Hero or Villain? The System Makes the Difference!

September 12, 2012 Katharina Lochner

The fine line between good and bad behaviour

The media is full of stories of people who do evil things. There are dictators who make the citizens of their countries suffer. Soldiers torture captives. Gang members beat people up, even kill them. But what does it take to turn a good person into an evil one? According to psychologist Philip Zimbardo from Stanford University not much. In his TED Talk, he says that the line between good and bad is movable.

Philip Zimbardo gives the following definition of “evil”: Evil is the exercise of power to intentionally harm, hurt and / or destroy and commit crimes against humanity. But is being evil dispositional and thus part of an individual’s personality or is it due to situational influences? Professor Zimbardo says it is neither of both. We rather have to take on a systemic perspective and have to look where the power in the system is. It is the power of groups or institutions that influences individual behaviour.

Thus, he defines 7 social processes that grease the slippery slope of evil:

  • Mindlessly taking the first small step
  • Dehumanisation of others
  • De-individuation of self
  • Diffusion of personal responsibility
  • Blind obedience to authority
  • Uncritical conformity to group norms
  • Passive tolerance of evil through inaction or indifference
  • In new or unfamiliar situations

The key message is that our mind has the ability to make us behave kind or cruel, caring or indifferent, creative or destructive, and makes us villains or heroes, always depending on the system we are in. Professor Zimbardo suggests two things: Never give people power without oversight and always picture yourself as a hero in waiting (in order to avoid inaction in the face of something bad happening). Be aware that any of us can be a villain, but there is also the potential for being a hero in all of us.

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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