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Evil Is as Evil Does: The Zimbardo Fallacy

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In any attempt to define evil we are generally left with two extremes: either to qualify evil through some kind of threshold of human behavior that destructively exceeds acceptable norms of culture or to quantify personal, social, and cultural prejudices as evil in the world.
Evil Is as Evil Does: The Zimbardo Fallacy
Bishop Harber
Angelo State University
Evil Is as Evil Does: The Zimbardo Fallacy
In any attempt to define evil we are generally left with two extremes: either to qualify evil
through some kind of threshold of human behavior that destructively exceeds acceptable norms
of culture or to quantify personal, social, and cultural prejudices as evil in the world.
Yet neither of these approaches appear satisfactory in the results of truly defining the
concept of evil. I would submit at least part of the issue stems from the conflation of religious (or
moral) and metaphysical concepts with psychological concepts. Likewise, the conflation of
human behavior with human cognition dilutes any discussion on the subject. While behavior is
the diagnostic component, and we can only excavate the underlying causes by what we can
observe, it is the root cause that needs to be examined and defined as evil—if we are going to
continue with that word use.
This is not a book review of Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect. Much has been written
concerning the inconsistencies of his own Stanford Prison experiment and additional examples of
dubious accuracy to provide support for his claims. Rather, from here, this is an examination for
any evidence of a cognitive element that would define evil in refutation of Zimbardo’s claims, or
at least evidence of a cognitive determinate to the behavioral elements of his operational
Organization of the Review
This review is organized in such a way as to lead through a brief examination of Philip
Zimbardo’s proposed “Lucifer Effect” and provide an alternative thought as to the nature of evil.
Aside from popularly published works by authorities in the field of psychology and the social
sciences, the literature search was conducted through three databases—Psychology and
Behavioral Sciences Collection, PsycARTICLES, and PsycINFO—with the search parameters
limited to papers that were peer-reviewed, published between 2008 and 2018, and contained
direct discussion or research using the keywords or key phrases “evil,” “psychology of evil,”
“empathy,” and “human nature.”
Zimbardo’s Lucifer Effect
Zimbardo (2007) holds to the claim of evil defined as “intentionally behaving in ways
that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others—or using one’s authority and
systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf.” His operational definition
of evil is broken down into five primary domains: “group conformity and obedience to authority”
and “deindividuation, dehumanization, and bystander apathy” (Zimbardo, 2007).
The Lucifer Effect is built around primarily the idea that power systems are used to
desensitize individuals and groups into working against the best interests of other individuals and
groups. Zimbardo (2007) generalizes that people are inherently ‘good’ but get caught up in
systems of pervasive control that lead them into semantic domination games where the actions
they perform in the name of something good—such as in the case of the Milgram experiment—
end up causing great damage to the subject.
However, Zimbardo (2007) creates a false dichotomy between what he calls a “medical
model of health” and a “public health model” in attempting to offer his perspective. He makes
every attempt to compare evil to “vectors of disease transmission [that] come from the
environment, creating conditions that foster illness.” Aside from the mischaracterization of that
health model, Zimbardo does not particularly offer up any kind of vector transmission of evil. He
uses our innate, situational adaptability as evidence of a systemic level of interference with an
individual to cause a behavior that he then labels ‘evil.’ While Zimbardo (2007) suggests that
atrocities such as the Rwandan genocide and the results of his own flawed Stanford prison
experiment are evidence of this kind of vector disease model, explanations abound already for
how such mentality can spread among a populace.
As an aside, yet important point to understanding Zimbardo’s approach, it must be noted
that he believes in a conflicting notion of both absolute and relative ethics. He believes there is
such an absolute standard that suggests “human life is sacred [therefore] it must not in any way
be demeaned, however unintentionally” (Zimbardo, 2007). This is a beautiful sentiment, to be
sure, but it would invalidate a huge portion of mainstream religion right out the door and that is
partially the foundation on which he stands to make such a claim to absolute ethics.
Throughout The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo makes excellent points regarding obedience,
submission, conformity, power dynamics, and other elements that certainly play into
circumstances where behaviors have reached evil levels. Yet for all of his theory, Zimbardo does
not actually provide any kind of substance to evil itself outside of an observational definition
noted previously. Nearly every aspect of Zimbardo’s evil can be explained away without ever
touching the source of this evil itself.
So what exactly constitutes evil and how do we define it in an operational manner that
has substance and evidence?
