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12. This is the End

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I went back to my first post to look at what 12-week ago me thought about evil and this is the definition I had for ‘evil’:

  • indifference/ no empathy to the act
  • harm/ “evil” is the intent
  • one chooses to do harm even though it is not the only option – unnecessary and preventable.

I feel that this definition is quite similar to Dr. Burris’ (though not concise at all), which we have all come to use and gravitate towards. Once an evil was operationally defined by someone other than us, someone more credible, we latched on because I guess we were all still struggling with a tangible definition of what we considered ‘evil’. I think it is something that we will never fully understand or be able to define, but we gain insight by looking at separate pieces. And this is what we did in this class. I think looking at evil through a psychological lens entails using a reductionist approach and using limits and levels to make it measurable. Even though it may not be the most ideal way of investigating evil, it does make it practical. As Professor Navara pointed out, it is interesting that virtually all our presentations focused on specific evils and not corporate evil; just like trying to define evil, it is pretty much impossible/ rare to find studies on evil as a whole.

Each of the three books we read throughout this semester provided great insight to what evil is. The greatest message of Baron-Cohen’s book is evidently the idea of “empathy erosion” – the loss or decreased capacity for empathy when carrying out an evil act. This emphasizes the biological side of psychology. Meanwhile Baumeister talks about the four main roots of evil, but what stuck with me was how “evil is in the eye of the beholder”. This statement conveys how evil is subjective, which is an issue that we tackled with all semester. How do we universally label something as evil? How can we put them into classes or levels? Where do we draw the line between something that is evil, less evil, not evil, and how do we categorize them? On a somewhat different note, although obvious evils are exciting to explore, for some reason I was drawn to less obvious evils, everyday evils. I think they are more intriguing on a personal level. Zimbardo’s question “Am I capable of evil?” relates to this thought because it made me question what evil can do? How does evil affect me? Less obvious evils, rather than more rare occurrences of evil (e.g. genocide, rape, etc.) are more likely to be prevalent around me. So I guess what I am trying to say is that evil that is evident in my immediate surroundings and that “normal” “everyday” people, who I consider to be just like me; when they commit an act that is regarded as evil, albeit grey-area-evil, it fascinates me because that could be me. Zimbardo’s experiment embodies this kind of evil. (Baumeister explores this concept in many ways, although I won’t get into it here; check my previous posts.)

Ultimately, evil is dynamic and exists in more than one form. The reason for the many definitions (and inconclusive ones) is due to its subjectivity. Because of this, exploring the constructs of evil calls for critical thinking and reductionism, to put pieces together, as the topic of evil is so vast. Not only is evil subjective, but it can be affected by both biological and environmental factors. Social factors, especially power, is a huge agent in evil. We are still trying to grasp what evil is, even though it has existed throughout history, but we are making progress to understanding corporate evil and how it fits in with the big picture.

I thoroughly enjoyed this course, and I wish everyone the best in their future endeavors. It’s been a tough semester (honestly thought I wouldn’t be able to get through March) but we’ve made it! Thanks for keeping the class fresh and interesting every Friday 🙂

If you haven't seen this movie, go watch it when you have time. It's the most hilarious movie ever, although warning: it's pretty graphic and contains disturbing content.

If you haven’t seen this movie, go watch it when you have time. It’s the most hilarious movie ever, although warning: it’s pretty graphic and contains some disturbing content.



11. It’s getting hot in here, let’s take this to the streets

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"Heat" and aggression

“Heat” and aggression

This week we finished off Baumeister’s book. The conclusion was short but summed up everything very well. One point that Baumeister glazed over that intrigued me was on the relationship between hot weather and aggressive cues. I looked into this a little and found some interesting theories and results, which I will just summarize in point form below:

  • There is a curvilinear relation between temperature and assaults, and this is during the warmest hours of the day between about 3:00 p.m. and 5:59 p.m.
  • In the early afternoon individuals are more likely to associate discomfort to heat when temperatures are obvious, so they are more inclined to make conscious effort to minimize aggressive impulses
  • Later in the afternoon, the same high temperatures may not be as evident so they ascribe heat-induced arousal to the actions of others, leading to more aggression
  • Less hostility was expressed when there was a mutual understanding of suffering from unpleasant temperatures (therefore when not obvious, more aggression)
  • Alcohol might be a moderator of heat and aggression, people are also more likely to go to the bar on warm days
  • Cold weather has a different effect on aggression – fewer violent acts are reported on cold days and comfortably warm days
  • A suggestion is that it is easier to compensate cold than hot weather with heating or clothes
  • People are also more likely to interact with others on warmer days increasing the probability of aggressive encounters

