Dr Rajiv Desai

An Educational Blog

ARE ORDINARY PEOPLE BAD?

Are ordinary people bad? 

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Let me start by giving 3 examples from India: 

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Example-1

On August 10, 2016 Matibool is on his way home from an overnight shift as a watchman, carrying a cellphone in his hand as seen in the figure above. It is dawn in Delhi. Suddenly, a speeding three-wheeled tempo barrels down on him from behind, knocking him into the air. The driver gets out, sees Matibool’s crumpled body and decides against even approaching him. In a matter of seconds, the driver is back in the truck, and away he goes. As Matibool lay bleeding for an hour, men and women riding in 140 cars and 82 rickshaws would avoid his dying body. So would 181 bikers and 45 pedestrians. At one point, an emergency response van used by the Delhi police drives by. A cycle rickshaw passes his body and stops a little bit down the road. A passenger alights, walks by Matibool and steals his cellphone and gets back on the rickshaw and leaves. I am rudely reminded of how deeply the malaise of cruelty, corruption and total numbness & indifference to humanity affects ordinary people. The man eventually died leaving behind a helpless young family.

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Example-2

From 14 to 17 June 2013, the Indian state of Uttarakhand and adjoining areas received heavy rainfall, which was about 375% more than the benchmark rainfall during a normal monsoon. This caused the melting of Chorabari Glacier at the height of 3800 metres, and eruption of the Mandakini River which led to heavy floods. Although the Kedarnath Temple itself was not damaged, its base was inundated with water, mud and boulders from the landslide, damaging its perimeter. Many hotels, rest houses and shops around the temple in Kedarnath Township were destroyed, resulting in several casualties. The hundreds and thousands returning to safety from the rain ravaged Kedar Valley and other parts of devastated Uttarakhand have stories to narrate of human insensitivity, as many locals were fleecing the trapped pilgrims and tourists in the wake of shortages of food supply, shelter, medicines and drinking water. Those who survived the cloudburst and flood limped back home with harrowing tales of spending four days without food and water, being forced to pay Rs.200 for a Rs.5 biscuit packet, and Rs.100 for a Rs.10 water bottle.

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Example-3

The Indian government’s demonetisation decision on 8th November 2016 has led to a windfall for 47 municipalities, pushing up their total tax revenue for November 2016 to over two and a half times the sum collected in November last year.  By 22nd November 2016, the municipal tax collection for the 47 civic bodies had reached Rs.13,192 crore. [One crore = 10 million] Last November, the municipalities had collected just Rs.3,607 crore.  Mumbai has the maximum share of the increased tax collection at Rs.11,913 crore, which is 90% of the total revenue. This is over three times Mumbai’s collection for 2015. Hyderabad accounts for the maximum increase — 26 times the tax collection in November 2015. Surat’s tax revenue of Rs 100 crore marked a nearly 14-fold increase. Recent analysis of data from the 450 municipalities shows how almost every municipal body saw increase in collection of property tax and other user charges such as water bill and sewage charges. This dramatic change happened as a result of the decision to demonetise the old Rs.500 and Rs.1,000 notes. These ordinary people were defaulters and wilfully did not pay municipality tax for years. Now suddenly their money in denomination of Rs.500 and Rs.1000 are illegal tender, so they got rid of it by paying municipality tax. This is double immorality; first by not paying municipality tax for years and second by converting unaccounted black money into accounted white money by paying municipality tax with illegal notes. Remember, these so called ‘ordinary people’ also have black money which they converted into white by paying municipality tax.  Except salaried class, most ordinary people hardly pay any income tax at all in India.

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Now let us discuss why and how majority of ordinary people are extraordinarily immoral and dishonest:

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Note:

The word ‘nature’ is used frequently in this article. One meaning of ‘nature’ is biology or genetics, for example nature versus nurture debate. Another meaning of ‘nature’ is character or personality, for example human nature is good by default. Please do not mix up these two different meanings. See the context in which the word ‘nature’ is used.

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Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.

-C. S. Lewis

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Our ability to selectively engage and disengage our moral standards…helps explain how people can be barbarically cruel in one moment and compassionate the next.

-Albert Bandura

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You’re only a victim once. The next time you’re an accomplice.

-Naomi Judd

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Introduction to ‘are ordinary people bad’:

According to the worldview that prevails in our culture, most people are naturally good, because nature is good. The monstrosities of the world are caused by the few people (like Hitler or Idi Amin) who are fundamentally warped and evil. This worldview gives us an easy conscience, because we don’t have to contemplate the evil in ourselves. But when somebody who seems mostly good does something completely awful, we are rendered mute or confused.  We always say, “If people were just nicer to each other the world would be a very different place.” But when we say nicer are we really just referring to behaving in a way that is honest? We all aspire to be good people, but thinking good thoughts and acting in accordance with them are two separate things. Think about the last time you wanted to call in sick to work and weren’t really ill, or were involved in a home sale and tweaked the negations in your favour. How did you actually come up with the decision? These common ethical dilemmas appear in every facet of our lives, from personal to professional to political. It’s no surprise that unethical behaviour is widespread in our society, as acting dishonestly sometimes “gets you ahead.”

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Morality is a term that refers to our adherence to rules that govern human behavior on the basis of some idea of right and wrong. Ethics refers to our process of reasoning about moral rules. Whatever your concept of morality, it must address the human capacity to identify and choose between right and wrong and then to act accordingly. People don’t want to think of themselves as bad, so when faced with the unavoidable prospect of doing something they’d normally consider morally objectionable, they often start finding ways to justify it.  Most people think of themselves as moral and ethical. And yet, major fraud and unethical behaviour is widespread. An in-depth study of ordinary people over an extended period of time reveals how easy it is for ‘good’ people, starting with an initial small, self-justified deception, to quickly justify bigger and bigger indiscretions, thus falling down the ‘slippery slope’ to major unethical behaviour.

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“What makes good people do bad things?” This is a question that has vexed thinking people throughout history. We all have probably witnessed acquaintances suddenly behaving in uncharacteristically ugly ways. In fact, we need to look no further than the mirror to find living evidence for humanity’s susceptibility to immorality. The vast majority of people have the potential for both doing great good and great evil. Perfectly normal, ordinary people can be pushed in the direction of evil by circumstances, and by being put in a particular environment or position with respect to others. As the story goes, Dr. Jekyll uses a chemical to turn into his evil alter ego Dr. Hyde. In real life, however, no chemical may be needed: Instead, just the right dose of certain social situations can transform ordinary people into evildoers, as was the case with Iraqi prisoner abusers at Abu Ghraib. But are there some people who are inherently bad and can’t be redeemed? Probably yes. Psychopaths may belong in this category. But certainly they are a very small fraction of human society. And determining who is truly a psychopath and not a “misguided” person, drawn to do evil by circumstances, is not easy.

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Is it possible for a good person to turn evil?

Do you think you have an inner demon that could be triggered to make you rob a bank, steal from a neighbor or torture another human being?

History is replete with entire groups of people, organizations, and nations, engaging in horrific, immoral behavior, ranging from genocide, to riots and killings, to massive greed and corruption. Often, these are not the actions of individuals, but of collective groups led by a toxic leader. All too often, we point the finger at the leader as the cause of the bad behavior, but without willing followers, the destruction would never occur. We are trained, from the time we are kids, to be obedient to authority, and usually that’s good: our parents, our teachers and our priests. The problem is not all authority is just.  In many of these cases, the leaders and followers are not initially bad or corrupt people. Various processes occur that allow leaders and followers to disengage their moral reasoning and principals, and justify their bad behavior. Although people believe they are more moral than they actually are, in reality the process of moral disengagement leads them to act immorally, and justify their bad behavior. Justification of bad behavior occurs in a variety of ways. First, we begin to focus on desired outcomes, and rationalize the means to achieve them. If an outcome is important, we begin to believe that the “ends justify the means.” For example, the torturing of suspected terrorists (i.e., waterboarding), is justified because of the desired outcome of protecting citizens from terrorist attacks. ISIS also uses the same process to justify the killing of Westerners as an “acceptable” means of achieving their ends. This “deactivation of moral standards” is a slippery slope that leads only to increases in bad behavior. Another way we justify immoral behavior is through using “euphemistic language.” So, killed or injured civilians in bombing or drone attacks are referred to as “collateral damage.” Likewise, it is easier to imprison or execute a journalist or tourist if the government labels the person a “subversive” or a “spy.” Another means by which people justify their bad behavior is through “advantageous comparisons.” They downplay their own bad behavior by comparing it to the even worse behavior by others (“sure I stole a small amount of money, but my boss really took the company for big bucks.”). Often, people behave badly through diffusion of responsibility. This explains crowd behavior, such as looting during riots (“everybody was doing it”), or hazing behavior (“it’s a tradition, and I was hazed when I was a newcomer”). Bad behavior also occurs, and our moral reasoning fails us, through devaluing of the victims (“they started it”; “they deserved it”). Processes such as these lead to an escalation of violence (“he pulled out a knife, so I pulled out my gun”). Minorities are often considered different and less deserving. Once you buy into that, it is easy to dismiss when they are treated poorly. Throughout history, countries continue to dehumanize the enemy to rally people to accept otherwise unacceptable behavior supposedly needed to defeat the enemy. Because people want to belong, be loyal or patriotic, they go along with the group for it takes tremendous courage to be the lone person to dissent.

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‘The (human) heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked’ – Jeremiah 17 v 9.

If you do not believe this you will never make any sense of this world. Whilst others are looking on people will curb their tendencies, but they put them behind closed doors and they gravitate towards doing wrong – proved time and again all over the world throughout history. However, to combat this tendency means facing up to what is inherent in people and since this is unpalatable the good Professor will probably waste his life looking for non-existent “corrosive social causes”.  Compared with most animals, we humans engage in a host of behaviours that are destructive to our own kind and to ourselves. We lie, cheat and steal, carve ornamentations into our own bodies, stress out and kill ourselves, and of course kill others. Science has provided much insight into why an intelligent species seems so nasty, spiteful, self-destructive and hurtful.

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If everybody is cheating, why not me?

Thomas Hurka, who holds the Henry N.R. Jackman Distinguished Chair in Philosophical Studies at the University of Toronto, says, “Most people have multiple reasons for acting in accordance with moral principles. It’s complex, and the complex can unravel.” According to Hurka, when the mind that might decide to cheat chooses not to, there are two essential factors at work. The first is self-interest – a fear of punishment. “People decide not to cheat in business,” says Hurka, “because they think they won’t get away with it.” As rationales go, it might not inspire heroic string music, but it’s effective. The second reason is subtler. “There are a lot of people who will act rightly, even at some cost to themselves,” says Hurka, “so long as they believe that other people are doing it, too.” This reasoning falls into what American social scientist Jon Elster, in his book The Cement of Society, calls “the norm of fairness.” In deciding whether or not to cheat, a person looks across the desk at her colleagues; if they’re keeping their hands out of the till, she likely will, too. But now that we understand our mind’s typical motivations for good, we can start to see how they might break down. Let’s take fear of punishment first. In order to worry about getting caught, the mind on the brink of an unethical decision has to think getting caught is a real possibility. That requires clear and effective policing, or, as it’s called in the world of business, “governance.” According to Melissa Williams, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, who has a deep interest in ethical issues, the understanding that only a watchful eye keeps the populace in line informs a good deal of constitutional thought. People are morally imperfect, goes the thinking, and well-designed institutions free us from having to hope for the best from the shady characters who run them. Immanuel Kant, James Madison, Adam Smith and other philosophers, says Williams, have fashioned arguments around the premise that “a well-ordered constitutional society could govern even a nation of devils.” Once the self-interested people start to cheat,” says Professor Hurka, “that affects the people who believe in fairness, because they’re prepared to do what’s right only so long as other people are doing it. And so they start to cheat.” The norm of fairness not only allows cheating in that scenario, it encourages it. When others are cheating and getting away with it, the norm of fairness says it must be all right. Now you can start to see how a society can experience waves of scandal, in business, in sport and elsewhere. “The existence of the motivation of fairness or reciprocity,” says Hurka, “explains why there can be these swings in moral and immoral behaviour.” The media have a role to play here, too. In general, we have no way of knowing whether our fellow citizens are behaving ethically, but we are swayed by what we see on the news. And every time a scandal story breaks, the norm of fairness applies its effect. Even those perp walks, while increasing the fear of getting caught, reinforce the notion that everyone is cheating. “If the media concentrate on acts of wrongdoing,” says Hurka, “they will create the belief that wrongdoing is common, which will increase the amount of wrongdoing.”
This was the quandary faced by India’s four-term Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru when he was pushed to condemn corruption in his own government. In a quote remembered in Jon Elster’s The Cement of Society, Nehru complained, “Merely shouting from the house-tops that everybody is corrupt creates an atmosphere of corruption…. The man in the street says to himself: ‘well, if everybody seems corrupt, why shouldn’t I be corrupt?’”

