Welcome to the home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Variance and general internet tinkerer. Most of my writing these days is happening over at Why is this interesting?, a daily email full of interesting stuff. This site has been around since 2004. Feel free to get in touch. Good places to get started are my Framework of the Day posts or my favorite books and podcasts. Get in touch.

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Hitler and the Capacity for Evil

Over the last few weeks you may have run across the story that Hitler only had one testicle. Anyway, Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil (which I haven’t read), had a really interesting article on Slate which basically suggested that people’s fascination with Hitler’s sexuality is little more than an attempt to explain him as something other than a normal human being who performed unbelievable atrocities.

As Rosenbaum puts it, “Isn’t it obvious by now what this is about? Our need to prove that Hitler was not ‘normal,’ thus not like us, normal human nature thereby exculpated from producing a Hitler. It fills a need to reassure ourselves there is no Hitler potential in human potential. We’re off the hook.”

Anyway, I got to thinking about Hitler and the capacity for evil in people. As The Stanford Prison Experiment showed, even regular folks can turn to the dark side quite quickly. Of course whenever we talk about someone who’s done terrible things, we talk about their past and the thing that “screwed them up.” But who’s to say that’s what turned them? As I wrote in a post on predictions that “A clue is only a clue if it helps solve a mystery, afterwards it becomes explanation, equally important (for our psyche) but a very different beast.”

Who is to say that we don’t post-rationalize these people’s past as the reason they did what they did in order to satiate our own need for them to be “different”? I actually just got finished watching Phillip Zimbardo’s TED talk on what he calls The Lucifer Effect (which is essentially how good people go bad). Zimbardo is most famous for The Stanford Prison Experiment which took regular college kids and split them into prisoners and guards, turning the basement of the psychology building into a makeshift prison. What happened over the next few days was horrifying as these kids who had been chosen for their stability began to abuse the “prisoners”. The two-week experiment was stopped after 6 days because of how crazy things had gotten. (The whole documentary is up on Google video, though I haven’t watched it yet.)

Anyway, Zimbardo makes a bunch of interesting points in his talk which revolves around both the experiment and what went on at Abu Ghraib. He begins by explaining what drove him into his area of study, “That line between good and evil, which privileged people like to think is fixed and impermeable, with them on the good side and the others on the bad side, I knew that line was movable and it was permeable.” That, ultimately is the point (and his big one). People aren’t evil or good, they’re put in situations and they act and eventually their behavior is judged as one or the other.

Zimbardo sums up the point with this excellent New Yorker cartoon, which features two men in a police interrogation room and the caption, “I’m neither a good cop nor a bad cop, Jerome. Like yourself, I’m a complex amalgam of positive and negative personality traits that emerge or not, depending on circumstances.”

Also included in his talk is reference to the other famous experiment that points to people’s ability to do evil, Stanley Milgram’s shock studies of the 1960s, which the New York Times describes as “a series of about 20 experiments, [in which] hundreds of decent, well-intentioned people agreed to deliver what appeared to be increasingly painful electric shocks to another person, as part of what they thought was a learning experiment. The ‘learner’ was in fact an actor, usually seated out of sight in an adjacent room, pretending to be zapped.” While the same article points out it’s hard to extrapolate the findings of these studies to either the Holocaust or Abu Ghraib, it also points out the enduring interest in the studies as a barometer for their importance.

In discussing them, Zimbardo makes a few key points, the most important of which was that “all evil starts at 15 volts” (the machines went all the way to 450 volts, which only 1/3 of participants refused to push). In other words, thinking of these transformations as immediate are wrong. People are not like Clark Kent, jumping into a phone booth to turn into Superman at the sight of evil. Rather they’re more like the drunk guy dancing around the bar, mild-mannered when he arrived, slightly slurring an hour later, visibly drunk after two and making a complete fool of himself after four. It’s a slow process which is dependent on a number of circumstances, most important of which is lack of intervention.

That intervention, Zimbardo points out, is actually what makes a hero. A hero, he explains, is the person who does what nothing else would do. In fact, he points out, heroes are deviants since they’re acting against the will of the group.

All of this has become a fairly long-winded way of saying that I think it’s a better thing for the future of humanity that people accept and acknowledge that anyone can be evil instead of trying to find the fatal flaw that “turned someone.” As Dostoevsky wrote (at least according to Zimbardo), “Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.” Maybe in understanding we can be a bit more self aware and hopefully be able to catch ourselves when we’re caught up in a mob.

Update (12/1/08): After having a conversation with my mom this morning, I wanted to clarify something: There are genuinely crazy people who kill folks and do terrible things. Schizophrenia and other psychological problems are very real and can cause people to do totally crazy things. There are also folks who join the herd, like the trampling at WalMart or even the Germans who followed Hitler. These are people who get caught up in the moment/follow instructions and this is what most of the research from Zimbardo and Milgram is about. Then there are people like Hitler. By all accounts he was neither clinically crazy nor following anyone else’s lead. He was a person who hated a group of people and wanted them dead. Of course he probably got caught up in his own power, but the bottom line (and the point I was trying to make) was that he seems to have been a regular person other than that. That’s important to understand and acknowledge because it forces us all to acknowledge the capacity for extreme hatred in us.

November 30, 2008