What do you think about weather and aggression? It’s an interesting theory, but from what I’ve read, I think that weather/ heat does not directly impact aggression. That is, heat in combination of something else or through a mediator is more likely to produce aggressive acts. There really wasn’t much research on this topic, as pretty much all the research articles I found were by Cohn and Rotton. (Reference for the article I used is on my references page).

On another note, I enjoyed the last two presentations, and not just because they were the last two (haha).

In regards to Janice’s, I think that rehabilitation is definitely a better and more beneficial route than punishment. But I think that increasing empathy alone will not be effective enough for sex offenders, but maybe in combination with something else (although nothing comes to mind at the moment…) Any ideas?

Sheldon’s presentation was also really interesting and seems to lie within Baumeister’s third root of evil – idealism. The idea of using evil to prevent evil is bizarre but not uncommon, as we see this kind of evil throughout history, and it is arguably one of the biggest evils. Reasons behind tolerating evil for ‘good’ should be further researched.


10. Using the Popular Kids

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Hi everyone, this week’s post is going to short and sweet because I am so busy and am really feeling the end-of-year stress!

While doing research for my paper, I found something really interesting in relation to factors that affect bystander intervention to bullying. Besides individual personal characteristics such as moral disengagement, self-efficacy, and empathy; social factors actually had more of an impact on helping behaviours. Rigby and Johnson (2006) found that perceived pressure of parents and friends to intervene resulted in students being more inclined to help the victim. That is, the bystander is more likely and willing to help a victim if they believe that their parents or friends expect them to. This same result was found by Pozzoli and Gini (2010), and they even concluded that defending behaviour was positively predicted by perceived peer pressure for intervention, above all other individual characteristics (the ones that they looked at in their study anyway.)

Why do you think that social influences for defending trump intra-personal characteristics? Do you think that these results are surprising or not?

Personally, I think that this relates to groups – I can understand how in-group expectations can strongly affect one’s own actions. However, it surprised me that perceived pressure predicts actions greater than one’s own beliefs and attitudes. The fact that no real pressures or expectations are forced upon them, yet still affects them more than personal characteristics.

However, this finding is potentially useful in terms of interventions because targeting a whole school or even a class as a ‘group’ and reinforcing the expectations of defending the victim, bystanders may feel more inclined and less likely to stay passive.

These expectations can also be used as a form of modelling, here’s a video:

Because the football boys are ‘popular’/ looked up to, they model the idea that bullying is not okay, and they set this expectation for others. Both bullies and bystanders may perceive more pressure to stop or defend when they see that others who are well-liked and even admired, do the same. It’s a little bit of a stretch but the video was quite touching so I wanted to add it to my blog! (I may or may not have commented this video on someone else’s blog because I thought it was relevant, but I can’t remember if I did or not/ whose blog it was).

The papers that are mentioned can be found on my references page.

9. Zimbardo the Bystander

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Last week I wrote my blog on bystanders, this week I did my presentation on bystanders, and it just so happens that this week’s readings further elaborates on bystanders. Can you guess what I am about to write about?

My presentation focussed on moral disengagement of bystanders on school bullying. As I mentioned, moral disengagement refers to the use of legitimization practices by people who are usually morally concerned, to commit evil actions without feeling guilt or negative self evaluation – basically to make an action that is not okay feel okay. It is evident that many of these mechanisms were used in the SPE by both the guards and the researchers (especially Zimbardo). Here are some examples:

–       Dehumanization – this one’s obvious, the guards started treating the prisoners as if they were animals

–       Distortion of consequences – Zimbardo basically ignored the consequences of the abusive treatment inflicted on the prisoners up until it was pretty severe (potential psychological harm – evident in Doug-8612, Rich-1037, Stew-819)

–       Displacement of responsibility – the guards, especially Hellmann, attributed the responsibility to the researchers – that the researchers were in charge and could stop them at any time

–       Moral justification – the guards and researchers, especially Zimbardo, seeing the immoral acts as serving a higher purpose – to understand the dynamics of a “real prison”, but he took it too far.