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In The Cheating Culture, Callahan devotes a chapter to dishonest students and reports the results of a 2001 study of 1,000 business students on six campuses. It concluded that “students who engaged in dishonest behaviour in their college classes were more likely to engage in dishonest behaviour on the job.” It makes sense to us, intuitively, that people who have cheated before will cheat again. But we make a mistake if we dismiss the cheater as merely a bad apple. Barbara Ley Toffler knows it isn’t true. She was there, at the accounting firm Arthur Andersen, when its leaders made the decisions that linked the firm inextricably to the Enron scandal and ultimately brought it down. She went into that company with high ethical standards, and was appalled at some of the practices she witnessed. But under the influence of the corporate culture, the norm of fairness and the rest of the factors we’ve looked at, it wasn’t long before her standards changed. “I didn’t break any laws or violate regulations,” she writes in Final Accounting, “but I certainly compromised many of my values…. If you hang around a place long enough, you inevitably start to act like most of the people around you.” Toffler now conducts orientation sessions on ethics with MBA students, and one of those students told her something she wants us to hear: “I believe anyone has the potential to be a bad apple.” The mind we’ve been looking at has no evil intent; it thinks of itself, its motivations, as good. And the terrible choice it’s about to make? It might just seem the best decision of all.

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Why ordinary people do Bad Things:

Well, there are a handful of explanations, really. Some of the driving forces behind why we do things that we know are bad for us.

  1. Oppression:

At times people feel driven by force of circumstance to do what they otherwise would not do and some may even commit criminal acts in an effort to bring about what they perceive as solutions to hardships and injustices.

  1. Money:

The old adage, every man has his price, implies that even good people are willing to violate the rules of decency and morality when enough money is involved. Some who appear amiable and kind under normal circumstances seem to undergo a personality change when money is at stake, transforming themselves into obnoxious and hostile characters. Think of the many crimes that are rooted in greed—blackmail, extortion, fraud, kidnapping, and even murder.

  1. Getting away:

There is a human tendency to think that one can get away with anything when those in authority are not watching. This is true of people speeding on the highway, cheating on exams, embezzling public funds, and worse. When enforcement is lax or when fear of getting caught is absent, people who are normally law-abiding may feel emboldened to do what they otherwise would not do. “The ease with which criminals get away unpunished,” observes the magazine Arguments and Facts, “seems to inspire ordinary citizens to commit the most brutal of crimes.”

  1. Temptations:

All humans are susceptible to wrong thinking. Every day, we are bombarded with countless suggestions and temptations to do wrong.

  1. Peer Pressure:

We’ve all succumbed to peer pressure at some point or another and it’s only natural to wish to appease those around us in an attempt to fit in. Peer pressure is no joke and its influence can sway individuals and entire communities alike.

  1. Conditioning:

Habits can be hard to break, but conditioning can be flat-out dangerous and seemingly impossible to alter. Once you’ve done something for so long or have been a part of an environment so consistently, there is a chance that you may never open your eyes to an obvious truth or break the cycle to which you’ve become so accustomed. Sometimes, it’s just how we’re raised. Often, we become conditioned to think, feel and act certain ways, due to the result of an impactful event in our past.

  1. Denial:

Have you ever known someone who continuously makes bad decisions, yet refuses to admit he or she has a problem? Sure, we all have. Denial can be dangerous in any dose. Sometimes, it takes others to intervene in order to help someone realize he or she may be headed down a slippery slope.

  1. Misinformation:

Sometimes, it’s hard to make certain decisions in good faith when we don’t know all of the facts or if we are simply misinformed. What we perceive as good, or better, may actually turn out to be the polar opposite.

  1. Bad feels Good:

You simply can’t deny it. Sometimes, bad just feels so good. We’ve all been there. You eat bowl of ice cream and tell yourself it’s low fat, so you’re in the clear, even though the calorie-count you just ignored offers opposing information. Sometimes, things just feel good when you’re in the moment. It isn’t until you’re paying the consequences later on that you begin to have doubts.

  1. Desperation:

Being desperate is the worst of the irrational defence mechanisms. When a person feels like they have to go to extreme measures, they often will, at the expense of everything and everyone around them. Desperate people can destroy their lives horrifically quickly.

  1. Boredom:

Boredom is a powerful motivator. When your brain feels like it’s slowing down against its will, it will tell you that you need excitement that you don’t really need. People, when overly bored, will find all kinds of unnecessary and harmful behaviors that supplement their otherwise bland existence — especially if they are used do a fast paced lifestyle. Slowing down is strange for them. Instead of enjoying the silence, they tend to create chaos.

  1. Ignorance:

Ignorance will drive people to do harmful things that destroy the rest of their life. Lack of awareness about options and opportunities and people who can help force people to do things that are damaging and have long-lasting consequences.

  1. Shamelessness:

Another cause for our self-destructiveness is unacknowledged and unprocessed shame, that abundant storehouse of negative messages we have received from those around us. One reason for the popularity of courtroom TV, reality shows, shock jock radio, and gossip rags is that they all deliver an unconscious outlet for the toxic hatred and criticism we have about ourselves. We deactivate the shame app in our personal software.

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Studies on cheating by ordinary humans:

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  1. Experts who study the ethical makeup of societies always mark off a portion of the populace who can be counted on to do no wrong. According to Professor Leonard Brooks of the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management, the forensic accountant’s rule of thumb holds that “20 per cent of people in general will not steal anything, even if they have a chance.” Those are ones who snarl at temptation. Out of remaining 80 %, Professor Brooks says, “60 per cent will steal if they think there’s a good chance they won’t get caught.” Once the enforcement mechanism is weakened, the segment of the population that was restrained from immoral behaviour only by the fear of “getting caught” starts to get a little frisky. Our mind, ever alert to outside influences, can’t help but notice the ethical shift. And then the “norm of fairness” breaks down.

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  1. A study was conducted by psychologists Edward Diener at the University of Illinois and Mark Wallbom at the University of Washington where participants were taking a test with the explicit instruction to not go more than five minutes. The experimenter then set a timer bell for five minutes, left the room, and watched what happened through a two-way mirror. 71% of participants kept going after the bell sounded – hardly a display of honest behavior on their part. In the same study, there was also a separate group of participants, where each one would take the same test in the same room, except that this time the person was seated directly in front of a two-way mirror and, “thus saw themselves whenever they glanced up”. The result? Only 7% of participants cheated. This is a startling difference – 71% versus 7%, where the only difference is the presence of a mirror in front of the participants. The participants suspected that someone is watching through mirror, so behaved honestly.

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  1. Unethical behaviour can be contagious:

It’s an interesting question, how observing the questionable behaviour of others affects our own actions.  Multiple, viable hypotheses exist.  Perhaps seeing someone else get away with something convinces you that the odds of getting caught are lower than you previously figured.  Maybe seeing others behave poorly loosens the social conventions that otherwise pressure you into behaving well.  Or it could be that seeing the transgressions of others simply brings the notion of ethics to the forefront of your mind. It turns out that a key determinant on this question is who is the unethical role model?  Francesca Gino, now at Harvard, and colleagues investigated this by having students complete a task on which they could cheat in order to earn more money.  Upon seeing cheating from another student from their own school—wearing university paraphernalia—students became more likely to cheat themselves.  It would seem that seeing someone you affiliate with engage in unethical behavior can make you view cheating as less problematic. But witnessing a student from a rival school cheating had the opposite effect.  Students became less likely to cheat in this scenario, indicating that when the cheater in your midst is part of them instead of us, bad behaviour can make prevailing ethical standards more salient.

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  1. Akbar and Birbal Tale:

Akbar was a ruler in India during the 1500s and Birbal was his advisor. The emperor Akbar was curious about the character of his subjects. Birbal advised him that wise men all think alike, and they are tempted to be dishonest. Akbar disagreed and they put the claim to a test. Birbal invited 100 men to the palace. They were told to return the next day with one pail of milk each. Each person would pour the milk into a well and so all the milk would be collected for the emperor. The men agreed and went home. The next day one of the men was preparing to go to the palace. He was about to fill his pail with milk when he thought about the situation. He thought, all of the milk is going to be pooled collectively into the well. So if everyone else is bringing milk, then what harm is it if I bring a pail of water instead? Surely no one will notice a single pail of water diluting the milk. Therefore, I will bring a pail of water and keep the milk for myself. That day all the men went to the palace and filled up with well with their pails. At night Akbar and Birbal went to the well. When they inspected it, it was completely full of water! Birbal pointed out that each man had thought to cheat the plan by diluting the well with water. But since everyone had the same thought, it turned out that no one ended up bringing milk.

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Are humans inherently good?

Arguments in favour of ‘yes’:

The true question here would be if morality is due to the influence of society or if society was only created as a guideline to our morality. Kind of like a chicken or the egg question. The only way society could have ever existed is with the unity of people and inherent goodness within us.  The fact that humans may be born good and have slowly been corrupted by society, or that they have been born bad and have been kept in check by laws is unknown. It is such a fundamental question that there has been no solid evidence to whether humans are good or evil. Hurricane Katrina showed that instead of angry mobs looting everything, humans band together in times of crisis to help each other. Humans are naturally inclined to feel compassion and love for others, and this is the case unless something unnatural occurs and disrupts a person’s life. People never hear about a person whom kills just to kill. There is always a reason on why. We are all inherently good to begin and those who become “evil” only do so because they have been shaped by their surroundings and their experiences.  Babies are certainly not evil. Growing up, we see people do things that are “evil”.

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Are humans inherently good?

Arguments in favour of ‘no’.

Humans tend to only do what they think is best for themselves. The average human only acts for themselves. Humans from birth are inherently selfish; survival is the only mentality they have. Even if it means killing other people then so be it.

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Fundamental Nature of Man:

Hobbesian vs. Lockean:

Let me introduce you briefly to John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, and explain in simple terms their opposing beliefs about the nature of man. Then you can choose which camp you want to belong to.

The nature of man according to Hobbes:

According to the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), people are wolves: the bestial nature of man means that we are purely focused on our own interest. We are heedless of others and competitive to the core. We only behave socially and cooperatively out of a sense of self-preservation. Without the intervention of a higher authority there would be permanent war. Thomas Hobbes held the depressing view that man, left to himself, would descend into “a war of all against all.” To prevent us from killing and otherwise hurting each other, government is needed. We grant the government our rights in exchange for its protection. Hobbes thought that we cannot know the difference between good and evil, and cannot achieve peace by our own means. Civil society is thus based on a strong government telling us what to do, and peace is achieved when we do what we are told. Hobbesians, therefore, live in the belief that we are constantly at risk of being hurt by one another. Our assumption is that others are out to get us, and our instinct is to protect ourselves.

The nature of man according to Locke:

John Locke (1632-1704) believed that man is by nature a social animal. For the most part, we are reasonable and tolerant. We tend to live in a state of peace and honour our obligations to each other. Occasional conflicts would arise and so it is important to establish boundaries of ownership. Locke thought that people had an innate sense of right and wrong, even if we disagreed over the specifics from time to time. We are therefore capable of resolving conflicts in a fair and peaceful manner. The state exists to formalise our individual rights in the form of property rights. Lockeans, therefore, are convinced that people are by nature good, and will deal fairly with each other. Our assumption is that others will respect our rights, and our inclination is to seek peaceful co-existence through mutual respect.

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Also, at the opposite end of the spectrum from Hobbes was the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Rousseau was of the opinion that people have a preference for good: ‘Man is by nature good and happy; it is society which destroys original happiness.’ According to Rousseau it is the corrupting influence of the environment, of society, which incites man to do wrong and therefore makes him unhappy. Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that man is naturally good and that vice and error are alien to him. This creates a conflict between “nature” and “artifice” in attitudes to society, education and religion.  According to Rousseau, nature is man’s state before being influenced by outside forces. At the same time, he asserts: “If man is left… to his own notions and conduct, he would certainly turn out the most preposterous of human beings. The influence of prejudice, authority… would stifle nature in him and substitute nothing.” In other words, human beings need outside intervention to develop their natural propensity for good. “We are born weak, we have need of help, we are born destitute… we have need of assistance; we are born stupid, we have need of understanding.” Man needs to work with nature, not against it. Rousseau says, in his treatise, that man is discontented with anything in its natural state and claims that everything degenerates in his hand… “…he mutilates his dogs, his horses and his slaves; he defaces, he confounds.”

