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  • Philosophers, dramatists, theologians

  • have grappled with this question for centuries:

  • what makes people go wrong?

  • Interestingly, I asked this question when I was a little kid.

  • When I was a kid growing up in the South Bronx, inner-city ghetto

  • in New York, I was surrounded by evil,

  • as all kids are who grew up in an inner city.

  • And I had friends who were really good kids,

  • who lived out the Dr. Jekyll Mr. Hyde scenario -- Robert Louis Stevenson.

  • That is, they took drugs, got in trouble, went to jail.

  • Some got killed, and some did it without drug assistance.

  • So when I read Robert Louis Stevenson, that wasn't fiction.

  • The only question is, what was in the juice?

  • And more importantly, 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.

  • Good people could be seduced across that line,

  • and under good and some rare circumstances, bad kids could recover

  • with help, with reform, with rehabilitation.

  • So I want to begin with this this wonderful illusion

  • by [Dutch] artist M.C. Escher.

  • If you look at it and focus on the white,

  • what you see is a world full of angels.

  • But let's look more deeply, and as we do,

  • what appears is the demons, the devils in the world.

  • And that tells us several things.

  • One, the world is, was, will always be filled with good and evil,

  • because good and evil is the yin and yang of the human condition.

  • It tells me something else. If you remember,

  • God's favorite angel was Lucifer.

  • Apparently, Lucifer means "the light."

  • It also means "the morning star," in some scripture.

  • And apparently, he disobeyed God,

  • and that's the ultimate disobedience to authority.

  • And when he did, Michael, the archangel, was sent

  • to kick him out of heaven along with the other fallen angels.

  • And so Lucifer descends into hell, becomes Satan,

  • becomes the devil, and the force of evil in the universe begins.

  • Paradoxically, it was God who created hell as a place to store evil.

  • He didn't do a good job of keeping it there though.

  • So, this arc of the cosmic transformation

  • of God's favorite angel into the Devil,

  • for me, sets the context for understanding human beings

  • who are transformed from good, ordinary people

  • into perpetrators of evil.

  • So the Lucifer effect, although it focuses on the negatives --

  • the negatives that people can become,

  • not the negatives that people are --

  • leads me to a psychological definition. Evil is the exercise of power.

  • And that's the key: it's about power.

  • To intentionally harm people psychologically,

  • to hurt people physically, to destroy people mortally, or ideas,

  • and to commit crimes against humanity.

  • If you Google "evil," a word that should surely have withered by now,

  • you come up with 136 million hits in a third of a second.

  • A few years ago -- I am sure all of you were shocked, as I was,

  • with the revelation of American soldiers

  • abusing prisoners in a strange place

  • in a controversial war, Abu Ghraib in Iraq.

  • And these were men and women

  • who were putting prisoners through unbelievable humiliation.

  • I was shocked, but I wasn't surprised,

  • because I had seen those same visual parallels

  • when I was the prison superintendent of the Stanford Prison Study.

  • Immediately the Bush administration military said ... what?

  • What all administrations say when there's a scandal.

  • "Don't blame us. It's not the system. It's the few bad apples,

  • the few rogue soldiers."

  • My hypothesis is, American soldiers are good, usually.

  • Maybe it was the barrel that was bad.

  • But how am I going to -- how am I going to deal with that hypothesis?

  • I became an expert witness

  • for one of the guards, Sergeant Chip Frederick,

  • and in that position, I had access to the dozen investigative reports.

  • I had access to him. I could study him,

  • have him come to my home, get to know him,

  • do psychological analysis to see, was he a good apple or bad apple.

  • And thirdly, I had access to all of the 1,000 pictures

  • that these soldiers took.

  • These pictures are of a violent or sexual nature.

  • All of them come from the cameras of American soldiers.

  • Because everybody has a digital camera or cell phone camera,

  • they took pictures of everything. More than 1,000.

  • And what I've done is I organized them into various categories.

  • But these are by United States military police, army reservists.

  • They are not soldiers prepared for this mission at all.

  • And it all happened in a single place, Tier 1-A, on the night shift.

  • Why? Tier 1-A was the center for military intelligence.

  • It was the interrogation hold. The CIA was there.

  • Interrogators from Titan Corporation, all there,

  • and they're getting no information about the insurgency.

  • So they're going to put pressure on these soldiers,

  • military police, to cross the line,

  • give them permission to break the will of the enemy,

  • to prepare them for interrogation, to soften them up,

  • to take the gloves off. Those are the euphemisms,

  • and this is how it was interpreted.

  • Let's go down to that dungeon.

  • (Camera shutter)

  • (Thuds)

  • (Camera shutter)

  • (Thuds)

  • (Breathing)

  • (Bells)

  • So, pretty horrific.

  • That's one of the visual illustrations of evil.

  • And it should not have escaped you that

  • the reason I paired the prisoner with his arms out

  • with Leonardo da Vinci's ode to humanity

  • is that that prisoner was mentally ill.

  • That prisoner covered himself with shit every day,

  • and they used to have to roll him in dirt so he wouldn't stink.

  • But the guards ended up calling him "Shit Boy."

  • What was he doing in that prison

  • rather than in some mental institution?

  • In any event, here's former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.

  • He comes down and says, "I want to know, who is responsible?

  • Who are the bad apples?" Well, that's a bad question.

  • You have to reframe it and ask, "What is responsible?"

  • Because "what" could be the who of people,

  • but it could also be the what of the situation,

  • and obviously that's wrongheaded.

