Zimbardo and the bad barrel makers

April 30, 2009

The Phil Zimbardo TED talk video (http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/philip_zimbardo_on_the_psychology_of_evil.html) is an excellent resource for anyone who want to understand the psychology of evil, and see how closely it is related to ordinary behaviour, then be inspired by the wonderful message that ordinary people can be heroes.

It inspired me to read his book “The Lucifer Effect” in which (among many other things) Zimbardo looks at the idea that heroic actions are related to an individual’s disposition — and challenges us to think about this differently. He states that anyone can learn to be ready to do something heroic when the situation arises. And he is concerned about the attribution error…. e.g. when societies “believe that dispositions matter more than situations” (p 212 of The Lucifer Effect). If we attribute heroism or evil to some rare and special disposition, we may think these things are not in our repertoire when really most of us seem to have the potential to be either. There are some pretty big implications for education if you take the viewpoint that we can learn to be prepared to do the right thing, resist evil, etc.

Research (e.g. Zimbardo’s, Milgram’s etc.) has shown the incredible power of situations above and beyond disposition and has also shown that de-individualization (mindlessly becoming a role) can lead to accepting or participating in evil. But it’s not about bad apples (individual disposition), it’s more about bad barrels and bad barrel makers. But because it can be so difficult to identify when you’re in a “bad barrel” and correct the situation, especially when those around you seem to comply, we need to educate people to be aware of moments that conflict with their values and react appropriately. A bit of this conversation has taken place on my Ning site (http://echoesfromthesquare.ning.com) which includes comments by Matt Langdon, whose work with Phil Zimbardo has led to a Hero’s Workshop curriculum. http://heroworkshop.wordpress.com/.  I’d love these conversations to go further with more voices added (here or on the Ning site).

One question that I have to wonder about is what makes the bad barrel makers make bad barrels? Sort of a timeless question…. and, as Jeff Severns Guntzel found out and shares in his analysis of Hitler’s Private Library  http://www.utne.com/GreatWriting/Hitlers-private-library/guntzel.aspx, not an easy question to answer.