Differences of Perspective
Simon Baron-Cohen (2011) declared that evil was “empathy erosion” (p. 6) and a
scientific approach was entirely possible to understand the behavior of individuals in the manner
by which they affected others in such cruel ways. Baron-Cohen (2011) proposes two
perspectives of empathy erosion as degrees of zero degrees of empathy (p. 43), and then
separates them out into Zero-Negative (p. 44) and Zero-Positive (p. 95).
Put into a larger context of consociates, contemporaries, predecessors, and successors
(Sampson, 2014, p. 51), evil makes sense when seen as actions or behaviors that are influenced
solely through the environment of consociates divorced from the reality of contemporaries,
predecessors, and successors (Sampson, 2014, p. 60). While on the surface this would appear to
lend credence to Zimbardo’s (2007) Lucifer Effect, Sampson argues that ‘good’ “require[s] that
people attend to the past and the future” and must not be merely “copying the deeds of others
with whom they were in direct contact“ (Sampson, 2014, p. 60). This latter element he reserves
for those who are, in fact, performing such evil acts as his examples of the Nazi invasion of Le
Chambon during World War II (Sampson, 2014, p. 59). For Sampson (2014), the response to
evil, the opposite of evil, is an inner, moral grounding that includes, among others, those “who
share the person’s time in history, including a generation, a cohort, and members of their culture,
all of whom help shape the person’s choices and actions” (p. 58). I point this out simply to show
that evil is the rejection of the moral connection to the past and the future while being blinded
solely to the behavioral imperatives of the present.
Both Stein (2000) and Baron-Cohen (2011) point out there is no accepted diagnostic
reference for ‘evil’ in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Though Stein
(2000) references Antisocial Personality Disorder (p. 304) and Baron-Cohen (2011) breaks down
his references into “borderlines” (p. 45) or Borderline Personal Disorder, “psychopaths” (p.
64)—though he does later return and admit “to give him a proper diagnostic label … he has
antisocial personality disorder” (p. 67)—and “narcissists” (p. 88) or, more formally, Narcissistic
Personality Disorder.
Stein (2000), however, goes one step further in terms of approach. He examines the
neurobiological aspects of aggressive and sadistic behavior. He suggests
… numerous and varied factors (psychological, social, etc.) are involved in the
perpetration of evil. Nevertheless, there is no a priori reason not to study the biological.
Clearly, psychosocial phenomena impact on biological ones; for example, we noted the
finding that patients with childhood abuse demonstrate later hippocampal pathology.
Conversely, psychosocial phenomena are underpinned by (or emerge from) biology; for
example, in obsessive-compulsive disorder, both medication and psychotherapy resulted
in normalization of dysfunctional cortico-striatal circuits. (Stein, 2000, p. 311 emphasis
Stein (2000) provides several different areas of study for the underlying neurological
basis for evil including the “involvement of frontal lobe dysfunction in violent behavior” (p.
307), “serotonergic neurones play a role in behavioural inhibition(p. 307), and elements that
disinhibit “cortico-striatal circuits(p. 308).
One of the more interesting, though weakest arguments for an internal source of evil, is
found in defining evil “as shadow projection. That is, [the projection of] the undesirable contents
of our shadows (e.g., darkness, nefariousness, selfishness, meanness, evil) onto other people and
thus see those people as having those negative characteristics” (Powers, 1998, p. 63 emphasis in
original). Again, this provide some support from Zimbardo’s (2007) theory in relation to the
dehumanization of the Other, but for Powers (1998) this really is a projection of the inner
qualities rather than a systemic power play.
Kjeldgaard-Christiansen tells us, much like Stein and also agreeing with Baron-Cohen,
that “as neurobiologists recognize, there are always reasons for our [bad] behaviors once you
understand their bases in the brain’s functional circuitry. It is just that some of these reasons may
not appear to the offended party. This leaves the victim with an explanatory gap to fill, and the
internal, ‘essential’ attribution of an evil impetus is the default answer” (p. 114). He also concurs
with Baron-Cohen’s assessment of the vMPFC [ventromedial prefontal cortex] (Baron-Cohen,
2011, pp. 29-30) as one of the biological roots “in a compromised inhibitory ‘empathy circuit’”
(Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, 2016, p. 114).