Can you think of any more examples? Other mechanisms include: euphemistic labeling, advantageous comparison, responsibility diffusion, and victim blaming.

Relating to bystanders, inaction is indirectly evil as it provides perpetrators with silent approval. This is seen in the “good guards who never intervened on behalf of the suffering prisoners to get the bad guards to lighten up” (317) and in Zimbardo himself “who saw these evils… while allowing psychological violence” (318). He says that he trapped himself in conflicting roles (researcher and prison superintendent), which was too overwhelming, thus he could not see the suffering of the prisoners, which to me sounds like a huge excuse.

I thought the section “Want Help? Just Ask for It” was really interesting yet plainly simple. By singling out one person and making them feel accountable, it eliminates responsibility diffusion by increasing the pressure of an individual to act or intervene if necessary, because they are now socially obligated. Especially in the case of an emergency, there is no chance for a situation to be mistaken as not-serious by the inaction of other bystanders, if a direct request for help is made. If only Kitty Genovese was able to specifically target one person to help her, things could’ve ended differently.

This video is sort of related… it has a twist, but it is interesting how different people react.

8. Be More Than A Bystander

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I can’t really explain why, but the bystander effect really intrigues me. I think it’s because the first time I heard about this phenomenon (second-year social psychology) I was so appalled and in disbelief by the inaction of the bystanders in the case of Kitty Genovese – at least a dozen people heard her cry for help yet no one did anything which ultimately led to her death. I think it’s fascinating because I’m sure if asked hypothetically, the majority of people would say that they would intervene in situations where one is abusing another. But something written on paper differs from actions taken in real life, and because I could potentially be a bystander in a situation, what would I really do?

This kind of relates to the idea of personal agency because we all want to believe that we have the power to control what we do and keep in line with our morals. However, as demonstrated in the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), some guards expressed how it brought out the worst in them and they did things that they would never have pictured themselves doing. Zimbardo concludes, “we all want to believe in our inner power, our sense of personal agency, to resist external situational forces,” but the truth is that rarely anyone is capable of this, and by believing that you have personal control over the situation, can actually make you more vulnerable (180).

Back to bystanders. In the SPE, John Landry was seen as one of the good guards by the prisoners, probably because he didn’t do anything directly harmful to the prisoners. However he admits that he “let cruelty happen and did nothing except feel guilty” (188). Maybe he couldn’t have been able to stop the abuse but Baumeister says that the “inaction of bystanders implies moral approval even if the bystander could not have stopped the evil” especially because perpetrators sometimes see themselves ambiguously, and this was the case in SPE (356). Although a bystander, John did have some power; he was a guard, after all. Why didn’t he bother doing anything or at least voice his thoughts?

I looked into this and found a study by Pöyhönen, Juvonen, and Salmivalli (2012) who looked at the reasons for different bystander responses to bullying situations. They evaluated the students’ expectations concerning three possible outcomes of defending – bullying declining vs. increasing; victim feeling better vs. worse; and one’s own social status improving vs. declining. The results showed that there were significant motivational and value differences between defending the victim, remaining passive, or siding with the bully. The more students felt that defending the victim would be effective and that the victim would feel better, the more likely they were to do so. However, if the bystander didn’t expect defending to help the victim or did not care if the bullying decreased, then they reinforced the bullying. The passive bystanders were ones that had differing expectations and values. On the one hand they did expect the victim to feel better if they tried defending them, but on the other hand, they didn’t think that the bullying would decrease if they helped, so instead they withdraw from the situation. I believe this finding somewhat explains the reason why John didn’t do anything at all – it is obvious he felt bad for the prisoners, but he didn’t think that stepping up to defend them would do anything, probably because the bullies (like Hellmann and Arnett) were so overpowering.

Bullying isn’t just between the perpetrator and the victim anymore, as bystanders also play a role, whether active or passive. A relatively new campaign, “Be More Than A Bystander” developed by the Advertising Council, encourages the notion that if bystanders know what to do, they can actively do something to defuse the bullying such as moving the victim away from the situation or reporting the treatment to an adult.

