Smoke & Mirrors



Bryan Farha Published: October 27, 2012



 Invited Post by Dennis Jowaisas, Ph.D.

[Dr. Jowaisas is Professor of Psychology at Oklahoma City University]

      One way to solve this problem is to decide that evil behavior results from possession of a person by evil “spirits”, whatever that may mean in a particular culture’s belief system. Another way is to decide that the people who behave in an evil way, always culturally contextualized, are evil, or bad, in and of themselves. “They should know better.” Therefore, they are responsible. But even the possession theory of evil may hold the person responsible: the possession results from some moral flaw or overt or covert misbehavior. Holding the person responsible makes it easy to deal with them: we punish evil. Exactly how we punish depends upon the culture.

     At the outset I want to acknowledge that modern psychology and neuroscience have shown that some folks are possessed! They possess a nervous system that is dramatically different in function than the nervous system of the average citizen. Some persons with a history of violence and difficulty in complying with basic social and legal rules have damage to parts of the brain that govern or influence exactly those kinds of behavior. We know enough about brain behavior interactions to be sure about this. Brain disorders that involve the limbic system, one of the primary systems regulating emotion and memory, reliably result in poorly regulated social behavior and violent behavior. This is particularly true of damage to the septal, hippocampal, and amygdala areas of the limbic system. Damage to or malfunctioning of prefrontal areas of the cortex, areas that exert executive control over emotional expression and decision-making, result in persons who make consistently poor judgments about how to behave in various situations. They also exhibit hasty or impulsive decisions that seem to ignore obvious outcomes or consequences. The orbitofrontal cortex seems particularly important in this behavior. All of these limbic and prefrontal brain parts are interconnected and emotional expression requires an intact and “normally” active brain system.

      Some studies show that persons diagnosed as having antisocial personality disorder (APD) because of their cruel conduct and/or criminal behavior have relatively unresponsive limbic systems and orbitofrontal cortex. Consequently they are less “fearful” of social consequences for aberrant behavior. In essence, they are difficult to “socialize” through the typical mechanisms of punishment, guilt and shame. To influence behavior in these ways requires a conventionally reactive limbic, hypothalamic and prefrontal cortex arousal system.

     In the previous syndrome of APD we see evidence of the “bad chemicals” that bedeviled Dwayne  Hoover, Vonnegut’s protagonist in “Breakfast of Champions”. The brain depends on a very delicate balance of a dozen or more neurotransmitter chemicals for proper functioning. We know now that most of the so-called psychoses of 40 years ago are disorders of neurotransmitter balance and the prevalent treatments are drugs that selectively increase or decrease the concentrations of these chemicals in the various  subsystems of the brain.

     So, in this limited, biological sense we could say that evil resides within the person. But I don’t think that is what most folks mean when they claim the inner person as the source of evil. I believe those same folks will not be comfortable with the next consideration: evil lies outside the person, not in the form of some malevolent devilish source, but in the environment’s impact upon the person.  In psychology we traditionally label this a behaviorist thesis but over the last three decades many social psychologists have focused on societal and cultural variables in order to understand why we act as we do.

     Our first hint that the environment can have such powerful effects on our behavior comes from some old studies of honesty. Basically what we found was that most students will not cheat on an task unless the outcome is important and the chances of being caught are slim. When those two variables were manipulated so that the outcome really mattered and there was little chance of being discovered cheating, almost everyone cheated. OK, you say, but that is just that psychology research in an artificial setting, not the “real” world. And you would have a point, except ….

     There are lots of other studies that show how easily people are influenced by circumstances. Two classic examples are the Solomon Ash line judgment studies and the Stanley Milgram obedience investigations. You may know about them and the details are readily available online and in introductory psychology texts. Here are the brief summaries. Ash showed that one third of all students would conform to erroneous judgments of the length of a line, even when the comparison line was twice as long as the target line. All it took was three students, in cahoots with the investigator, to make these wild judgments prior to the uninformed true participant. Now, seriously, how do we account for these results except by social influence, i.e., conformity. There is no way the target person could misperceive the length. In fact, some students claimed the lines “really were the same length” instead of accepting the explanation that they were conforming. How powerful is pressure to conform, eh? Remember, a third of students were so easily influenced they defied the evidence of their eyes, though not all rejected the conformity explanation when debriefed. Ashe also showed the conditions under which participants would resist conformity. Social situations dramatically affect our most basic judgments.

     OK, I agree that the situation was rather artificial and the judgment wasn’t that important. But how about this study.  A group of college students were asked to help train another group of students from a nearby college by collectively shocking them when they made mistakes on a task that was administered via computer. Of course, no actual shocks are delivered. In fact, there were no other actual students, it was all computer simulated, a sham controlled by the investigator. There are three experimental conditions for the trainers, all consisting of a comment about the arriving students they “overhear”.

Neutral: “The subjects from the other school are here”.
Humanized: “The subjects from the other school are here; they seem nice”.
Dehumanized: “The subjects from the other school are here; they seem like ‘animals’”.

      As you probably anticipated by now, the most “shocks” in the subsequent “training” were delivered by the group hearing the dehumanizing statement, and the least by the humanized statement group. Remember, the students were randomly to groups so the only differences were the single, simple comment they overheard.

     So, is evil situational? Are good people made to do bad things by circumstances? Does the social environment really control so much of our behavior? Perhaps the most active and, consequently, the most famous recent psychologist to actively promote this view is Phillip Zimbardo. His thesis is that most folks are at least morally average, generally doing the right thing most of the time.  However, Zimbardo claims, decades of research shows that our behavior is very malleable.  His argument is readily available in two places. The first is available at, an article based on Zimbardo’s address to the national psychology honor society and originally titled “The Psychology of Evil: Seducing Good People Into Evil Deeds”.

     The second source is his TED presentation, where his thesis is that the abuse by American soldiers at Abu Grabe was not the result of a few “bad apples” but caused by the “bad barrel”, the social environment arranged by the military command and CIA. ( )

     In his TED talk, Zimbardo summarizes the evidence of classic experiments like Ashe, his own Stanford Prison study, and Stanley Milgram’s obedience to authority. I leave it to you to investigate this argument now that I have introduced you to the dilemma of the source of evil.

Selective Bibliography and Videos

Bandura, A., Underwood, B., & Fromson, M. E. (1975). Disinhibition of aggression through diffusion of responsibility and dehumanization of victims. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 253-269.

Zimbardo, P. The psychology of evil. Eye on Psi Chi, Vol. 5, #1  
Editors Note: Major source for this presentation

Zimbardo, P. G. (1970). The human choice: Individuation, reason, and order versus deindividuation, impulse, and chaos. In W. J. Arnold & D. Levine (Eds.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation: Vol. 17 (pp. 237-307). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press      

                One result of Zimbardo’s commitment to “doing good”: a positive psychology model of  shyness.           

               Zimbardo’s website    

               details of the Prison exp. in slides       

               Zibardo’s tour of the former “prison”

               Ashe’s experiment on conformity

               NYT Science interview with Zimbardo

               Zimbardo and Abu Grav

               Podcast Part 2 of interview with PZ from Cardiff University

               Podcast about Milgram Experiments on Obedience

               Training soldiers to kill, but can they cope?

[Dennis Jowaisas is Professor of Psychology at Oklahoma City University]

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