Zimbardo’s conception of evil as systemic and situational is countered with the
conception of evil not as some nebulous and metaphysical force concentrated by circumstance
and systems of power, as he would propose, but as a psychological or biological lack for the
individual. Zimbardo (2007) relies heavily on the concepts of environmental elements that
overpower an individual to create a type of “proper conditions” for evil. While there is no
disagreement that evil, however we wish to define that term, stems from the observation of
behaviors, and we could consider such environmental and systemic elements to be the incubator
and exasperator for such behaviors, Zimbardo dismisses any kind of dispositional or biological
deficiency in the individual as the source underlying such behavior.
What Zimbardo calls the systemic elements of evil are complicated replicas of
pathological social dynamics: groupthink, social identity, ingroup and outgroup relations, and
security/belonging issues. All these seem standard for any kind of examination into group
dynamics and why people do what they do in pathological situations.
Going further, though, Zimbardo does not actually address any of the natural processes
that occur individually that could lead to the behaviors he shows as evil. Kjeldgaard-Christiansen
(2016) talks about the disgust factor when he writes, “Disgust’s principal mechanism of action
[…] leads to dehumanization. When an agent is disgusting, human affective adaptations for
pathogen avoidance kick in and loosen the moral tug of that agent(p. 115). He continues,
suggesting this works in such a manner “because part of [disgust’s] neuroanatomical locus, in
particular the anterior insula, has been pressed into the service of our moral grammar”
(Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, 2016, p. 115). Yet again we see this moral dimension connected to a
biological mechanism within the brain itself.
Yet this falls in line with additional definitions of evil. One definition of evil from Zelda
Knight concludes that evil is “destructive aggression that emerges as violence against another”
(2007, p. 21). She concludes that “aggression is both innate (intrapsychic) and reactive within an
interpersonal context(Knight, 2007, p. 22). While Knight makes some contradictory statements
as to the intrinsic nature of aggression in relation to the environmental triggers of aggression, she
suggests this innate aggression is released through environmental threats to “a fragile and
pathological sense of self(Knight, 2007, p. 22). This makes sense, then, in light of Zimbardo’s
systemic influences to see that there are environmental factors at work, something already
conceded, but that they are the release mechanisms for that which is already inherent to the
individual. Zimbardo just never goes far enough or dismisses the rest of the equation that Knight
seems to understand clearly here.
Evil is not a simple topic to narrow down into an operational definition. There does
appear to be a common theme, however, that runs through all defintions that can be utiltized to
be a far more holistic image of evil as something tangible at both the individual and universal
level of perception.
Evil appears to be an individual condition in which there is a psychological disfunction of
natural impulses (e.g., anger, aggression, fear, etc) and a compromised biological component
(specifically the ventromedial prefontal cortex and connecting sympathetic systems) leading to a
functional inhibition of empathy and a separation of moral understanding within a temporal
framework. This inhibited empathy, or what Simon Baron-Cohen (2011) calls “empathy erosion”
(p. 6) and lack of moral connection to the past or future, exacerbated by an environment of
Zimbardo’s explanation in The Lucifer Effect, would indeed be a force with which to be
Baron-Cohen, S. (2011). The science of evil: On empathy and the origins of cruelty. New York,
NY: Basic Books.
Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, J. (2016). Evil origins: A darwinian genealogy of the popcultral villain.
Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 10(2), 109-122.
Knight, Z. G. (2007, March). Sexually motivated serial killers and the psychology of aggression
and ‘‘evil’’ within a contemporary psychoanalytical perspective. Journal of Sexual
Aggresion, 13(1), 21-35.
Powers, R. (1998). Psychology, pedagogy, and creative expression in a course on evil. Creativity
Research Journal, 11(1), 61-68.
Sampson, E. E. (2014). Dialogic partners and the shaping of social reality: Implications for good
and evil in Milgram’s studies of obedience. Pastoral Psychology, 64(1), 51-61.
Stein, D. J. (2000). The neurobiology of evil: Psychiatric perspectives on perpetrators. Ethnicity
& Health, 5(3/4), 303-315.
Zimbardo, P. (2007). The lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn bad [iBooks
Version]. New York, NY: Random House.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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The science of evil: On empathy and the origins of cruelty
  • S Baron-Cohen
Baron-Cohen, S. (2011). The science of evil: On empathy and the origins of cruelty. New York, NY: Basic Books.
The lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn bad [iBooks Version
  • P Zimbardo
Zimbardo, P. (2007). The lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn bad [iBooks Version]. New York, NY: Random House.