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Zimbardo & the problem of evil

The question of what is evil and what can be done about it is surely an age-old human concern, represented in various ways within different cultures and religions since the beginning of time. And the Tim Ferriss podcast with Dr Philip Zimbardo brings the issue quite nicely into the present day (link below).

It’s essentially a conversation about how to ‘avoid being evil’ drawing on Dr Zimbardo’s work as a psychologist and involvement in the Stanford Prison Experiment, and outlining some basic principles for strengthening your moral compass and becoming aware of the various social or systemic factors that might bypass that and lead us down paths without our really knowing.

All of which is pretty interesting as that experiment highlights how quickly humans can be broken down by their surroundings and lose their sense of right, wrong, and reality itself. The human mind and the power social environment has over it seem essential to grapple with if we hope to understand and be sure of ourselves.

Because one of the clearest truths about humanity seems to be that we’re capable of great things but also undeniably terrible ones (see Note One). How to be clear on that, to understand the nature of “evil” and be sure we’re walking the right path seems incredibly important and also far from straightforward.

After all, what is evil? Is it always this black and white, crystal clear, labelled thing that we’re sure to notice when we see it? Or is it a nuanced, maybe elusive, contorted sense of imbalance that we might conceivably be drawn into through a series of ideas, assumptions, compromises, and loose interpretations of what’s going on?

While these are issues mainly for psychologists and historians, they arguably concern us all. And many of the recommendations Dr Zimbardo has are both simple and powerful: to be aware of the ‘first steps’ towards evil; the risk of seeing anyone as ‘less than human’; the empowerment of anonymity; the inclination to obedience or conformity; and the importance of our social environment in shaping what we see as acceptable.

Drawing out what that means in terms of society, education, parenting, technology, culture, belief, and personal development is clearly a massive undertaking with far-reaching implications for how we live (Notes Two).

Where does society learn these things? Because if we take “evil” to be a kind of extreme form of ‘normal’ psychology – a putting of self before the interests of others, a disregard for social conventions – then we’re wandering into the territory of morals, right and wrong, the fundamental human condition of self against others, and the very principles that serve to bind us together as human communities.

It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot, and rightly so, but it also seems far from simple to define or avoid. Having said that, finding clarity and certainty in this area seems worthwhile, as not being evil – in the big and the little ways – must be one of the more important things in life.

Notes and References:

‘The Tim Ferriss Show’ podcast on “How to Not Be Evil” https://tim.blog/2017/03/08/how-to-not-be-evil-dr-phil-zimbardo/

Note 1: The human spirit
Note 2: Laws and lawlessness
Note 2: Morality and modern thought
Note 2: Age, politics and human reasoning
Note 2: Does it matter if others suffer?
Note 2: Anger as a voice
Note 2: Need to stand alone & think for ourselves

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