Illusion Series 4: Illusions of Evil

by Don Berg
(Portland, OR, USA)

In this fourth installment in the illusion series we take a look at our ideas about the most common causes of evil behavior. In this video of a TED Talk by Stanford Professor Emeritus Philip Zimbardo the central question is how it is that regular folks can participate in evil behavior, such as the torture of prisoners at Abu Gharib. Zimbardo has a unique insight into this topic since he was the lead researcher in a famous experiment known the Stanford Prison Experiment in which very normal college students were randomly assigned to be either prisoners or guards for a couple weeks. The unexpected result was that the experiment had to be called off after less than a week because of the atrocious behavior of the "guards".

Zimbardo's presentation reinforces the point made in the previous installment of this series about the role situational factors rather than dispositional factors in our behavior and our inability to recognize the influence of those situational factors.

Dispositionism is the illusion that each person has fixed characteristics that determine how they will behave. The truth is that how a situation is organized or structured can make huge differences in the behavior that occurs.

(Here's a movie that shows how the good/bad aspects of people have both occurred in the Abu Gharib prison camp in a different area than where the infamous tortures occurred. The movie is called The Prisoner: or How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair. It's about an Iraqi journalist who was imprisoned at Abu Gharib in a lower status category and includes the story of a U.S. Soldier who acted with compassion. The movie shows both the evil and the good people are capable of under intense situational pressures. N.Y. Times Review)

Illusion Series:

1: Literal Illusions

2: Illusions of Knowing The World

3: The Illusion of Knowing Our Own Minds

4: Illusions of Evil

5: Illusions of Good

6: Illusions About Our Global Society

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