What Makes People Go Bad? Part 1: When We Obey Evil

6th May 2016  By Melody Sundberg

This is the first article in the series “What Makes People Go Bad?”. Read more about the series here.

Videos coming from the Oromo protests in Ethiopia show innocent protesters being subjected to horrific acts of violence. In one of the videos, soldiers whip students that are lying on the ground. The soldiers further worsen their suffering by forcing the students to do degrading exercises. The perpetrators seem utterly unaffected by their acts, and their mercilessness is horrifying.

It is easy to sympathise with victims and feel disgust and anger towards perpetrators. The shocking and horrible acts of torturers, murderers and others who hurt innocent people are in every way difficult to understand. It is easy to imagine the individuals who commit these acts as thoroughly evil beings, like monsters.  But the hardest thing to understand is that these people are not that different from us.[1] They are husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, who often live normal lives. Just as everyone else, they laugh, joke, cry and love. They know the difference between good and bad. What makes them give in to evil?

Maybe the answer lies within human psychology. People do not become evil overnight. Sometimes people do things that contradict their own values. In some situations, group pressure and orders from others make people take on a role where they hurt others. In order to prevent people from committing evil acts, it is important to understand why and how this happens. This article explores how our natural capacity of adapting to group pressure can cause people to abandon their sense of morality.


Humans are Social Beings

Most people do not like to be alone, and many even fear loneliness. We actively look for opportunities to spend time with others. One of the most important things in life is forming relationships with other people. Being around other people is part of who we are. Our brain is adapted to group behavior. One of these behaviors is called conformity.[2] We act like others act and change our behavior in accordance to a real or perceived group pressure. Take applauding, for example. A few people start to applaud, and suddenly the whole crowd follows. Doing what others are doing make us liked. Conformity is an important aspect of being part of a society.

It is easy to imagine the individuals who commit these acts as thoroughly evil beings, like monsters.  But the hardest thing to understand is that these people are not that different from us.

Obedience is closely connected to conformity.[3] We choose to obey to demands given by someone we perceive to be an authority, or we choose not to obey. Conformity and obedience can be used to make people do any kind of action, good or bad. This is what researches Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo studied. They wanted to find out what happens when conformity and obedience makes people change, and forces them into an unwanted role. Their psychological experiments became some of the world’s most famous and controversial, and their unexpected results gave a shocking insight into just how far people can go when obeying authority or conforming to a group.


Stanley Milgram: An Authority Wants You to Hurt Someone – Will You Do it?

Two participants walk into a room.[4] They are among 40 randomly selected men in the ages between 20 and 50, who have replied to a newspaper advertisement. They think that they are about to participate in a study of learning and memory, and that the experimenter wants to study whether punishment has an effect on learning. One participant, referred to as the teacher, is asked to teach the other participant a list of word pairs.

The experimenter straps the learner to a chair, and places electrodes to his wrists.[5] The teacher stands by a shock generator that has switches ranging from 15 to 450 volts. The switches have labels that describe the severity of the shock. The switches labeled 435 and 450 volts are labeled with “XXX”. The experimenter tells the teacher to give an electric shock to the learner if he makes any mistakes. For each wrong answer, an even more powerful shock should be given. There is however one thing that the participating teacher is not aware of; the learner is in fact not a real participant.[6] He is an assistant to the experimenter, and is in fact not attached to a dangerous shock generator at all. Instead, he is instructed to turn on a voice recording with a voice protesting as if being in pain.

When the experiment starts, the learner soon starts to make mistakes. The experimenter, the authority, tells the teacher to administer the shocks. If the teacher actually gives the shocks, the learner will start to complain at 75 volts. If the teacher still continues, the learner will start shouting as if in pain, then progress to start to beg to leave the room. Eventually, he will go silent.

Now, keep in mind that the teacher thinks that the learner is attached to a real shock generator. What do you think happened? The uncomfortable truth is that 65 percent of the participants went all the way to 450 volts.

Milgram was so disturbed by the results that he repeated the experiment many times. By the time he had finished, one thousand trembling, stuttering, sweating and groaning people had participated in the study.[7]  But the results stood clear; the participants did inflict severe pain on another person when an authority told them to.


Philip Zimbardo: The Prison Experiment

Zimbardo was interested in how guards and prisoners behave in a prison. This interest led to one of the most well-known and classic studies that has even been turned into a film, the so-called Stanford Prison Experiment, carried out in 1973.

Zimbardo changed the basement of one of the buildings of the Stanford University, in order to create a fake prison. 21 randomly selected participants were assigned as either “guards” or “prisoners”. The prisoners were “arrested” from their homes, photographed, fingerprinted, stripped naked, dressed in prison clothes and were referred to as numbers. They were held behind bars in small cells. The guards worked in groups of three and wore uniforms and sunglasses, making eye contact impossible. The guards were instructed that they were allowed to do whatever they thought was necessary in order to maintain law and order in the prison. Physical violence, however, was not permitted.

The experiments of Milgram and Zimbardo show that people can commit horrible acts if put in certain situations. As part of a group or when taking orders, people can lose their sense of morality.

Zimbardo soon made unexpected observations. A few hours into the experiment, some of the guards’ behavior changed. They began harassing the prisoners, and seemed to enjoy behaving sadistically and brutally. Eventually, the other guards started following their behavior. They treated the prisoners in a dehumanizing way, insulting them and giving them pointless tasks. They punished them by forcing them to do physical exercises. The prisoners themselves started acting like real prisoners by taking the prison rules very seriously. Some of them gossiped on prisoners who did not follow the rules. They barricaded themselves inside of the cells. The guards answered by spraying them with a fire extinguisher, forcing them to take of their clothes and putting one of them in solitary confinement. Over the following days, the guards became increasingly aggressive and mocking – even to the point of showing contempt. The prisoners also became more and more submissive. The experiment had to end earlier than intended as the prisoners were seriously affected emotionally.