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The Confucian philosopher Mencius (382-303 BCE) tells the story of how an ordinary person feels if he sees a child fall into a well. Any person, Mencius argues, will feel alarm and distress — not because he hoped for anything from the parents, nor because he feared the anger of anyone because he failed to save the child, nor again because he wanted to enhance his own reputation by this act of modest heroism. It’s simply that, Mencius says, “All men have a mind which cannot bear to see the sufferings of others.” Mencius’s claim is too strong. Whether we think of jihadists cutting off the heads of innocent journalists or soldiers waterboarding helpless prisoners, everywhere we look we see examples of humans not only bearing the sufferings of others, but causing them, even taking pleasure in them. Surely we are both good and evil: it’s hard to imagine an argument or an experiment that would prove that we are wholly one or the other. But that we are both good and evil doesn’t mean we are an equal mix of the two. What Mencius intends is that we are mostly good — that good is our normal state of being and evil is an exceptional one, in much the way health is our normal state of being and sickness the exception. What is our goodness? It seems to be nothing more than the natural tendency towards sympathy, and it looks like it’s not restricted to human beings. A study found that rhesus monkeys would decline to pull a chain that delivered a heaping meal once they figured out that this action simultaneously administered a shock to another rhesus monkey. “These monkeys were literally starving themselves to prevent the shock to the conspecific,” noted one of the researchers. There is also overwhelming evidence that primates experience sympathy for animals outside their own species: Kuni, a bonobo female at Twycross Zoo in England, cared for a wounded starling that fell into her enclosure until it could be removed by the zookeeper. To be good is fundamentally to have other people’s interests in mind, and not—as Mencius is concerned to point out (and after him the philosopher Immanuel Kant)—just because of the good they can do you in return. To be good is to have some genuinely selfless motivations. Of course, circumstances often encourage us to act in selfish and cruel ways: the world is a competitive, rough-and-tumble place, with more scarcity than supply. Yet most of us, when allowed, are naturally inclined toward sympathy and fellow-feeling. As the philosopher R.J. Hankinson says: It’s not just that we do act with sympathy, we are happier when we act that way — and we don’t do it just because it makes us happy. There’s an interesting sort of self-defeating quality about trying to be altruistic for selfish reasons. But what is rare — and looks pathological — is to act purely selfishly. The very oddness, the counter-intuitiveness of the good, suggests a primal source of its existence in us, which in turn explains our perennial insistence upon it. Something in us rebels against the idea of abandoning goodness. Indeed there are many, whether theists or no, who would be deeply offended by the mere suggestion. Here again we see that our goodness wells up from a deep, natural spring.

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Bruce Bubacz, another philosopher says that every man can be either good or evil: it all depends, to seize on a photographic metaphor, “on the developer and the fixer.” This reminded us of the Cherokee myth that both a good wolf and a bad wolf live in the human heart, always at battle, and the winner is “the one you feed.” Bubacz’s way of looking at it does make sense of cases like the complicity of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust, or the escalations of evil in very recent genocides in places such as Bosnia and Sudan. From the time when humanity was able to believe in it, Utopia has existed as a mere word, thought or principle. It is a place that is hoped for, and is also a society that was and is apparently deemed to be possible, or is it? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “an imaginary and indefinitely remote place of ideal perfection in laws, government and social conditions.” It doesn’t exist. It cannot exist because of our nature, our practices, and our imperfections. Since the dawn of man, the world has always been in dissonance. This is because of the differences from one person to another and the uniqueness each individual possesses. For a Utopian society to exist, support and combined focus of individuals who have the same ideals are needed. In order for a perfect society to thrive, its inhabitants must have one idea of perfection. However, there will always be someone who will go astray and believe otherwise; and if a person is able to hold unto individuality, many others will as well.

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There are two partially true beliefs — both of which claim evidence from evolution.

These two views are:

  1. People are basically good and just need to be nurtured and freed.
  2. People are basically bad and need to be controlled to keep from killing each other.

Given the tremendous evidence on both sides, perhaps it might be useful to consider a third thesis that embraces both of them:

  1. Human nature is not one thing, neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ overall. People in general have been genetically endowed by evolution with a wide variety of tendencies and capacities that respond to — but are not necessarily controlled or determined by — their environment. And so we see all sorts of individual and cultural behaviors, providing evidence to defend virtually any assertions about ‘human nature. We might therefore conclude that our challenge at this stage of evolution is to recognize that ‘human nature’ is richly diverse and flexible. Perhaps our task is to use our powers of consciousness, intelligence, and choice to explore the full range of who we are and can be in various circumstances.

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Scientific studies to ascertain whether humans good or bad by their nature:

It’s a question that has repeatedly been asked throughout humanity. For thousands of years, philosophers have debated whether we have a basically good nature that is corrupted by society, or a basically bad nature that is kept in check by society. Psychology has uncovered some evidence which might give the old debate a twist.  As long as science has existed people have debated whether humankind is good or evil, and whether this is a matter of nature, or comes from upbringing, education and environment: the nature-nurture debate. Classical economic theories would have us believe that man is egotistical, and focused on satisfying his own needs. If we can choose, for example, between two products of the same quality, then we choose the product with the lowest price, because this is to our advantage. The question as to who is right is not an easy one. Recent research by Kiley Hamlin and colleagues gives us a hint at the answer. They were interested in the question of the extent to which people are naturally able to distinguish right and wrong. Only if people can make this distinction can they determine whether they want to behave accordingly. In order to establish this, research was carried out among young babies. One way of asking about our most fundamental characteristics is to look at babies. Babies’ minds are a wonderful showcase for human nature. Babies are humans with the absolute minimum of cultural influence.  Babies have barely any stored information about what is right and what is wrong. They have no friends, no cultural influence, no school or public communication; their innocent minds great for better and more accurate results. Scientists usually communicate with people through speech, but the problem is that babies lack the ability to speak. It would be extremely difficult to know what he/she is thinking when one does not know the language yet. Fortunately, people do not necessarily need to speak to uncover a thought. Infants are known to touch anything they find interesting, hold an object they like, or stare at something that catches their eye. In the study babies aged six months had a large wooden board placed before them. To the left on the board was a picture of a mountain. A wooden figure with two big round eyes then moved towards the mountain. The figure was controlled by the researchers on the other side of the board, out of sight of the baby. The figure tried to climb the mountain, but fell down when it reached half way. This happened again on a second attempt. When the figure climbed the mountain for the third time, another figure was added: the helper or hinderer. The helper also came from the right and pushed the figure to the top. The hinderer came from the left, from the top of the mountain, and pushed the figure down, so that it failed to reach the top for a third time. Both figures were then placed in front of the babies on a tray. The researchers were curious as to which figure the babies would pick up. Would it be the hinderer or the helper? And what happened? In all cases the babies picked up the helper and left the hinderer. Even when the researchers varied the colors and shapes of the helper and hinderer, the results were the same. According to the researchers this is evidence that people are capable of distinguishing right and wrong from a very early age, even before they can speak. We are able to determine what is good and what is harmful for others. Evidently we possess empathy from a young age. But not only that: we also have a tendency to choose the good. However limited the experiment may have been, and however primitive the distinction here between good and evil, this suggests we feel sympathy for what is good. The results they have collected state that even the youngest of minds know what is right and wrong, and an instinct to prefer good over evil. The way to make sense of this result is if infants, with their pre-cultural brains had expectations about how people should act. Not only do they interpret the movement of the shapes as resulting from motivations, but they prefer helping motivations over hindering ones. This doesn’t settle the discussion on natural instinct. A cynic would say that it shows that infants are self-interested and expect others to be the same. Though when born, we naturally have the ability to make sense of the world in terms of motivations, and a basic instinct to prefer friendly intentions over malicious ones. It is on this foundation that adult morality is built and we are born good. The fact that people can tell right from wrong from a young age, and also have a preference for right, does not mean that they always do right. Wrong can sometimes be very attractive.

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Hamlin’s work complements a similar study published recently by Marco Schmidt and Jessica Summerville. In their study Schmidt and Summervile presented 15 month year old babies two videos: one in which an experimenter distributes an equal share of crackers to two recipients and another in which the experimenter distributes an unequal share of crackers (they also did the same procedure with milk). They measured how the babies looked at the crackers and milk while they were distributed. They found that babies spent more time looking when one recipient got more food than the other. This means, according to “violation of expectancy,” which describes how babies pay more attention to something when it surprises them, that “the infants [expecting] an equal and fair distribution of food… were surprised to see one person given more crackers or milk than the other.”

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What does this say about us being good or evil? It suggests that babies are born with certain moral capacities and the potential to have a strong moral sense. This does not confirm nor deny that we are inherently… well, anything. The interaction between genes and environment influences our behaviors and personalities; we are not blank slates, in other words. Importantly, what Hamlin’s work is showing is that we are also not moral blank slates.

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Does altruism really exist?

According to Abraham Lincoln, pure altruism does not exist. One day Lincoln was riding in a coach, in heated discussion with a fellow passenger on the question as to whether helping another is really altruistic. Lincoln argued that helping can always be traced back to one’s own interests, whereas the fellow passenger maintained that there is such a thing as true altruism. Suddenly the men were interrupted by the squeal of a pig trying to rescue her piglets from drowning. Lincoln ordered the coach to stop, jumped out, ran to the stream, grabbed the piglets and set them safely on the bank. Back in the coach his fellow passenger said, ‘Well now, Abe, where’s the selfishness in this incident?’ ‘The reason for my action is a good question,’ Lincoln replied. ‘That was the very essence of selfishness. I should have no peace of mind all day had I gone and left that suffering old sow worrying over those pigs. I did it for my own peace of mind. Do you understand?’ According to Lincoln, self-interest always plays a role, even when we help others. Pure altruism does not exist, only enlightened self-interest. We help one another in order to achieve peace of mind, to soothe our consciences, or to feel good about ourselves. However, people are also spontaneously altruistic by nature. Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello have shown this to be the case. Their experiment focused on toddlers of 1.5 years. They were confronted with different scenarios in which an unknown adult, the male researcher, had difficulty achieving a goal. The adult accidentally dropped a felt-tip pen on the floor but could not reach to pick it up, and tried and failed to open a cupboard door with his hands full. For every scenario there was a control in which the adult had no difficulty, for instance intentionally throwing the pen on the floor. Each experiment consisted of three phases: for the first ten seconds the adult looked only towards the object, for the next ten seconds he varied between looking at the object and at the child and in the last ten seconds the adult talked about the problem and continued to look from the object to the child and back. There was no benefit to the child in helping: no reward was on offer in return for help. Furthermore, no appreciation was shown. What was the outcome? 92 percent of the children helped at least once, whereas the figure was considerably lower in the control scenarios. In the scenario with the pen alone two-thirds of the children helped, compared to only a quarter in the control. Interestingly in almost all situations in which the toddler helped (84 percent), this happened in the first ten seconds, without the adult looking at the toddler for help or asking for help. According to Warneken and Tomasello, their research shows that even very young children have a natural inclination to help others solve their problems, even when the other person is a stranger and there is nothing to be gained. They conclude that this is evidence of the existence of pure altruism. Helpfulness is apparently in our genes, at least for most people. Not only are we able to tell when others need help at an early age, we are also prepared to help, even if the help offered in the experimental scenario did not take much effort and the children did not have to sacrifice much. Daniel Batson and his team have carried out a great deal of research into the situations in which adults are altruistic. Their experiments show that people help others when they feel empathy for them, even when the costs are greater than the rewards. This empathy is generated when people see that the other needs help, when they value the well-being of the person in need, and when they are able to put themselves in the position of the other and to understand what the help means for them.

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For centuries many philosophers, as well as most individuals, have pondered on the question what is good and what is evil. More-so philosophers of all ages have also stumbled upon a more in depth question which is if the intuitive knowledge of man’s nature is good, or if it is evil.  A new set of studies provides compelling data allowing us to analyze human nature not through a philosopher’s kaleidoscope or a TV producer’s camera, but through the clear lens of science. These studies were carried out by a diverse group of researchers from Harvard and Yale—a developmental psychologist with a background in evolutionary game theory, a moral philosopher-turned-psychologist, and a biologist-cum-mathematician—interested in the same essential question: whether our automatic impulse—our first instinct—is to act selfishly or cooperatively. This focus on first instincts stems from the dual process framework of decision-making, which explains decisions (and behavior) in terms of two mechanisms: intuition and reflection. Intuition is often automatic and effortless, leading to actions that occur without insight into the reasons behind them. Reflection, on the other hand, is all about conscious thought—identifying possible behaviors, weighing the costs and benefits of likely outcomes, and rationally deciding on a course of action. With this dual process framework in mind, we can boil the complexities of basic human nature down to a simple question: which behavior—selfishness or cooperation—is intuitive, and which is the product of rational reflection? In other words, do we cooperate when we overcome our intuitive selfishness with rational self-control, or do we act selfishly when we override our intuitive cooperative impulses with rational self-interest? To answer this question, the researchers first took advantage of a reliable difference between intuition and reflection: intuitive processes operate quickly, whereas reflective processes operate relatively slowly. Whichever behavioral tendency—selfishness or cooperation—predominates when people act quickly is likely to be the intuitive response; it is the response most likely to be aligned with basic human nature.