On a different note, and I brought this up in class, but it is interesting that the two brothers were seen as the better guards. I thought it was maybe because of the fact that they could talk about the happenings of the prison together when they were home, as it seems like all the other guards stepped from being a guard to being their normal self, once outside of the prison. They may not have consciously thought about or reflected on their actions and what had been going on. Gil mentioned being brothers could have broken the illusion of the SPE, making them more consciously aware that it was just an experiment. I’m interested in what others think… Do you think that the effect of being brothers or being able to talk about the situation outside of the prison affected how they went about or played their guard roles?

7. Role Internalization is Dangerous

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As I was reading this week’s chapters (5-8), it was evident that many psychological aspects of evil as described in Baumeister’s book were present. I will note these below with examples from this week’s chapters.

–       Dehumanization and objectifying

  • Vandy saw the prisoners as sheep and “did not give a damn as to their condition” (157).
  • Ceros forgets that they are even people, which he says makes it easier for him to cope with what he is doing
  • Even the guards were dehumanized – Varnish explicitly had to shut off all feelings, lose sympathy and respect for them (he was the one that Warden Jeffe had to speak with).

–       Internalization of role

  • Once Varnish dehumanized himself (and internalized his guard role), he did things that he never imagined he would do, emphasizing that everyone is capable of evil.
  • Role playing became role internalization
    • They assumed the characters and identities of their fictional roles
    • Vandy brings this outside the prison, and starts to boss his mother around (this is from chapter 9 actually)
  • “Mental switch” from being participants and having rights to fully embracing their roles and being completely helpless like it was no longer just an experiment

–       In-group vs out-group

  • Group identification helped the guards believe that what they were doing as a group was necessary.
  • David the spy (replacement 8612) shows how quick this identification plays out in an extreme situation
  • Baumeister says that “the lower the fellow feeling, the less guilt” (314).

–       Obedience to authority

  • Automatically extending their arms out to be handcuffed after the meeting with the parole board

–       Incremental effect

  • Began with no physical abuse to Hellman’s foot on Clay-416’s back to Ceros pushing another prisoner hard against the wall to wanting to physically strike back

Other thoughts

–       Physical details

  • It’s interesting how details, like the uniforms and sunglasses, used to enhance roles, did have a big effect. Geoff Landry (another “good” guards) complained about the shirt and often ‘misplaced’ his sunglasses, which Zimbardo suggests that it was to distinguish between Geoff and guard-Geoff as it enabled him to detach himself from the realness of the situation.
  • This effect would be the same for the prisoners – the chain on their ankle, the head caps – which reinforced thier prisoner identity.

–       Heroism

  • “Heroism often requires social support” (Zimbardo, 164)
  • As Zimbardo mentions, Clay-416 and his refusal to eat could’ve caused a strong uproar, if he had tried to communicate his plans with his fellow prisoners yet he was unable to think in terms of in-group vs. out-group , and was more me vs. the world
  • Why do you think he didn’t try to get support from the others?
  • Zimbardo mentions that it may have to do with his coming in late, but David-8612 also arrived later and was able to identify with the in-group

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The biggest thing that stood out to me this week was how immersed the guards could get into their role that they end up doing things that they would never have imagined being capable of. I think that this can become psychologically dangerous as “roles can come to rule not only one’s emotions but also one’s reasons” (157). This is evident in Varnish’s self-reflective analysis on page 158, which I have briefly mentioned above. The one person that immediately comes to mind when I think of role internalization or immersion is Heath Ledger with his Joker role. He literally became his role. Before filming, he locked himself in a hotel for a month so that he could prepare, where he created a diary full of his research. Although he died from an accidental drug overdose, the diary shows that he struggled with the role and heavy personal emotions. On top of that, while filming, he was so immersed that he couldn’t snap out of his character off camera, and he seemed to lose sense of himself.

This is a little clip of Heath Ledger’s journal, sorry it’s in French because it was from a documentary, but you can kind of hear his dad speak in the background!