When the participants were interviewed after the study, the prisoners said that they were surprised that they started behaving in such a submissive way. The guards said that they were shocked by their own acts and that they never had expected themselves to behave like they did. One guard said: “I was surprised at myself. I made them call each other names and clean the toilets out with their bare hands. I practically considered the prisoners cattle and I kept thinking I had to watch out for them in case they tried something”. Another guard said: “Acting authoritatively can be fun. Power can be a great pleasure”. Both the guards and prisoners were surprised by their acts.

It is difficult to understand what happened in the prison. Zimbardo realized that people very easily conform to the social roles they are expected to have. As none of the guards had showed any signs of sadism before the study, their behavior can be attributed to the environment of the fake prison rather than their personalities. Since the guards worked in groups, they were affected by each other’s behaviors. As pointed out earlier, initially only some guards started behaving badly, and were then followed by the others. Together, the participants forgot about their personal responsibility and identity because they became too immersed into the norms of the group. The guards did not feel that they were individually responsible for their acts. The deindividualisation created by the absence of names, the use of sunglasses and uniforms of the participants also played a part.


Breaking Conformity

The experiments of Milgram and Zimbardo show that people can commit horrible acts if put in certain situations. As part of a group or when taking orders, people can lose their sense of morality. Conformity and obedience can be dangerous. But are people bound to this conformity and obedience?

Luckily, there are ways of breaking conformity. When Milgram made variations to his experiments, he discovered several factors[8] that determined whether the teachers would obey or not. The teachers were less likely to obey if they were physically far away from the experimenter, or if the experimenter was perceived to be less legitimate. Perhaps most important is what happened in a fourth variation of the experiment. Milgram placed the teacher with two other people. The teacher was told that these two people were co-teachers, but they were in fact assistants of the experimenter. When at 150 volts the learner started protesting, one of the “co-teachers” refused to continue. He defied the instructions given by the experimenter and walked away. The experimenter continued with the teacher and the last “co-teacher”, who then left the experiment at 210 volts. As many as 90 percent of the participating teachers refused to continue to 450 volts when both “co-teachers” had left. The participating teachers conformed to the behaviour of the defiant assistants instead of the experimenter.

Their research shows that anyone can take part in hurting others. The thought of that is disturbing. But the good news is that we all have our own choices to make.

These findings not only show that we can break conformity, but also demonstrate that conformity can make people do good. If someone refuses, others may follow. Who are these people that choose to break conformity?

Psychologist Dr Anders Engquist writes about the so called “ego strength” or “force of ego”.[9] If a person manages to keep to their own values and defend their identity, they are likely to have strong ego strength. This person can affect others to stand up for their own values. The human being is able to act according to his or her own values, despite being in a situation of group-pressure.[10] As human beings, we do not only value taking part in groups, but we also value our freedom.[11] When our freedom is threatened, we often rebel. Sometimes, coercing someone to do something might give the opposite reaction. This is probably what happens when people start to demand their rights and protest against injustice.

Brian Palmer, social anthropologist, and Misse Wester, PhD in psychology, crises and communication, discuss this issue in the radio program Kropp & Själ (Body & Soul). In accordance with the idea of self-strength, they say that people who perceive themselves as able to change a bad situation are more likely to do so. Experience and education are also significant. Knowing how to help someone and having the experience of helping increases the likelihood of standing up for others. Breaking conformity, feeling responsibility and understanding situations can be taught. It is possible that the participators in Milgrams and Zimbardos experiments would have acted differently had they been educated in taking empathic actions.

The shocking results of Milgrams and Zimbardos research continues to astonish scientists until this day. Their research shows that anyone can take part in hurting others. The thought of that is disturbing. But the good news is that we all have our own choices to make. We can always decide to stand up for others and not to participate in committing bad acts. Hopefully, by reading this article, you have become more aware about how groups and authorities may affect your behavior. You can stand up for your values and do what you, in your heart, think is right.


References, other than those linked in text


Engquist,A.(1998).Att växa som vuxen.Smedjebacken: Fälth & Hässler.

Myers,D.G.(Ed.9).(2008). Social psychology.New York:McGraw-Hill higher education.

[1] Psykiatri, 2006, 207-208

[2] Social Psychology, 2008, p.187 – 221

[3] ibid, p.187 – 221

[4] ibid,  p.194 – 195

[5] ibid,  p.194 – 195

[6] ibid,  p.194 – 195

[7] ibid,  p.198

[8] ibid,  p.199-201

[9] Att växa som vuxen, 1998, p. 76

[10] Social Psychology, 2008,  p.218

[11] ibid,  p.218

Melody Sundberg
Project manager of Untold Stories. Photographer and artist. Educated in Psychology.

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Weak article. There are plenty of White mass murderers right at your door step and you use Africans soldiers as an example of “evil”?

    Dear Seriously,

    Thank you for the feedback. The acts of the soldiers in the mentioned video is, in the opinion of most people, evil. Considering the severity of the treatment (beatings, arrests and killings) by soldiers on innocent protesters during the Oromo protests of 2015/2016, it is very important to spread awareness about what has happened. I have however never mentioned “African soldiers as an example of evil”. Soldiers are not evil. However, their acts are sometimes evil. This article explores the very reason why soldiers and others may commit evil acts.

    And yes, you are right. There are many white mass murderers and they should be mentioned as well. However, the rest of the article describes scientific experiments carried out in western countries on random people who answered on newspaper-ads. I do not have information on the ethnicity of the participants of the experiments, but if you want to know more, I suggest that you turn to books written about the research.

    Thank you // Melody Sundberg

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