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The experimenters first examined potential links between processing speed, selfishness, and cooperation by using 2 experimental paradigms (the “prisoner’s dilemma” and a “public goods game”), 5 studies, and a total of 834 participants gathered from both undergraduate campuses and a nationwide sample. Each paradigm consisted of group-based financial decision-making tasks and required participants to choose between acting selfishly—opting to maximize individual benefits at the cost of the group—or cooperatively—opting to maximize group benefits at the cost of the individual. The results were striking: in every single study, faster—that is, more intuitive—decisions were associated with higher levels of cooperation, whereas slower—that is, more reflective—decisions were associated with higher levels of selfishness. These results suggest that our first impulse is to cooperate—that Hobbes was wrong, and that we are fundamentally “good” creatures after all. The researchers followed up these correlational studies with a set of experiments in which they directly manipulated both this apparent influence on the tendency to cooperate—processing speed—and the cognitive mechanism thought to be associated with this influence—intuitive, as opposed to reflective, decision-making. In the first of these studies, researchers gathered 891 participants (211 undergraduates and 680 participants from a nationwide sample) and had them play a public goods game with one key twist: these participants were forced to make their decisions either quickly (within 10 seconds) or slowly (after at least 10 seconds had passed). In the second, researchers had 343 participants from a nationwide sample play a public goods game after they had been primed to use either intuitive or reflective reasoning. Both studies showed the same pattern—whether people were forced to use intuition (by acting under time constraints) or simply encouraged to do so (through priming), they gave significantly more money to the common good than did participants who relied on reflection to make their choices. This again suggests that our intuitive impulse is to cooperate with others. Taken together, these studies—7 total experiments, using a whopping 2,068 participants—suggest that we are not intuitively selfish creatures. But does this mean that we our naturally cooperative? Or could it be that cooperation is our first instinct simply because it is rewarded? After all, we live in a world where it pays to play well with others: cooperating helps us make friends, gain social capital, and find social success in a wide range of domains. As one way of addressing this possibility, the experimenters carried out yet another study. In this study, they asked 341 participants from a nationwide sample about their daily interactions—specifically, whether or not these interactions were mainly cooperative; they found that the relationship between processing speed (that is, intuition) and cooperation only existed for those who reported having primarily cooperative interactions in daily life. This suggests that cooperation is the intuitive response only for those who routinely engage in interactions where this behavior is rewarded—that human “goodness” may result from the acquisition of a regularly rewarded trait.

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Throughout the ages, people have wondered about the basic state of human nature—whether we are good or bad, cooperative or selfish. This question—one that is central to who we are—has been tackled by theologians and philosophers, presented to the public eye by television programs, and dominated the sleepless nights of both guilt-stricken villains and bewildered victims; now, it has also been addressed by scientific research. Although no single set of studies can provide a definitive answer—no matter how many experiments were conducted or participants were involved—this research suggests that our intuitive responses, or first instincts, tend to lead to cooperation rather than selfishness. Although this evidence does not definitely solve the puzzle of human nature, it does give us evidence we may use to solve this puzzle for ourselves—and our solutions will likely vary according to how we define “human nature.”  If human nature is something we must be born with, then we may be neither good nor bad, cooperative nor selfish. But if human nature is simply the way we tend to act based on our intuitive and automatic impulses, then it seems that we are an overwhelmingly cooperative species, willing to give for the good of the group even when it comes at our own personal expense.

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What is evil?

The obvious thing to say about evil is that it is the opposite of good. However, this definition is too imprecise to be of much use. “The Free Dictionary” proposes; that which is “morally bad or wrong; wicked”. Hence something that is immoral, but also wicked. Wicked is defined as “evil by nature” or “malicious”. “The WordNet Search” at Princeton University’s web pages has a similar definition: “morally objectionable behaviour” and “morally bad or wrong”. Clearly, if something is evil it opposes morality.  But whose morality? This is where the problem lies. Is a person evil if he or she acts according to his or hers morality? “Wikipedia“offers the explanation that something is evil if it violates “the most basic moral or ethical standards prescribed by a society, philosophy, or religion“.  Further, it says that since different societies have different morals, evil is not a fixed thing. So, if this definition has some validity, it is the society’s morality, and not the individual’s, that determines if something is evil. However, both “The Free Dictionary” and “The WordNet Search’s” definitions have a second significant part. The focus lies on the consequences of an action, not the intention. It seems that, to be evil, an action must, at least, be wrong. The Free Dictionary’s second definition of evil is that which is “causing ruin, injury, or pain; harmful”. Furthermore, the WordNet Search’s is “that which causes harm or destruction or misfortune”. Both focus on the consequences of an action. If it causes injury, pain or harm, it is considered evil.  As a rule, by “evil” we mean acts that are profoundly anti-human or anti-social, such as rape, torture, killing, etc.  Evil is intentionally behaving — or causing others to act – in ways that demean, dehumanize, harm, destroy, or kill innocent people. This behaviorally-focused definition makes evil responsible for purposeful, motivated actions that have a range of negative consequences to other people. It excludes accidental or unintended harmful outcomes, as well as the broader, generic forms of institutional evil, such as poverty, prejudice or destruction of the environment by agents of corporate greed. But it does include corporate responsibility for marketing and selling products with known disease-causing, death-dealing properties, such as cigarette manufacturers, or other drug dealers. It also extends beyond the proximal agent of aggression, as studied in research on interpersonal violence, to encompass those in distal positions of authority whose orders or plans are carried out by functionaries. This is true of military commanders and national leaders, such as Hilter, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and others who history has identified as tyrants for their complicity in the deaths of untold millions of innocent people. We live in a world cloaked in the evils of civil and international wars, of terrorism — home-grown and exported — of homicides, of rapes, of domestic and child abuse, and more forms of devastation. The same human mind that creates the most beautiful works of art and extraordinary marvels of technology is equally responsible for the perversion of its own perfection. This most dynamic organ in the universe has been a seemingly endless source for creating ever more vile torture chambers and instruments of horror in earlier centuries, the “bestial machinery” unleashed on Chinese citizens by Japanese soldiers in their rape of Nanking, and the recent demonstration of “creative evil” of the destruction of the World Trade Center by weaponizing commercial airlines. We continue to ask why? Why and how is it possible for such deeds to continue to occur? How can the unimaginable become so readily imagined? And these are the same questions that have been asked by generations before ours. The human mind is so marvellous that it can adapt to virtually any known environmental circumstance in order to survive, to create, and to destroy as necessary. The vast majority of human cultures have been observed doing evil things, and otherwise ordinary people from contemporary civilisations have been observed doing these things under certain conditions. This suggests it is in our nature to be evil (in this sense), but also that it is not inevitable that we manifest this aspect of our nature.

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The Evil of Inaction:

Perpetrators, collaborators, bystanders, victims: we can be clear about three of these categories. The bystander, however, is the fulcrum. If there are enough notable exceptions, then protest reaches a critical mass. We don’t usually think of history as being shaped by silence, but, as English philosopher Edmund Burke said, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ Our usual take on evil focuses on violent, destructive actions, but non-action can also become a form of evil, when helping, dissent and disobedience are called for. Social psychologists heeded the alarm when the infamous Kitty Genovese case made national headlines. As she was being stalked, stabbed and eventually murdered, 39 people in a housing complex heard her screams and did nothing to help. It seemed obvious that this was a prime example of the callousness of New Yorkers, as many media accounts reported. A counter to this dispositional analysis came in the form of a series of classic studies by Bibb Latan and John Darley (1970) on bystander intervention. One key finding was that people are less likely to help when they are in a group, when they perceive others are available who could help, than when those people are alone. The presence of others diffuses the sense of personal responsibility of any individual. A research study found that you should not be a victim in distress when people are late and in a hurry, because 90 percent of them are likely to pass you by, giving you no help at all! The more time the people believed they had, the more likely they were to stop and help. So the situational variable of time press accounted for the major variance in helping, without any need to resort to dispositional explanations about people being callous or cynical or indifferent.

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“The line between good and evil is permeable,” said psychologist Philip Zimbardo, “and almost anyone can be induced to cross it when pressured by situational forces. …I argue that we all have the capacity for love and evil—to be Mother Theresa, to be Hitler or Saddam Hussein. It’s the situation that brings that out.”  As Zimbardo and other social scientists have shown in a range of experiments, actions we deem evil – cheating, lying, stealing, and worse – don’t spring from people’s character, but the situations they find themselves in. When people have an ideology to justify their actions, they’ll do bad things. Philip Zimbardo, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University, argues that people do evil things when they have an ideology — or system of ideals — to lean on. “All evil begins with a big ideology,” Zimbardo said. “What is the evil ideology about the Iraq war? National security. National security is the ideology that is used to justify torture in Brazil. You always begin with this big, good thing because once you have the big ideology then it’s going to justify all the action.”

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What makes us evil?

Research has uncovered many answers to this question: Evil can be fostered by dehumanization, diffusion of responsibility, obedience to authority, unjust systems, group pressure, moral disengagement, and anonymity, to name a few. We are all born with tremendous capacity to be anything, and we get shaped by our circumstances—by the family or the culture or the time period in which we happen to grow up, which are accidents of birth; whether we grow up in a war zone versus peace; if we grow up in poverty rather than prosperity.  George Bernard Shaw captured this point in the preface to his great play “Major Barbara”: “Every reasonable man and woman is a potential scoundrel and a potential good citizen. What a man is depends upon his character what’s inside. What he does and what we think of what he does depends on upon his circumstances.” So each of us may possess the capacity to do terrible things. But we also possess an inner hero; if stirred to action, that inner hero is capable of performing tremendous goodness for others.

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God versus devil:

“Who is responsible for evil in the world, given that there is an all-powerful, omniscient God who is also all-Good?” That conundrum began the intellectual scaffolding of the Inquisition in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe. As revealed in Malleus Maleficarum, the handbook of the German Inquisitors from the Roman Catholic Church, the inquiry concluded that the Devil was the source of all evil. However, these theologians argued the Devil works his evil through intermediaries, lesser demons and of course, human witches. So the hunt for evil focused on those marginalized people who looked or acted differently from ordinary people, who might qualify under rigorous examination of conscience, and torture, to expose them as witches, and then put to death. They were mostly women who could readily be exploited without sources of defence, especially when they had resources that could be confiscated. An analysis of this legacy of institutionalized violence against women is detailed by historian Anne Barstow (1994) in Witchcraze. Paradoxically, this early effort of the Inquisition to understand the origins of evil and develop interventions to cope with evil instead created new forms of evil that fulfilled all facets of definition of evil. But it exemplifies the notion of simplifying the complex problem of widespread evil by identifying individuals who might be the guilty parties, and then making them pay for their evil deeds.

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Psychodynamic theory, as well as most traditional psychiatry, also locates the source of individual violence and anti-social behavior within the psyches of disturbed people, often tracing it back to early roots in unresolved infantile conflicts. Like genetic views of pathology, such psychological approaches seek to link behaviors society judges as pathological to pathological origins — defective genes, “bad seeds,” or pre-morbid personality structures. But the same violent outcomes can be generated by very different types of people, who give no hint of evil impulses. Psychologists interviewed and tested 19 inmates in California prisons who had all recently been convicted of homicide. Half of these killers had a long history of violence, showing lack of impulse control, were decidedly masculine in sexual identity, and generally extroverted. The other ten murderers were totally different. They had never committed any criminal offense prior to the current homicide — their murders were totally unexpected given their mild manner and gentle disposition. Their problem was excessive impulse control that inhibited their expression of any feelings. Their sexual identity was feminine or androgynous, and the majority was shy. These “Shy Sudden Murderers” killed just as violently as did the habitual criminals, and their victims died just as surely, but it would have been impossible to predict this outcome from any prior knowledge of their personalities that were so different from the more obvious habitual criminals.  Human nature proves to be both good and evil because they’re dependent on strength despite individual experiences, showing that a person’s destiny can only be decided by themselves. Once an individual lets either good or evil take over, it will become extremely difficult to reverse. The great philosopher Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living.” We are forced to examine our lives at some point by the pressing questions of our own nature. The answers to questions of our goodness or badness are answered every day by our actions and the actions of those around us. One doesn’t have to look far to see both the best and the worst of who we are as a species.

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Genocide by ordinary people:

The last century has been nicknamed the “age of genocide”. It started with the killing of 80 percent of the Heroro population in Namibia in 1905–07, followed by the Armenian holocaust and the Greek genocide where the Ottoman government was the culprit, the extermination of Jews by the Nazis, the persecutions of Germans by the hands of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe, the Rwandan genocide, up to the more recent South African farm attacks. These atrocities are carried out by ordinary people. One day they will carry out gruesome acts of pillage and plunder, and the next day be ever so nice to their family, pets, and neighbours.

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Around six million people were killed in the Holocaust, the Nazis’ systematic attempt to exterminate the Jewish people. Jews from across Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe were rounded up, and either transported to extermination camps where they were gassed, shot locally, or starved and abused in ghettos and labour camps until they died. This was murder on an industrial scale, and it took an industrial process to do it. From the office workers who planned and oversaw the logistics, to the railway staff who ran the trains, to the community policemen who guarded the streets, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people were part of this attempted genocide. It can be hard for us to even try to understand how this was possible. We might assume that ordinary citizens were so terrified of retribution from the vicious Nazi regime that they reluctantly went along with it. But the truth is far more disturbing than that. In fact, thousands of people, who had lived side by side with their Jewish neighbours for generations, were quite willing to turn on them and become part of a programme of mass murder. After the war, many of the people who played their part in the Holocaust said that they had no choice but to follow orders. Yet historians and German prosecutors have failed to find a single case of any person being threatened with death or imprisonment for refusing to take part. In fact even when given a choice to opt out, ordinary people went on to commit atrocities.