6. The Beginning of an Ugly Experiment

We’ve made it halfway through the course! So what do we know about evil? We started this week’s class with essentially summarizing main points about what we know about evil so far. Here are some of the things that I wrote down as important points that contribute to my idea of evil:

  • That everyone is capable of evil – I would’ve disagreed with this statement 6 weeks ago.
  • Some people may have a dispositional inclination to evil, and for others, the situation can generate and foster evil.
  • Empathy is one aspect of evil that is heavily emphasized, especially by Baron-Cohen, as his whole book deals with how evil is derived from empathy erosion.
  • Baumeister combines empathy with guilt making it a component of guilt, saying that guilt prevents evil – if you feel guilt you are unable to do evil deeds.
  • Baumeister also ties guilt with self-esteem, stating that they are opposites. Self-esteem is a huge dispositional factor as it plays into egotism that results in aspects that relate to evil.
  • Anonymity is a huge situational factor as there seems to be more of a chance to get away with evil. This also applies to group evil because of deindividuation, where personal identity is hidden and responsibility is distributed and diffused, thus further concealing the realness of doing actual evil. This also ties into authority playing a huge role in violence/ harm/ evil.

Points that classmates made that I thought I should add:

  • Evil is a social construction
  • Evil is hard to operationalize but has to be in order to measure and record results. As we have seen, especially in Baron-Cohen, constructing levels are not desirable but are optimal for quantifiable purposes.
  • People learn evil through social modeling, which also ties into authority figures.
  • The idea of a “slippery slope” regarding moral dissonance. That when your actions are not consistent with your morals you go back and change your morals to justify what you’ve done thus leading to a continuous justification of morals.

This week, we dove back into The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo. I was thoroughly surprised when I began reading because there’s a major change in the style of writing from what I was used to in the other two books – it is written in a narrative style. I think that’s what made it so intriguing and interesting to read, especially knowing that it is based off of actual events.

But enough about the style of the book. Chapters 2-4 focused on details of the experiment – what were they trying to find out, the rationale, and the start of the experiment. What shocked me the most was how quickly violence escalated in the prison setting, and by the end of chapter 4 I think it was only two days into the study and so much had already happened including the release of Doug 8612.

Through a psychological perspective, it is evident that social scripts have influenced both the prisoners and prison guards, but more so for the latter. It is quite surprising how fast the guards got into “character” – once given a label, they automatically adopted their constructed schema of what it is to be a prison guard. The prison guards were mostly on their own with what they were to do, and once one person decided to exert power on the prisoners, others followed, suggesting learning through modeling as well as social conformity. Same goes with the prisoners; being “prisoners”, they followed the humiliating orders of the guards and subjected to the abuse. However, the prisoners did challenge and rebel against the guards, and showed solidarity and loyalty to their fellow prisoners (e.g. when special meals were given to only some of the prisoners, they refused to eat it). Likewise, once a “leader” emerged, other prisoners were more inclined to conform (except for cell 3).

Warning: This was hard for me to watch at parts so if you get uncomfortable/ queasy easily you might not want to watch. ALSO SPOILER ALERT because the video sums up the whole experiment.

For this week, I would like to leave you with a video clip on the experiment. There are numerous videos that show actual footage of the happenings inside the prison but I chose this one because it makes links to Abu Ghraid (a real world situation that paralleled the prison experiment years after) and has commentaries by the researchers, guard Dave Eschelman “John Wayne” (I believe his name is Hellmann in the book), and prisoner Richard Yacco “1037”. The video touches on some points made above including, anonymity, authority, and situational factors.

Maltreatment of a prisoner at Abu Ghraib

Maltreatment of a prisoner at Abu Ghraib

“No one was telling me that I shouldn’t be doing this, the professor is the authority here… he’s not stopping me.” Is this Eschelman’s reason for justifying his actions?!? Since he wasn’t the one in charge, then he isn’t really to blame, because the authorities would say something if he’d gone too far, right? Further, he demonstrates that when you’re in a position of power (and playing a role the way you think is right) you try to see how far you can go. Especially in this case with the prison guards trying to show who’s the more dominant male; the little increments of abuse go unnoticed until an outsider points out just how evil the situation is, here, Christina Maslach. Which kind of reminds me of the boiling frog anecdote. In reference to Abu Graib, Eschelman says, “I don’t know where I would’ve stopped myself, given enough time we could’ve got there,” which sickens and makes me shudder.

Anything anyone said that appalled you/ moved you in some way? What do you think about the things each person said about the experiment so many years after the fact?