Evil is more than words. Evil is human actions against others; it is ugly and has horrific consequences for humanity. The photographic images taken by US military police playing the role of prison guards in Abu Ghraib prison, some of which had remained unseen until I showed them yesterday during a lecture at a Californian media conference, are a case study of evil in action. They are vivid examples of digitally documented depravity and dehumanisation. Of the thousands of images from the cameras of these army reserve soldiers, which I had reviewed as part of my task as an expert witness for one of the accused guards, I arranged several dozen in a dramatic sequence adding sound and movement to maximise the emotional impact on the audience.
Over the last three decades, my research and that of my colleagues has demonstrated the relative ease with which ordinary people can be led to behave in ways that qualify as evil. We have put research participants in experiments where powerful situational forces - anonymity, group pressures or diffusion of personal responsibility - led them blindly to obey authority and to aggress against innocent others after dehumanising them.
My recent book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, describes the radical transformations that took place among college students playing randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison created at Stanford University. In 1971, I wanted to understand better what happens when you put good people in a bad place, like prison. To do so, it was necessary to conduct a controlled experiment, to select a group of volunteers who were ordinary young men with no history of crime or violence, and then assign them to play the roles of prisoner or guard in a two-week experiment in which we could observe and record everything that happened.
Those assigned to be prisoners lived in their cells and on the prison yard all the time; the guards worked eight-hour shifts. The experiment had to be terminated after only six days because nearly half the prisoners had emotional breakdowns in response to the extreme stress and psychological torments sadistically invented by their guards. The situational forces had overwhelmed many of these good, intelligent college students.
Fast forward next to April 2004. Horror images flash across our screens of humiliating abuses of Iraqi prisoners by young American soldiers, men and women, in Abu Ghraib prison. The military commanders condemn these criminal actions of a "few bad apples", asserting that such abuses are not systematic in our military prisons. The images were shocking to me, and to others when I showed them in my slide show, but they were also familiar because they were so similar to what I had seen in our mock Stanford prison - prisoners naked, bags over their heads, forced into sexually humiliating poses. To what extent was their behaviour shaped by the same social psychological forces that operated in the Stanford experiment, such as dehumanisation? My conclusion, after having become an expert witness for one of those military policemen, and reviewing all the evidence of the many investigations into these abuses, was that the parallels were palpable.
This body of work challenges the traditional focus on the individual's inner nature and personality traits as the primary - and often sole - factors in understanding human failings. Instead, I argue that while most people are good most of the time, they can readily be led to act antisocially because most are rarely solitary figures improvising soliloquies on the empty stage of life. On the contrary, people are often in an ensemble of different players on a stage with various props, scripts and stage directions. Together, they comprise situations that can dramatically influence behaviour.
Most institutions invested in an individualistic focus hold up the person as sinner, culpable, afflicted, insane or irrational. Programmes of change follow a medical model of rehabilitation - therapy, re-education and treatment - or a punitive model of incarceration and execution. But all such programmes are doomed to fail if the main causal agent is the situation or system, not the person.
Two kinds of paradigm shift are required. First, we need to adopt a public health model for prevention of violence, bullying, prejudice and more that identifies vectors of social disease to be inoculated against. Second, legal theory must reconsider the extent to which powerful situational and systemic factors should be taken into account in punishing individuals.
We need not be slaves to situational forces. In research we have conducted, we find that although most conform, yield and succumb to the power of the situation, there are always some who refuse and resist. They do so in part because they are more sensitive to these situational pressures and are able to engage effective mental strategies of resistance against unwanted social forces.
In this sense, my book is a celebration of the human capacity to choose kindness over cruelty, caring over indifference, creativity over destructiveness and heroism over villainy. Considering fundamental strategies of resisting and challenging unwanted social influences, I have introduced the notion of "the banality of heroism". Most heroes are ordinary people who engage in extraordinary moral actions. This idea debunks the myth of the "heroic elect", which reinforces the false notion of ascribing very rare personal characteristics to people who do something special - to see them as superhuman.
I propose a situational perspective for heroism, just as I do for evil: a situation that can inflame the hostile imagination and evil in some of us can inspire the heroic imagination in others. We must teach people to think of themselves as "heroes in waiting", ready to take heroic action in a particular situation that may occur only once in their lifetime.
Seeing yourself as capable of the resolve necessary for heroism may be the first step toward taking a heroic action. Our society needs to consider ways of fostering such heroic imagination, particularly in our young. If we lose the ability to imagine ourselves as heroes, and to understand what true heroism is, our society will be poorer for it. We need to create a connection with the latent hero within us. This vital, internal conduit between the modern, workaday world and the mythic world of superheroes can prepare an ordinary person to become an everyday hero.
Philip Zimbardo, emeritus professor of psychology at Stanford University.