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The 2002 Gujarat riots was a three-day period of inter-communal violence in the Indian state of Gujarat. The burning of a train in Godhra on 27 February 2002, which caused the deaths of 58 Hindu pilgrims karsevaks returning from Ayodhya, is believed to have triggered the violence. According to official figures, the riots resulted in the deaths of 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus; 2,500 people were injured non-fatally, and 223 more were reported missing. Other sources estimate that over 2000 people died. There were instances of rape, children being burned alive, and widespread looting and destruction of property.  273 dargahs, 241 mosques, 19 temples, and 3 churches had been either destroyed or damaged.  It is estimated that Muslim property losses were, “100,000 houses, 1,100 hotels, 15,000 businesses, 3,000 handcarts and 5,000 vehicles destroyed.”  In total 27,780 persons were arrested, either for rioting or as a preventative measure. Most of them were ordinary people and not hardened criminals. While officially classified as a communal riot, the events of 2002 have been described as a pogrom by many scholars, and other independent observers have stated that these events had met the “legal definition of genocide”.  Similarly horrific example might have surfaced from Babi Yar or Dili, Srebrenica or Rwanda. Genocides in vastly different cultures share this reality: Scores of innocent people die at the brutal hands of ordinary people.

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James Waller, a professor of psychology at Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash., suggests that perpetrators of genocide — those who commit what Waller calls “extraordinary human evil” — aren’t just ideologically committed sociopaths or else passive weaklings who’ve been forced to pull the trigger. And contrary to what historians such as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, the author of “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” contend, there isn’t a far-reaching cultural explanation for why one ethnic, religious or political group decides to slaughter another. Instead, according to Waller, complex forces in human nature make all of us capable of committing acts of genocide. Even healers become killers, even women can be just as brutal as men, and we should expect more cases of genocide in the future. In the range of human evil, some of it is very ordinary — gossip, slander, the petty evil we perpetrate every day. But at some level, it takes a qualitative jump and evil becomes rather extraordinary. This extraordinary evil is genocide and mass killing — the murder of innocent men, women and children outside of military conflict. It’s extraordinary in the sense that a political, social or religious group has come to power or take law in their hand, and they decide to exterminate another group of people living in their midst. The perpetrators of genocide and mass killing are not lunatics or insane but ordinary people with extraordinary evil.  We know that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust, but very seldom do we step back and ask the question: How many people does it take to kill 6 million people? We know that 800,000 Rwandans died in 100 days, but again, how many people does it take to kill 800,000 people?  A lot of ordinary people are recruited to do genocide or massacre.  And in the Holocaust you had incidences of this, too — read Jan Gross’ book, entitled “Neighbors,” about a small village in Poland named Jedwabne where the Catholic half of the village killed the Jewish half simply because they were given permission to do so. You realize how thin this veneer of civilization is that we put up. We say we live as neighbors and in a community, but when something happens structurally that says now you have permission to persecute, to take from, to even kill people that you’ve lived with for years, the relative ease with which people can do that is incredible.  Robert J. Lifton said it very well in one of his interviews with a Nazi doctor. The doctor said, “If a patient comes to me with a gangrenous appendix, I have to remove that appendix; I take out a part of their body to save the larger body.” The doctor saw the Jews as the gangrenous appendix in Germany, so he could kill Jews because it was part of healing the larger national body of Germans.

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Ordinary men murder ordinary men, women, and children:

One of the clearest illustrations of how ordinary people can be transformed into engaging in evil deeds that are alien to their past history and to their moral development comes from the analysis of British historian, Christopher Browning. He recounts in Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1993) that in March, 1942 about 80 percent of all victims of the Holocaust were still alive, but a mere 11 months later about 80 percent were dead. In this short period of time, the Endlösung (Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’) was energized by means of an intense wave of mass mobile murder squads in Poland. This genocide required mobilization of a large-scale killing machine at the same time as able-bodied soldiers were needed on the Russian front. Since most Polish Jews lived in small towns and not the large cities, the question that Browning raised about the German high command was “where had they found the manpower during this pivotal year of the war for such an astounding logistical achievement in mass murder?” His answer came from archives of Nazi war crimes, in the form of the activities of Reserve Battalion 101, a unit of about 500 men from Hamburg, Germany. They were elderly, family men too old to be drafted into the army, from working-class and lower middle-class backgrounds, with no military police experience, just raw recruits sent to Poland without warning of, or any training in, their secret mission — the total extermination of all Jews living in the remote villages of Poland. In just 4 months they had shot to death at point blank range at least 38,000 Jews and had another 45,000 deported to the concentration camp at Treblinka. Initially, their commander told them that this was a difficult mission which must be obeyed by the battalion but any individual could refuse to execute these men, women and children. Records indicate that at first about half the men refused and let the others do the mass murder. But over time, social modelling processes took their toll, as did any guilt-induced persuasion by buddies who did the killing, until at the end up to 90 percent of the men in Battalion 101 were involved in the shootings, even proudly taking photographs of their up-close and personal killing of Jews. Browning makes clear that there was no special selection of these men, only that they were as “ordinary” as can be imagined — until they were put into a situation in which they had “official” permission and encouragement to act sadistically and brutishly against those arbitrarily labelled as the “enemy.”

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Ethics are compromised in pursuit of Career:

Ethics can be dangerous to your career. The danger may come not from your own ethics but from the ethics of people around you and the organization of which you are a part. At work, you may be called upon to do things that turn out to be unethical or even illegal. What should you do if that occurs? According to the old adage, “The best defense is a good offense.” And the best defense against involvement in wrongdoing is being prepared for organizational challenges that will inevitably test your personal values, moral beliefs, and commitment to doing the right thing. A study of more than 1,000 Columbia Business School graduates found that 40 percent had been rewarded for taking some action they considered to be “ethically troubling,” and 31 percent of those who refused to act in ways they considered to be unethical believed that they were penalized for their choice, compared to less than 20 percent who felt they had been rewarded.  Ethics can be dangerous to your career if you have not been trained to identify and analyze ethical problems and to resolve them effectively. Ethics can also be dangerous to your career if you work in an organization that does not support ethical behavior or, worse, encourages misconduct. Finally, we should recognize that anyone can get caught up in unethical conduct under the right circumstances. Organizational forces are very strong, and we humans have many psychological weaknesses that make us vulnerable to wrongdoing. Steps can be taken to improve both organizations and the individuals in them, and we should take those steps. But the dangers cannot be eliminated entirely.

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Conflict of interest:

Conflict of interest is a situation in which a person is in a position to derive personal benefit from actions or decisions made in their official capacity. Conflict of interest refers to a situation where a conflict arises for an individual between two competing interests. These are often, but not exclusively, interests of public duty versus private interests. Conflict of interest arises in various fields including healthcare, government, workplace and research.  Conflicts of interest are endemic in the financial industry because firms and institutions often serve as both intermediaries for clients’ financial transactions and custodians of their assets. In addition, investment professionals often have to choose among the competing interests of their clients and employers and weigh those interests against their own. Because conflicts are built into the structure of many financial institutions, the challenge for employees is not necessarily how to avoid conflicts but, rather, how to manage them in an appropriate manner. Employees must be able to identify and distinguish between actual conflicts of interest — when they, or their firm, are acting against the interest of a party whose interest they have a duty to serve — and potential conflicts of interest that could develop into actual conflicts. These situations can result in misconduct or unethical behavior if not properly disclosed or otherwise adequately addressed. Employees also need to recognize and avoid situations in which they, or their firm, stand to gain from not acting in the best interest of those they have an obligation to serve. For example, conflicts of interest can arise in personal trading, the sale of financial products, the allocation of commissions, the dissemination of research or market information, and the IPO and underwriting process. New entrants should be aware of these conflicts and prepared to handle them when they arise. Transparency usually serves to reduce unethical behavior, as it increases the likelihood of getting caught. However, experiments examining the publication of conflicts of interest have found a perverse effect. The effect comes from something called “moral licensing.” If a conflict of interest is publicly disclosed, it can seem less problematic, as if it has been agreed that it’s all right. That can lead people to indulge their bias.

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Why Indians most corrupt?

India is one of the most corrupt country in the world. Corruption is the root cause of poverty in India. The amount of black money generated in India is 50 percent of Indian GDP.  Corruption is rampant in India at various levels and it harms poor people more than others, stifles economic growth and diverts desperately needed funds from education, healthcare and other public services. Is there a certain moral ambivalence in Indian’s notions of right and wrong? Or, is the high level of corruption in Indian society primarily due to the discretionary power of officials, weak institutional accountability, opaque and deliberately convoluted laws, large informal labour force, stealth gold purchase, property transactions with black money and false ownership, predatory government inspectors, a dilatory judiciary, and, above all, the nexus between politics, elections and black money?  In India, corruption is often equated with a morally neutral entrepreneurship. Those who take bribes, and those who give it, are both ‘entrepreneurs’ bound by the same amoral conviction that money is more important for the ends it achieves and not the means by which it is obtained. In this sense the issue of corruption is unfortunately entirely removed from the moral domain; it becomes simply a matter of costs, investments, return, tactics and profit. Those who do not understand this are looked upon as impractical deviants, suffering in their world of irrelevant utopianism. The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi demonetised high denomination currency notes to confront corruption and black money on 8th November 2016. His objectives are noble. Ordinary Indian people have welcomed it as it apparently harms the rich and the elite. It is as if the rich are rich because they looted the poor. I was standing in a queue in a bank for depositing old notes and withdrawing new notes, and I found that none of the people in the queue were rich and elite. Only the poor, the middle class, the factory workers, the labourers and the farmers were in the queue. The prime minister put too much faith in bank officers, oblivious of the fact that many of them have been colluding with the rich for ages and many banks have their own black money which they hide in post-office as deposits. Interestingly corruption money can also be given by bank cheque and not necessarily by cash. I was offered money by various hospitals/laboratories/ imaging centers for referring patients to them by bank cheques. Although I refused, most Indian doctors do accept money for referring patients, and many of them refer only to get money rather than better diagnosis and treatment, all by bank cheques and not cash. Cashless transaction does not mean honest transaction and only 6 % of all black money in India is in cash, the rest invested or siphoned abroad. There is big question mark about security of digital transaction. India lacks laws to protect consumers if they lose money during digital transactions.  Also India is a country where substantial population is uneducated and unintelligent. You need manual dexterity, digital skills and digital literacy to perform digital transaction besides having good cell phone and good data connectivity. Demonetisation is a short-cut to eradicate corruption and black money, cut-off terrorist financing and promote digitalised cashless economy. However short-cut is always dangerous. India cannot be come developed nation overnight. Social transformation cannot occur overnight. Demonetisation of 86 % of currency would lead to significant fall in GDP and marked increase in unemployment, both will enhance poverty. Instead of helping poor, it will harm poor. With the cash crunch continuing and also the hardship faced by common people, the popular support for demonetising high denomination notes is declining. Reports of seizure of large stashes of new currency across the country and multiple cases of bank personnel found to be involved in such collusion has also led to the decline in support of demonetisation. Corruption has continued even after new notes are in circulation and now corrupt officials are demanding bribe in new notes. Scrapping of notes will not root out corruption. If digital transactions could curb corruption and black money, Kenya would have been the most transparent country in the world. About 75% of the adult population in Kenya uses mobile phones for payments and money transfer. The use of mobile money is so widespread that Kenyans can use mobile wallet to pay for goods at virtually any retail shop throughout the country. However, Kenya was listed as one of the world’s most corrupt countries in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perception Index, ranking 139 out of 168. New currency notes are also recovered from the possession of the terrorists who are killed in an encounter in Jammu and Kashmir recently. For the largest democracy, nation building should be done by consensus and inclusiveness rather than secrecy and isolation.

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Religion makes ordinary people do bad things:

For as long as people have believed in heaven and hell, a debate has simmered. Religion makes people act better, supporters have long maintained. Religion poisons everything, an increasingly vocal—and youthful—minority responds.  Atheists quote the following statement made by theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg:

“Frederick Douglass told in his Narrative how his condition as a slave became worse when his master underwent a religious conversion that allowed him to justify slavery as the punishment of the children of Ham. Mark Twain described his mother as a genuinely good person, whose soft heart pitied even Satan, but who had no doubt about the legitimacy of slavery, because in years of living in antebellum Missouri she had never heard any sermon opposing slavery, but only countless sermons preaching that slavery was God’s will. With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.” This has become a standard argument amongst the new atheist movement, that it takes religion to make ordinary people do something evil. The classical example is radical Islamic terrorism.

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Psychology of why ordinary people become bad:

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The Psychology of Deindividuation:

Deindividuation is a concept in social psychology that is generally thought of as the loss of self-awareness in groups. Deindividuation as person moves into a group results in a loss of individual identity and a gaining of the social identity of the group. The three most important factors for deindividuation in a group of people are:

  • Anonymity, so I cannot be found out.
  • Diffused responsibility, so I am not responsible for my actions.
  • Group size, as a larger group increases the above two factors.

Zimbardo performed a set of experiments and field studies on the psychology of deindividuation. The basic procedure involved having young women deliver a series of painful electric shocks to each of two other young women whom they could see and hear in a one-way mirror before them. Half were randomly assigned to a condition of anonymity, or deindividuation, half to one of uniqueness, or individuation. The four college student subjects in each deindividuation group had their appearance concealed, given identifying numbers in place of their names. The comparison individuation subjects were called by their names and made to feel unique, although also in a four-woman group and asked to make the same responses of shocking each of two woman “victims” – all with a suitable cover story, the big lie that they never questioned. The results were clear: Women in the deindividuation condition delivered twice as much shock to both victims as did the women in the individuated comparison condition. Moreover, they shocked both victims, the one previously rated as pleasant and the other unpleasant victim, more over the course of the 20 trials, while the individuated subjects shocked the pleasant woman less over time than they did the unpleasant one. One important conclusion flows from this research and its various replications and extensions. Anything that makes someone feel anonymous, as if no one knows who they are, creates the potential for that person to act in evil ways if the situation gives permission for violence.

