demonstrate the power of authority to determine and control our actions, and how this control is greater than one might imagine. The ability of a human being to slip into an assigned role despite any horrors accompanying it is far greater than you’d imagine. Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 deserves a mention here, for showing how easily middle-Americans slipped into the tortured and torturing roles of prisoners and guards. It is here that any discourse on these experiments can become meta-analysis. Have Milgram, Holfing, and Zimbardo themselves done good, or bad things? Milgram and Zimbardo represent landmark studies for the social sciences, although some effects on the individuals were certainly detrimental. If it is considered immoral, then these experimenters did so without the pressing influence of an authority figure – unless the demands of scientific research to improve the human condition can be considered an authoritative influence in itself.

Arguably, the jury is still out on whether it is appropriate to celebrate these studies. Despite this, the social sciences responded to their own findings; ethical controls and panels of experts became stricter and more commonplace. These come from a bygone era of research, our modern world is filled with appropriate organisations, boards, and watchdogs. Yet – both in terms of what they discovered and the very fact they were carried out – they still have extensive lessons to offer any scientific and social practice. Authority is always in need of questioning, and certain recent news headlines show this is needed perhaps now more than ever.

Mentioned today in HEADCANDY:

Stanley Milgram – “Behavioural Study of Obedience”.

Philip Zimbardo – “The Lucifer Effect”.

Hofling et al – “An experimental study in nurse-physician relationships”.



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