Reading this book was a chilling experience.
Basically, it deals with the issue of why seemingly good and moral people can do bad and immoral things.
In 1971 Philip Zimbardo created the "Stanford Prison Experiment" wherein a group of college-aged students took part in a mock prison experiment at Stanford University. Some took the part of prisoners and some the part of the guards. It was a grant-funded experiment that was to last for two weeks. It began on a Sunday but by the following Friday, the project was called off due to the brutal behavior of the guards and the emotionally traumatized prisoners. At the premature end of the experiment Zimbardo and his co-workers collected a lot of information and data. But most important, they did a lot of soul searching as to why the brutal behavior happened and how they, the originators of the program, may have unintentionally contributed to it.
Among others, there are references to the My Lai massacre, the Holocaust during World War Two and (most memorable for our generation) the Abu Ghraib prisoner torture horror. Zimbardo used his Stanford Prisoner experiment to help figure out why those unconscionable acts took place. It was sobering reading and while I was fascinated with what I read, there were times I had to put the book down to think, get my bearings - and cry.
Zimbardo presents many sobering insights into human nature as to why basically decent, law-abiding people can do such things. For me, two things items stand out:
1. The "bad barrel" as opposed to the "bad apple" theory. He shows how certain circumstances and events can make it easier to do wrong things. He doesn't believe in excusing circumstances to justify bad behavior, but he does show how certain environments render the wrong choices easier to make.
2. The desire for social acceptance. He quotes freely from the C. S. Lewis article "The Inner Ring" to show how the desire for acceptance into the inner circle can make otherwise good people do some bad things.
I see a twofold way to read this book:
First of all, we need to be honest with ourselves and realize that most likely, we could fall into the same trap of cruelty.
Second, although we could fall into it, we don't have to, either. Zimbardo spent a lot of time showing us heroes - both known and unknown - who had the courage to stand up to evil - including Christina Maslach, one of Zimbardo's colleagues - whom he later married!
This is a book to read carefully, to absorb and to reflect upon. There's a lot of information here, and I firmly believe that if it is read in the right attitude, it will make us better people.
Zimbardo talks about what he refers to as the “bad apple – bad barrel” question. Are evil acts the sole result of “bad apples” – individuals who are simply, by nature, evil – or are there also situational and systemic factors – “bad barrels” – that can cause even good, decent people to carry out, support or tolerate evil acts?
It’s an interesting question. Most institutions – law, medicine, psychology, even religion – focus on an individualistic orientation. When bad things happen, it’s because of bad people, period. In history, we tend to focus on the one evil individual who was responsible for everything bad that happened – a Saddam Hussein, a Stalin, a Hitler. Hitler, for instance, was responsible for the Holocaust as we all know.
No – it took a huge propaganda machine to turn the German people against their Jewish neighbors. There were books that had to be written, pamphlets circulated, newspapers and magazines about the Jewish “problem” and what to do about it. Jews had to be transported and guarded. Huge prison compounds and extermination chambers had to be built. Poisons had to be developed and manufactured. And one guy did all this? No, there was something else, systemic factors that caused normal, everyday German people to support, tolerate and even commit acts of unspeakable evil.
There’s a quote I love from Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, describing his own prison experience in Gulag Archipelago. He writes: “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not between states nor between social classes nor between political parties, but right through every human heart, through all human hearts.”