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Moral disengagement:

Albert Bandura conducted the famous “Bobo Doll” experiment with 2 groups of 36 children in a laboratory where one group witnessed an adult beating up an inflatable clown doll called Bobo. When it was their own turn to play with Bobo, the group of children who witnessed the adult beating up the doll followed their adult models and kicked the doll, hit it with a mallet, threw it in the air and threw darts at it. The group of children who witnessed the non-aggressive adult showed far less aggression toward Bobo. Bandura’s findings challenged the widely accepted behaviorist view that rewards and punishments are essential to learning. He suggested that people could learn by observing and imitating others’ behaviour. During a period dominated by behaviourism in the mould of B.F. Skinner, Bandura believed the sole behavioural modifiers of reward and punishment in classical and operant conditioning were inadequate as a framework, and that many human behaviours were learned from other humans. Subsequently Bandura developed his “Theory of Moral Disengagement” where he examined why morally competent people, which the vast majority of us are, can “do bad things”. He identified seven key factors that allow people to morally disengage and allow themselves “do bad things”

  1. Moral Justification:

People do not usually engage in harmful conduct until they have justified it to themselves and the morality of their actions. In this process of moral justification, pernicious conduct is made personally and socially acceptable by portraying it as serving socially worthy or moral purposes. People then can act on a moral imperative and preserve their view of themselves as moral agents while doing harm on others.

  1. Euphemistic Labelling:

Language shapes thought patterns on which actions are based. Activities can take on different appearances depending on what they are called. Euphemistic language is used widely to make harmful conduct respectable and to reduce personal responsibility for it. People behave much more cruelly when assaultive actions are given a sanitised label than when they are called aggression.

  1. Advantageous Comparison:

How behaviour is viewed is coloured by what it is compared against and in doing so reprehensible acts can be made righteous. Terrorists see their behaviour as acts of selfless martyrdom by comparing them with widespread cruelties perpetrated on the people with whom they identify. For example, the massive destruction in Vietnam was minimised by portraying the American military intervention as saving the populace from Communist enslavement.

  1. Displacement of Responsibility:

People will behave in ways they normally repudiate if a legitimate authority accepts responsibility for the effects of their conduct. Under displaced responsibility, they view their actions as stemming from the dictates of authorities rather than being personally responsible for them. Because they are not the actual agent of their actions, they are spared self-condemning reactions.

  1. Diffusion of Responsibility:

The exercise of moral control is also weakened when personal agency is obscured by diffusing responsibility for detrimental behaviour. Responsibility can be diffused by division of labour. Subdivided tasks seem harmless in themselves. People shift their attention from the meaning of what they are doing to the details of their specific job. Group decision-making is another common practice that enables otherwise considerate people to behave inhumanely. Where everyone is responsible no one really feels responsible. Collective action, which provides anonymity, is still another expedient for weakening moral control [deindividuation vide supra]. Any harm done by a group can always be attributed largely to the behaviour of others. People act more cruelly under group responsibility than when they hold themselves personally accountable for their actions.

  1. Disregard or Distortion of Consequences:

To be able to perpetrate inhumanities requires more than absolving personal responsibility. Other ways of weakening moral control operate by minimising, disregarding or distorting the effects of one’s action. When people pursue activities that harm others, they avoid facing the harm they cause or minimise it. If minimisation does not work, the evidence of harm can be discredited. As long as the harmful results of one’s conduct are ignored, minimised, distorted or disbelieved there is little reason for self-censure to be activated.

  1. Dehumanisation:

The strength of moral self-censure depends on how the perpetrators regard the people they mistreat. To perceive another as human activates empathetic reactions through perceived similarity. It is difficult to mistreat humanised people without risking personal distress and self-condemnation. Self-censure for cruel conduct can be disengaged or blunted by stripping people of human qualities. Once dehumanised, they are no longer viewed as persons with feelings, hopes and concerns but as sub-human objects. We always hear about the dehumanization of victims, but how does it actually work and what’s the process behind it? It allows us to more easily commit the evil that we want to commit because we’re not committing it upon someone who’s a moral equal or a fellow human. You see it in wartime: military groups and countries describe the enemy in certain terms — like Vietnam, with “gooks.” We do what we need to strip our enemy, our victims, of their humanity. In many ways for us it’s a psychological defense mechanism because if we see their faces, if we know they’re human, if we know they have a husband, wife, children, mother, father, those things make it more difficult to kill.  Franz Stangl was a commandant at Treblinka, who was asked after the war was over: When all the inmates came to Treblinka, you knew you were going to kill them in 24 hours, so why all the humiliation? Why the beating? Why did they have to run around naked? Why did you spit on them and call them names? Stangl’s response was incredible. He said that they did that because it made it easier for their men to do what they had to do. When labels are attached to people, they’re dehumanized, making it easier to act cruelly. In a 1975 experiment, Albert Bandura found that labels dehumanize people, leading to more aggressive actions.  In the experiment, a group of students was asked to administer electrical shocks to another.  Just before the study began, the students overheard the assistant talk to the experimenter using three different with varying levels of humanization:

Neutral: “The subjects from the other school are here.”

Humanized: “The subjects from the other school are here; they seem nice.”

Dehumanized: “The subjects from the other school are here, they seem like animals.”

The result: The students who thought of the others as “animals” elevated their shock levels much higher than the neutral group, while the other who heard that their would-be victims were “nice” were much less aggressive.

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In a group:

Being in a group makes some people lose touch with their personal moral beliefs: a 2014 study:

Researchers find that being in a group makes some people lose touch with their personal moral beliefs. When people get together in groups, unusual things can happen — both good and bad. Groups create important social institutions that an individual could not achieve alone, but there can be a darker side to such alliances: Belonging to a group makes people more likely to harm others outside the group. “Although humans exhibit strong preferences for equity and moral prohibitions against harm in many contexts, people’s priorities change when there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’” says Rebecca Saxe, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at MIT. “A group of people will often engage in actions that are contrary to the private moral standards of each individual in that group, sweeping otherwise decent individuals into ‘mobs’ that commit looting, vandalism, even physical brutality.” Several factors play into this transformation. When people are in a group, they feel more anonymous, and less likely to be caught doing something wrong. They may also feel a diminished sense of personal responsibility for collective actions. Saxe and colleagues recently studied a third factor that cognitive scientists believe may be involved in this group dynamic: the hypothesis that when people are in groups, they “lose touch” with their own morals and beliefs, and become more likely to do things that they would normally believe are wrong. In a study in the journal NeuroImage, the researchers measured brain activity in a part of the brain involved in thinking about oneself. They found that in some people, this activity was reduced when the subjects participated in a competition as part of a group, compared with when they competed as individuals. Those people were more likely to harm their competitors than people who did not exhibit this decreased brain activity. This process alone does not account for intergroup conflict: Groups also promote anonymity, diminish personal responsibility, and encourage reframing harmful actions as ‘necessary for the greater good.’ Still, these results suggest that at least in some cases, explicitly reflecting on one’s own personal moral standards may help to attenuate the influence of ‘mob mentality,’” says Mina Cikara, a former MIT postdoc and lead author of the NeuroImage paper.  In this study, done at MIT, Cikara, Saxe (who is also an associate member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research), former Harvard University graduate student Anna Jenkins, and former MIT lab manager Nicholas Dufour focused on a part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex. When someone is reflecting on himself or herself, this part of the brain lights up in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans. A couple of weeks before the study participants came in for the experiment, the researchers surveyed each of them about their social-media habits, as well as their moral beliefs and behavior. This allowed the researchers to create individualized statements for each subject that were true for that person — for example, “I have stolen food from shared refrigerators” or “I always apologize after bumping into someone.” When the subjects arrived at the lab, their brains were scanned as they played a game once on their own and once as part of a team. The purpose of the game was to press a button if they saw a statement related to social media, such as “I have more than 600 Facebook friends.” The subjects also saw their personalized moral statements mixed in with sentences about social media. Brain scans revealed that when subjects were playing for themselves, the medial prefrontal cortex lit up much more when they read moral statements about themselves than statements about others, consistent with previous findings. However, during the team competition, some people showed a much smaller difference in medial prefrontal cortex activation when they saw the moral statements about themselves compared to those about other people. Those people also turned out to be much more likely to harm members of the competing group during a task performed after the game. Each subject was asked to select photos that would appear with the published study, from a set of four photos apiece of two teammates and two members of the opposing team. The subjects with suppressed medial prefrontal cortex activity chose the least flattering photos of the opposing team members, but not of their own teammates. “This is a nice way of using neuroimaging to try to get insight into something that behaviorally has been really hard to explore,” says David Rand, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University who was not involved in the research. “It’s been hard to get a direct handle on the extent to which people within a group are tapping into their own understanding of things versus the group’s understanding.”

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False self: the effect of a mask:

In her sixth book, New York Times bestselling author Debbie Ford returns to a subject she covers in her workshops and has written about in previous works: the darkness that lies within us all and causes us “to act out in inappropriate ways, destroy our relationships, sabotage our dreams, and place ourselves in harm’s way.” According to the author, the source of our doing bad things is the false self which is animated by our wants, needs, and deep feelings of unworthiness. Within each of us a war rages between “the good self and the bad, the light and the dark, the id and the ego, the Jekyll and Hyde.” Underneath our acts of self-sabotage are unexpressed emotions such as hurt, hopelessness, sadness, anger, jealousy, and hate. With creative élan, Ford offers a revealing guided tour of some of the masks which the false self and the wounded ego dons in the name of fear and shame: the seductress, the charmer, the people pleaser, the quiet snake, too cool, the martyr, the good girl, the nice guy, the abuser, the eternal optimist and more. To suppress our flaws, we live in denial about who we really are. We wear masks that we think can lead us to where we want. The mask represents all those things that we don’t want others to see them. The things that we hide, about which lie, not only by others, but especially by ourselves. The mask is built from the thoughts, emotions and impulses that we deem too painful and embarrassing to be accepted. So, in place to deal with them, we repress them. Even now, hundreds of millions of people living in denial in regards to the shade of their individual. And we are all affected by the mask of the collective, in much more ways than we can imagine. The mask collective is manifested in the form of evil, war, terrorism, social injustice, inequality, radical in our economic system.  A major challenge of adulthood is to discard the masks we have constructed and to express our authentic self.  There is an ancient African religion that advocates hanging a mask in a visible location near the entrance of one’s home. This custom serves as a reminder that people enter our lives under a variety of pretence. It is believed that the symbol of the mask helps us to recognize and protect ourselves against those who are there to take rather than to give, or who may not have genuine friendship or our best interest in their hearts. Hanging a mask near the entranceway of our home reminds us to look past the outer façade of all who enter our lives and see the true nature of the person hiding behind the mask.

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Money:

Wealth can be put into more quantitative terms, and a person can compare his or her wealth to that of others. This can lead to addiction and many antisocial addictive behaviors among those who become highly attentive to their wealth.  As with other addictive substances, the amount needed for satisfaction keeps increasing, and this drives people addicted to money to consider less and less ethical ways to get satisfaction.  Research by Kathleen Vohs shows that the mere presence of money makes people more selfish, as they focus on success and individual needs over other factors.

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The mere smell of money can make people behave unethically: a 2013 study:

  • Researchers from Harvard and University of Utah found that the mere promise of money is enough to cause people to make unethical decisions
  • Results of the study found people would engage in insider trading and lying if they stood to gain financially, but they wouldn’t if there was no money involved
  • Participants ‘completely lost track of everything’ in the effort of pursuing cash

The mere prospect of cash can make unethical behavior much more likely, found a study released in 2013. Researchers from the University of Utah and Harvard wanted to find out exactly what kind of effect the promise of money had on people’s behavior.  The study found that when people stood to gain financially, they were much more likely to behave unethically than otherwise. The study found that people behave more unethically when they stand to gain financially, especially in the realm of business.  Smith-Crow of the University of Utah and Maryam Kouchaki of Harvard University used 324 university students for the study. The group was broken into two groups and took part in the same exercises – only one group was offered a financial reward for certain behavior, and the other wasn’t. In one exercise, the students were presented with unethical acts and asked how likely they were to engage in the acts – one group for money, and one group for nothing. In another, they played a ‘deception game,’ in which one group could earn more money by lying rather than telling the truth, and the other would gain nothing from the lies. A third game allowed the students to choose to hire an employee who would share insider information if hired, and for the second group the candidate had no inside knowledge.  In the fourth game, students engaged in a performance task in which they could earn money by being dishonest (there was nothing to gain by being dishonest for the second group). The study found that people given an opportunity for financial gain were much more likely to be unethical in their intentions, decisions and behavior than those who weren’t. A sample scenario is: ‘You work as an office assistant for a department at a University. You’re alone in the office making copies and realize you’re out of copy paper at home. You therefore slip a ream of paper into your backpack.’ ‘The study didn’t ask people to do horrible acts, there were more mundane like stealing office supplies. But it just shows how insidious this can be. These were normal people and this is something we can all be affected by. Smith-Crowe said that when it comes to making a business decision, study participants with the promise of money set aside their moral issues across the board.  It’s this kind of behavior we’ve seen often in the downfall of major corporations: white collar crimes that begin with a small ethical misstep and snowball into huge acts of fraud.  In recent years, we’ve seen huge corporations such as Enron and Lehmann Brothers collapse due to fraud, and Bernie Madoff who defrauded investors of almost $65 billion. Smith-Crowe said that when participants in the study had an opportunity for financial gain, they became single-minded in the pursuance of it. ‘They completely lost track of everything else except pursuing their self-interests,’ Smith-Crow says ‘They focused on the cost benefit of their decisions rather than how it might affect other people.’ The study is just the latest in a series of academic studies that show that money corrupts. One 2012 study by the University  of Michigan showed that ‘upper class individuals behave more unethically that  lower-class individuals’, which researchers said showed a more favorable  attitude towards greed. The findings show that ‘the mere presence of money…  can serve as a prompt for immoral  behavior operating through a business decision frame,’ the study notes ‘These findings suggest that money is a  more insidious corrupting factor than  previously appreciated, as mere, subtle  exposure to money can be a corrupting influence,’ it concludes.

