Can a truly good person turn evil?



“The line between good and evil lies at the centre of every human heart.”

The core claim is that if you put good people in a bad situation, bad things will happen.

It is the power of social situation rather than dispositions of people, that leads to evil behaviour.

Normal, healthy people, start to behave according to the social roles assigned to them

Although many people do underestimate the power of situations in driving behaviour, more recent evidence shows that individual differences matter far more than we thought.

Professor Philip Zimbardo set out to discover how people behave if they were put into position of authority with unimpeded power.

His Stanford prison experiment revealed how social roles can influence our behaviour.


“ Our study.. reveals the power of social forces to make good men engage in evil deeds.”

The experiment was conducted in 1972. It was  a landmark psychological study of the human response to captivity, in particular, to the real-world circumstances of prison life. Zimbardo randomly assigned participants to play the roles of prisoners and prison guards.

Participants were not the psychologically unstable people, but ordinary college students, who displayed no signs of emotional disturbance or psychopathology.

One Sunday morning the prisoners were arrested at their homes. They were booked at a real police station and then transferred to the psychology department of Stanford University, which had been converted into a mock prison. The prisoners were, stripped, searched, deloused and forced to wear prison garments, they were addressed only by their given numbers, each had a chain around one ankle, to serve as reminder of their lack of freedom

Those assigned to play the role of guards were given sticks and sunglasses (to make eye contact impossible), carried keys, whistles, handcuffs. They were on duty 24 hours and were given complete control over the prisoners, with permission to employ whatever tactics they saw fit to maintain order.

To the researchers’ amazement, the environment quickly became so threatening to participants that the study had to be ended after only six days (of a planned two weeks). Every guard became abusive and authoritarian; prisoners were denied food, hooded, chained and made to clean toilet bowls with their hands. With increased boredom, they used the prisoners as the playthings in their degrading games. After just 36 hours, one prisoner had to be released because of uncontrolled crying and severe depression. When other prisoners showed similar symptoms, Zimbardo realized the situation had become dangerous and ended the experiment

Professor Zimbardo admits that he was not simply an observer in the experiment but an active participant and in some cases, he was clearly influencing the path of the experiment. He justifies this by asserting that prison is a confusing and dehumanizing experience and it was necessary to endorse these procedures to put the “prisoners” in the proper frame of mind.

Although the experiment was aimed at studying captivity, its result has been used to manifest the manipulability and obedience of people when provided with a legitimizing ideology and social and institutional support. It is also used to illustrate the power of seniority/authority.

In the prison demonstration, Zimbardo claimed that ordinary people underwent a transformation.

The implications are vast, as Zimbardo explains:

“Any deed that any human being has ever done, however horrible, is possible for any of us to do – under the right or wrong situational pressures.”


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