  • So how do psychologists go about understanding

  • such transformations of human character,

  • if you believe that they were good soldiers

  • before they went down to that dungeon?

  • There are three ways. The main way is -- it's called dispositional.

  • We look at what's inside of the person, the bad apples.

  • This is the foundation of all of social science,

  • the foundation of religion, the foundation of war.

  • Social psychologists like me come along and say, "Yeah,

  • people are the actors on the stage,

  • but you'll have to be aware of what that situation is.

  • Who are the cast of characters? What's the costume?

  • Is there a stage director?"

  • And so we're interested in, what are the external factors

  • around the individual -- the bad barrel?

  • And social scientists stop there, and they miss the big point

  • that I discovered when I became an expert witness for Abu Ghraib.

  • The power is in the system.

  • The system creates the situation that corrupts the individuals,

  • and the system is the legal, political, economic, cultural background.

  • And this is where the power is of the bad-barrel makers.

  • So if you want to change a person, you've got to change the situation.

  • If you want to change the situation,

  • you've got to know where the power is, in the system.

  • So the Lucifer effect involves understanding

  • human character transformations with these three factors.

  • And it's a dynamic interplay.

  • What do the people bring into the situation?

  • What does the situation bring out of them?

  • And what is the system that creates and maintains that situation?

  • So my book, "The Lucifer Effect," recently published, is about,

  • how do you understand how good people turn evil?

  • And it has a lot of detail

  • about what I'm going to talk about today.

  • So Dr. Z's "Lucifer Effect," although it focuses on evil,

  • really is a celebration of the human mind's

  • infinite capacity to make any of us kind or cruel,

  • caring or indifferent, creative or destructive,

  • and it makes some of us villains.

  • And the good news story that I'm going to hopefully come to

  • at the end is that it makes some of us heroes.

  • This is a wonderful cartoon in the New Yorker,

  • which really summarizes my whole talk:

  • "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 the circumstances."

  • (Laughter)

  • There's a study some of you think you know about,

  • but very few people have ever read the story. You watched the movie.

  • This is Stanley Milgram, little Jewish kid from the Bronx,

  • and he asked the question, "Could the Holocaust happen here, now?"

  • People say, "No, that's Nazi Germany,

  • that's Hitler, you know, that's 1939."

  • He said, "Yeah, but suppose Hitler asked you,

  • 'Would you electrocute a stranger?' 'No way, not me, I'm a good person.' "

  • He said, "Why don't we put you in a situation

  • and give you a chance to see what you would do?"

  • And so what he did was he tested 1,000 ordinary people.

  • 500 New Haven, Connecticut, 500 Bridgeport.

  • And the ad said, "Psychologists want to understand memory.

  • We want to improve people's memory,

  • because memory is the key to success." OK?

  • "We're going to give you five bucks -- four dollars for your time."

  • And it said, "We don't want college students.

  • We want men between 20 and 50."

  • In the later studies, they ran women.

  • Ordinary people: barbers, clerks, white-collar people.

  • So, you go down, and one of you is going to be a learner,

  • and one of you is going to be a teacher.

  • The learner's a genial, middle-aged guy.

  • He gets tied up to the shock apparatus in another room.

  • The learner could be middle-aged, could be as young as 20.

  • And one of you is told by the authority, the guy in the lab coat,

  • "Your job as teacher is to give this guy material to learn.

  • Gets it right, reward him.

  • Gets it wrong, you press a button on the shock box.

  • The first button is 15 volts. He doesn't even feel it."

  • That's the key. All evil starts with 15 volts.

  • And then the next step is another 15 volts.

  • The problem is, at the end of the line, it's 450 volts.

  • And as you go along, the guy is screaming,

  • "I've got a heart condition! I'm out of here!"

  • You're a good person. You complain.

  • "Sir, who's going to be responsible if something happens to him?"

  • The experimenter says, "Don't worry, I will be responsible.

  • Continue, teacher."

  • And the question is, who would go all the way to 450 volts?

  • You should notice here, when it gets up to 375,

  • it says, "Danger. Severe Shock."

  • When it gets up to here, there's "XXX" -- the pornography of power.

  • (Laughter)

  • So Milgram asks 40 psychiatrists,

  • "What percent of American citizens would go to the end?"

  • They said only one percent. Because that's sadistic behavior,

  • and we know, psychiatry knows, only one percent of Americans are sadistic.

  • OK. Here's the data. They could not be more wrong.

  • Two thirds go all the way to 450 volts. This was just one study.

  • Milgram did more than 16 studies. And look at this.

  • In study 16, where you see somebody like you go all the way,

  • 90 percent go all the way. In study five, if you see people rebel, 90 percent rebel.

  • What about women? Study 13 -- no different than men.

  • So Milgram is quantifying evil as the willingness of people

  • to blindly obey authority, to go all the way to 450 volts.

  • And it's like a dial on human nature.

  • A dial in a sense that you can make almost everybody totally obedient,

  • down to the majority, down to none.

  • So what are the external parallels? For all research is artificial.

  • What's the validity in the real world?

  • 912 American citizens committed suicide or were murdered

  • by family and friends in Guyana jungle in 1978,

  • because they were blindly obedient to this guy, their pastor --

  • not their priest -- their pastor, Reverend Jim Jones.

  • He persuaded them to commit mass suicide.

  • And so, he's the modern Lucifer effect,

  • a man of God who becomes the Angel of Death.

  • Milgram's study is all about individual authority to control people.

  • Most of the time, we are in institutions,

  • so the Stanford Prison Study is a study