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Temptations:

The question is not so much whether people are honest, as how long and under what conditions, what temptations they can resist, and at what point they relinquish their integrity. Everybody has a price; the question is what that price is. Do you know yours? How much can you be bought for? And what is the price of people you depend on, or for whom you are responsible? How ‘price-elastic’ are they?  Michael Lewis and colleagues researched the extent to which people have an innate ability to resist temptation. For this purpose he took children of three and five years of age as his subjects. Each time a child was led into a room and asked to go and sit at the table. The researcher then walked behind the child’s back to set up a large toy. He asked the child not to look around. They would be allowed to see the toy later. Having set up the toy, the researcher said that he needed to leave for a moment. On leaving he asked the child again not to look around. The child was now alone in the room and was exposed to the temptation of looking around. After a maximum of 5 minutes the researcher came back and asked the child whether he or she had looked. 38 percent of the three-year-olds said they had looked, even though this was not the agreement; quite a let-down. Lewis had, however, filmed the children when the researcher left the room. What did he discover? The footage showed indisputably that almost all the three-years-olds had looked. Only 10 percent had not. It turns out that most of the children who claimed not to have looked behind them were lying. Half of the children had therefore not only broken the agreement, but had also subsequently lied about it. What about the five-year-olds? They all denied looking behind them, while two-thirds had actually done so. So over time lying increases, though fortunately it seems so does the ability to resist temptation.  According to Lewis, lying begins with learning to speak. Of course the offense of looking around in the experiment and lying about it is pretty innocent in the scheme of things. No one was put at a disadvantage by it. It does, however, show that most people are unable to resist temptation by nature and that lying starts at an early age. Lewis incidentally found that children with a high IQ lied more often. That does not bode well if it is people with a high IQ who hold positions of responsibility later in life. In my article on ‘The Lie’, posted in June 2010 on my website at http://drrajivdesaimd.com/?p=366 , I have shown that the biggest lie is to say that I have never lied.  Lying needs more intelligence and more imagination than telling truth.  All the more so, since temptations also increase. At work there are countless temptations. It is quite a challenge to keep on the straight and narrow when major interests are at stake: that sorely needed contract that can only be won with a backhander, that fall in the share price that can only be avoided by slightly distorting the figures in the annual report, that mass lay-off that can only be prevented by temporarily skirting around environmental law, or the fiercely desired promotion that can only be achieved by sabotaging the other candidate.

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Anticipating temptation may reduce unethical behaviour: a 2015 study finds:

When facing an ethical dilemma, being aware of the temptation before it happens and thinking about the long-term consequences of misbehaving could help more people do the right thing, according to a new study. Most of us want to do the right thing. We don’t want to steal office supplies or lie on an expense report. But we all face temptations, and sometimes we give in to them. A new study suggests that being aware of these temptations, and thinking about their long-term consequences, could help us resist the urge to act unethically.  “People often think that bad people do bad things and good people do good things, and that unethical behavior just comes down to character,” says lead research author Oliver Sheldon, PhD. “But most people behave dishonestly sometimes, and frequently, this may have more to do with the situation and how people view their own unethical behavior than character, per se.”  In a series of experiments, participants who anticipated a temptation to act unethically were less likely to then behave unethically, relative to those who did not. These participants also were less likely to endorse unethical behavior that offered short-term benefits, such as stealing office supplies or illegally downloading copyrighted material. The study was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2015.  “Self-control, or a lack thereof, may be one factor which explains why good people occasionally do bad things,” says Sheldon, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Rutgers University.

Experiment 1:

In one experiment, 196 business-school students were divided into pairs as the buyer or seller of some historic homes. Before the negotiation exercise, half of the group was reminded of ethical temptations; they wrote about a time in their lives when bending the rules was useful, at least in the short term, while the control group wrote about a time when having a back-up plan helped. The sellers were told that the property should only be sold to a buyer who would preserve the historic homes and not destroy them for a new development. However, the buyers were told that their client planned to demolish the homes and build a high-rise hotel, but they were ordered to conceal that information from the seller. More than two thirds of the buyers (67 percent) in the control group lied about the hotel plans so they could close the deal, compared to less than half (45 percent) of the buyers who had been reminded about temptation in the writing exercise.

Experiment 2:

Anticipating temptation may only help, however, if people identify an unethical act as having the potential to jeopardize their self-image, integrity, or reputation. In a second experiment with 75 college students, participants were instructed to flip a coin that was labelled “SHORT” or “LONG” several times to determine whether they had to proofread short or long passages of text for spelling and grammatical errors. The participants were divided into two groups who completed the same writing exercise as the first experiment (recalling unethical behavior or a back-up plan). Additionally, half of the participants were told that a person’s values, life goals and personality are stable, while the other group was told that those characteristics can change radically even within a few months’ time. This information was intended to affect whether participants would view their behavior in task as consistent or not with who they would be in the future. Participants who were encouraged to anticipate temptation and who thought their behavior was consistent with their future self, were honest: they reported short coin flips that didn’t differ from chance. However, participants not encouraged to anticipate temptation and/or who believed that their behavior was inconsistent with their future self, were more likely to lie about the number of short coin flips so they would have less work to do.

Experiment-3:

People also may be more likely to engage in unethical behavior if they believe the act is an isolated incident. In an online experiment with 161 participants, people were less inclined to support unethical behavior in six workplace scenarios if they anticipated temptation through the writing exercise and considered all six scenarios at once, rather than did not anticipate temptation and/or viewed and considered each scenario on a separate computer screen. The scenarios included stealing office supplies, calling in sick when just tired, and intentionally working slowly to avoid additional tasks.

“Unethical behavior may not be experienced as something that needs to be resisted if people think it’s socially acceptable or does not reflect on their moral self-image,” Sheldon says. “People often compartmentalize their experiences of temptation, making it much easier for them to rationalize the behavior. They might say, ‘Just because I took office supplies home for personal use one time, that doesn’t mean I’m a thief.’”  If people want to avoid unethical behavior, it may help to anticipate situations where they will be tempted and consider how acting upon such temptation fits with their long-term goals or beliefs about their own morality. “You may not be concerned about getting caught or about your reputation if people found out, but you might be concerned about your own ethical self-image,” Sheldon says. “Keeping such considerations in mind as one enters into potentially tempting situations can help people resist the temptation to behave unethically.” The same suggestions may apply for employers, Sheldon says. For example, a manager could email employees before a work trip to warn them against the temptation to inflate travel expenses. The reminder about upcoming temptation might help protect the company’s bottom line, especially if employees view the temptation to inflate travel expenses as something they will encounter repeatedly in the future.

Story highlights:

  • Being faced with temptation could help people resist the urge to act unethically in business dealings.
  • Acknowledging that temptations are constant or recurrent can help strengthen self-control.

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Honesty:

Research by Thomas Gabor and colleagues shows that cashiers are also only human. Researchers visited a shop as a customer, bought a newspaper for 30 cents, paid the cashier with a dollar bill, and walked slowly out of the shop, seemingly absent-mindedly, without waiting for the change. There was plenty of time for the cashier to call the customer back and give them their change. Still 16 percent did not, which incidentally fits in nicely with Paul Feldman’s figures. Another study shows that in more than three-fifths of cases not giving change results from carelessness or sloppiness on the part of the cashiers, and in the other cases from dishonesty. All this raises the question whether people are more prone to be dishonest when it comes to petty misdemeanours, odds and ends (where both the misdemeanour and the gain are small), or when it comes to serious transgressions (where both the damage and its fruits are significant). Is it easier to resist small or large temptations? Little research has been carried out in this area. An exception is research by Ephraim Yuchtman-Yaar and Giora Rahav. They had bus drivers in Israel give back too much change to passengers and varied the amounts involved. They found that the more change was given back, and therefore the greater the temptation for the passenger, the more female passengers kept the money and the more male passengers gave it back. For men, as the temptation increased, so did the sense of responsibility, whereas with women the opposite was the case, according to the researchers.

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The slippery slope study:

A team of researchers from the University of North Carolina, University of Washington and University of Arizona studied how people who are otherwise good allow themselves to become involved in increasingly unethical behaviour. It begins with the first small act of deception that people justify to themselves. They convince themselves that the small act was relatively harmless, and that ‘everybody does it.’ Unfortunately, this rationalization process is then applied to the next act of deception, which is just a bit bigger. Over time, people continue to rationalize their behaviour as the unethical behaviour slowly becomes more and more significant. Through this slippery slope of bigger and bigger wrongdoing, the individuals have become ‘morally disengaged,’ in the terms of the researchers. They have, in other words, disconnected the self-regulation mechanism that previously prevented them from engaging in deceptive acts. They simply don’t care anymore that they are unethical. The research — conducted through a series of experiments that examined unethical behaviour at a number of different points in time — showed that with time, people justify incrementally bigger indiscretions; however, they will not take a leap from a small deception to significant unethical behaviour. The slippery slope is thus the heart of the danger; remove this slope (i.e. do not allow the small indiscretions to become incrementally bigger) and people will stop engaging in unethical or immoral actions. The key to keeping people off the slope, as confirmed in the empirical study, is instilling a ‘prevention focus.’ A prevention focus, which is an emphasis on safety, caution and clear awareness of the rules, stands in sharp contrast to the ‘promotion focus’ — the willingness to take risks and embrace change — that many companies foster.

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Tiredness and sleep deprivation:

In a series of experiments, University of Washington Professor Christopher Barnes found that people have less ability to exercise self-control when they’re tired.  Which means that when they haven’t slept enough — typical of 26% percent of Americans — they’re more likely to cheat.  “Organizations need to give sleep more respect,” Barnes writes. “Executives and managers should keep in mind that the more they push employees to work late, come to the office early, and answer emails and calls at all hours, the more they invite unethical behavior to creep in.”

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Natural killer theory:

David Buss of the University of Texas asked his students if they had ever thought seriously about killing someone, and if so, to write out their homicidal fantasies in an essay. He was astonished to find that 91 percent of the men and 84 percent of the women had detailed, vivid homicidal fantasies. He was even more astonished to learn how many steps some of his students had taken toward carrying them out. One woman invited an abusive ex-boyfriend to dinner with thoughts of stabbing him in the chest. A young man in a fit of road rage pulled a baseball bat out of his trunk and would have pummelled his opponent if he hadn’t run away. Another young man planned the progression of his murder by crushing a former friend’s fingers, puncturing his lungs, then killing him. These thoughts do not arise from playing violent video games, Buss argues. They occur because we are descended from creatures who killed to thrive and survive. We are natural-born killers and the real question is not what makes people kill but what prevents them from doing so.

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Dr. Muel Kaptein’s view on psychological reasons that lead people to do wrong:

Dr. Muel Kaptein, Professor of Business Ethics and Integrity Management at the Rotterdam School of Management, has studied bad behavior for decades. The white-collar crimes that lead major companies to collapse usually begin with seemingly minor ethical violations that spiral into something much bigger. The question of what motivates smart and talented people to commit fraud is fascinating, and is the subject of a new paper by Dr. Muel Kaptein. I have put together some of his most interesting insights on the situations and behavioral biases that lead people to do wrong.

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  1. Tunnel vision:

There’s nothing wrong with setting goals and driving hard to achieve them. This only becomes a problem when people are possessed by a singular focus on a particular goal, to the point that they leave other important considerations such as compassion and ethics out of their thinking.  When Enron offered large bonuses to employees for bringing in sales, they became so focused on that goal that they forgot to make sure they were profitable or moral. We all know how that ended.

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  1. Self-image and behavior:

Dr. Muel Kaptein states self-image is one of the most important reasons why good people do bad things. If you see yourself as powerless, determined by your environment or having your choices made for you, you will be more likely to engage in unethical behavior, as you feel less responsible for your actions. Those with more confidence and a strong sense of themselves, on the other hand, are less likely to bend the rules. People who see themselves as bad, malicious and untrustworthy will behave that way. And people who see themselves as honest, truthful and trustworthy are more likely to behave well. Someone who sees himself as trustworthy, for example, will make more effort to fulfil this self-image, thus reinforcing his trustworthiness. And someone who sees himself as untrustworthy and attaches little value to promises and commitments will be more likely to let things slip and give up. Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler researched how people’s expectations of themselves determine their own behavior. They examined whether a change in self-image led to different behavior. They also researched whether people who saw themselves as ‘heteronomous’ (a product of circumstances and lacking free will) or ‘autonomous’ (immune to circumstances and possessing free will) were more susceptible to unethical behavior. The researchers had the participants take a mathematics test on computers. They were told that due to a software error the answers might appear on the screen. To prevent this, the participants were asked to press the spacebar immediately for each new question. In reality the researchers observed whether the participants secretly used the answers, instead of doing the calculations themselves. Before the participants took the test, the researchers also did something else. They used an established method to imprint an idea on the participants (a process known as priming in the literature), in this case a conviction regarding free will. Some of the students were required to read an article stating that science refutes the notion of free will and that the illusion of free will is a product of the biochemical make-up of the brain. Other participants did not receive this reading material. In reading the article the first group was more inclined to believe that free will does not exist. The results were clear. Those with a weaker conviction regarding free will (and therefore the extent to which they could determine their own behavior and future) were more inclined to cheat than those whose convictions were not influenced. The first group cheated approximately 45 percent more than the second group. If people see themselves as responsible, they will be more inclined to take responsibility and behave responsibly. If people can hide behind other factors, such as the idea that their will is preprogrammed and their behavior is predestined, they are more likely to behave dishonestly. In a second experiment it became apparent that the participants primed beforehand with the idea that people have free will were less inclined to steal money. The research by Vohs and Schooler demonstrates not only that self-image determines behavior, but also the ease with which self-image, and subsequently behavior, can be influenced. Research shows that if we are primed to think of a library we talk more quietly, if we think of old age we walk more slowly, and if we think of professors we become cleverer. The activation of particular images automatically prompts associated behaviors.  So we not only shape ourselves according to the mould made for us by others, but also that which we make for ourselves. It is therefore important to examine one’s self-image. Whether we see ourselves as playthings (heteronomous) or as players (autonomous) makes a difference to our behavior. If we see ourselves as heteronomous, we are more likely to succumb to pressure and temptation than if we see ourselves as autonomous. The same applies to organizations: employees who see themselves as a product of their environment bend with the wind and are unable to show any backbone. This then paves the way for unethical behavior, as a reaction to stiff competition, because the customer asks for it, or because the government issues incomprehensible laws. Ethical behavior likewise begins with a self-image of autonomy.

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  1. Environmental influence:

Employees reflect their environment. If corruption, major or minor, is a part of their workplace, they become blind to its occurrence and its possible costs. A study incorporating participants from a variety of countries found that the less transparent and more corrupt the participant’s country of origin, the more willing they were to accept or give bribes.

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  1. Reactance theory:

Rules are designed to prevent unethical behavior, but when they’re seen as unjust or excessive they can provoke the opposite reaction. This is known as reactance theory. People resent threats to their freedom, and they often manifest that resistance by flouting certain rules.  In one study, researchers put one of two signs onto the walls of college bathrooms. They read:

—”Do not write on these walls under any circumstances.”

—”Please don’t write on these walls.”

The result: The walls with “do not write on these walls under any circumstances” had way more graffiti on them.

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  1. Obedience to authority:

Obedience to authority is ingrained in our culture and workplace. When someone in a position of authority asks an employee to do something unethical or illegal, they can find it difficult to say no. It’s quite difficult for most people to ignore the wishes of those in authority positions. People also feel like they’re less responsible for wrongdoings if they act under the direction of someone else. Both of these reasons explain why employees are likely to act out the unethical wishes of their supervisors–and feel far less guilt than if they had decided to do it themselves.  Imagine you work as a nurse in a hospital. One day you receive a phone call from a doctor you do not know. He asks you to administer medicine to a patient immediately, so that it has taken effect by the time he arrives. He will sign the request for the medicine, which is unfamiliar to you, on arrival. The doctor tells you that the patient must receive 20 milligrams of the medicine. You walk to the medicine cabinet and take out the medicine. On the label you read that a dose of 5 milligrams is normal and 10 milligrams is the absolute maximum. You return to the telephone. What do you say to the doctor? Charles Hofling and his colleagues put this hypothetical dilemma to nurses in their research. 83 percent said they would not follow the doctor’s request. But what happened when the researchers actually phoned a hospital and followed the script described above? Only 5 percent of nurses refused to administer the double dose. The rest followed the request, if rather hesitantly in some cases. Luckily the medicine was a placebo, so the patient was in no danger. An important theme in social psychology is obedience to authority, in this case the nurse’s obedience to the doctor, but it could equally be employee to manager, manager to director, director to chairman of the board, or chairman of the board to governors, shareholders, and regulators. How far will people take obedience? In the example above, nurses could still assume that if the doctor said it, the overdose would not be harmful to the patient. But what do people do if the results are indisputably damaging, if they can see with their own eyes that it is wrong?

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  1. Broken window theory:

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani popularized the “broken window theory” when he led a sweeping effort to lower crime rates. The idea was to crack down on smaller, petty crimes, and clean up the city to create some semblance of order, and discourage larger crimes.  When people see disorder or disorganization, they assume there is no real authority. In that environment, their threshold to overstepping legal and moral boundaries is lower. The broken window theory argues that chaos and disorder in an organization make people believe they work for an ineffectual authority. In response, they are more likely to commit unethical behavior that’s in line with this perceived chaos.

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  1. The free-rider problem:

If nobody else steals stationary, the company won’t notice if I do. If nobody else in the area pollutes, they won’t notice if a tiny bit of waste is released. Positive and ethical behavior can sometimes engender an opposite reaction. If total damage is limited, people feel as though they can take more liberties.

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  1. Winner take-all competition:

We live in a society where there is often only one winner: one person wins the prize, one person gets the job, one person receives the credit. But does this competitive culture really produce the best outcomes? When it comes to ethical behavior, the answer is no. When there is only one winner in a given situation, people are more likely to cheat rather than face the consequences of losing.

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  1. Cognitive dissonance and rationalization:

The easiest way to describe the concept is by a quick example. Say you’re a student looking to choose between two different universities you’d like to attend. After being accepted to each, you’re asked to freely rate the universities after considering each college’s pros and cons. You make your decision and are asked to rate the two universities once again. People will usually rate the chosen university as better and the rejected option as worse after having made their decision. So even if the university we didn’t choose was rated higher initially, our choice dictates that more often than not, we’ll rate it higher. Otherwise it wouldn’t make sense why we would choose the lower-rated school. This is cognitive dissonance at work. When people’s actions differ from their morals, they begin to rationalize both to protect themselves from a painful contradiction and to build up protection against accusations. The bigger the dissonance, the larger the rationalization, and the longer it lasts, the less immoral it seems.

-How can a CFO siphon off money year after year into a private account without anyone once doubting his integrity?

-How can a scientist falsify his data for years, publishing it in top journals, without anyone once doubting his integrity? -How can an investor pockets clients’ money instead of investing it for more than 25 years without anyone once doubting his integrity?

The theory of ‘cognitive dissonance’ helps us to explain such behavior. In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time; performs an action that is contradictory to their beliefs, ideas, or values; or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas or values. These contradictory cognitions force our minds to seek out new thoughts or ideas, or to adjust our current beliefs to reduce the dissonance between the cognitions. For example, if we want to stop smoking (cognition) but are unable to resist the temptation to light up again (behavior), this causes tension between cognition and behavior. If we want to engage in honest business practices (cognition) but still decide to take the competition for a ride (behavior), there is a conflict which we must reduce or remove, because we cannot cope with the feeling of unease it causes. Cognitive dissonance irritates, causes stress and saps energy. It can even harm people’s positive self-image. We find it difficult to live with ourselves when we consider ourselves worthless. We want to see ourselves as rational and honest, so we think up reasons, often subconsciously, to reconcile the conflicting cognitions. Research shows that chain smokers who tried to stop smoking failed because they managed to play down the risks of smoking to themselves. We call this ‘rationalization’: we come up with a reason for unreasonable behavior.  A great deal of research has been done on the rationalization and neutralization techniques people apply. Classic research among young offenders by Gresham Sykes and David Matza from the fifties illustrates five rationalizations. Denying one’s own responsibility (‘It’s not my fault’); denying the damage or disadvantage to the other party (‘No one will suffer for this’, ‘What they don’t know won’t hurt them’); denying a victim (‘They asked for it’, ‘You get what you deserve’); condemning those who condemn the misdemeanour (‘They should take a look at themselves’, ‘He started it’); and blaming their action on loyalty to another (‘I didn’t do it for myself’). Later research among other groups brought a number of other rationalizations to light. Often the image of a balance is raised (‘On balance I’ve done more good than bad’); people point to others (‘Everyone does it’); negative intentions are denied (‘It was only a joke’); and people call on relative acceptability (‘Others are worse than me’). If this kind of argument is used in the workplace, then it’s time to intervene to address the flimsiness of the arguments and ideas.

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Leon Festinger was the founder of cognitive dissonance theory. A classic experiment by Festinger and Merrill Carlsmith shows how quickly rationalizations occur and how quickly they lead to adjusted norms when people are unable to find external justifications. The participants were required to continually turn a number of pegs 90 degrees for 20 minutes. This was a pointless and boring exercise. The participants were subsequently asked to convince a new participant that this exercise was very interesting, to get this person to set to work too. Half the participants were given the prospect of earning 1 dollar for this, and the other half 20 dollars. Afterwards the participants were asked how interesting they actually found turning the pegs. What were the results? The participants who received 20 dollars found the exercise less interesting than the participants who received 1 dollar. This is surprising. Surely the participants all did the same exercise? What happened? The participants who received 20 dollars could justify lying to the other person by the high sum they received for it. The other group had no external reason strong enough to lie, so they had to convince themselves. They achieved this by telling themselves that turning the pegs was actually quite fun. This made them believe they were telling the truth to the newcomers. Festinger and Carlsmith’s experiment shows the danger of rationalizations. We can lie with dry eyes because we have made ourselves blind to the truth. We take a moral day off, as Sykes and Matza call it. Moral objections are swept under the table or temporarily switched off. The greater the cognitive dissonance, the greater the motivation to close this gap. People use rationalizations to build up protection against accusations, from themselves and others. This promotes moral blindness and opens the door to new transgressions. Morals are sent on vacation, and we continue to see ourselves as honest. As Bernard Ebbers said to his fellow church-goers, after the fraud at his company became known, ‘I just want you to know you aren’t going to church with a crook. No one will find me to have knowingly committed fraud.’ In the end he was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Rationalizations can embed themselves deep in the fabric of an organization, making them seem perfectly normal. The problem with rationalizations is that they soothe our consciences to sleep. When someone says that his behavior does not keep him awake at night, that does not necessarily say anything about his behavior. In order to break through rationalizations it is important to be aware of their existence and the underlying conflicting cognitions. One way of achieving this is to reveal hypocrisy. Chris Dickerson and colleagues demonstrate this in a simple experiment. The enormous water usage at a campus sports complex was a big problem. Signs were placed all round the building instructing students to use water responsibly. The effect was very limited. Only 15 percent of the students shortened their shower time. The researchers therefore decided to apply two different methods. Students in the first group were stopped on the way to the shower and asked to sign a petition against wasting water. This activated awareness of the norm. A second group of students was asked to fill out a questionnaire on water usage. This raised their awareness of their own behavior. Both methods were immediately effective. Instead of showering for 5.01 minutes, students now showered for 4.08 minutes. But what happened when both methods were applied at the same time? Water usage dropped still further, to 3.40 minutes. This tapped the students’ sense of hypocrisy by emphasizing the gap between their own behavior and the norm. So when it forms the motivation to bring behavior in line with the desired norms, a sense of hypocrisy can be a positive thing, although we must take care that the dissonance is not resolved in the wrong direction. Hypocrisy can also form the motivation to water down the norm and to bring it more into line with current behavior. What should we make of the following statement made by a politician: ‘My principles are so high that I can always squeeze under them if I need to’?

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  1. Helping others:

When we hear about unethical behavior at the workplace, such as fraud, we assume that the reason behind it is money. Well, Lamar Pierce of Washington University says it’s not really so – not always. It can happen simply because we want to help others. And when we feel we’re helping someone, we don’t see our actions as unethical or harmful towards others. During his research, Pierce found that 20-50% of cars that should fail the emissions test are illicitly passed. And this was not necessarily due to bribery, but because the inspectors felt empathy towards the owners. As a university examiner, I have passed many students who did not deserve to pass. I did not receive money from them but I just wanted to help hapless students. Of course my action was unethical but motive was empathy.

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  1. Problematic punishments:

Attaching fines or other economic punishments to immoral behavior can have an undesired effect. Once something is cast in those terms, it loses its moral connotation and becomes an entirely different calculation.  Rather than being about whether something is right or wrong, it becomes an economic calculation about the likelihood of getting caught versus the potential fine. When a punishment is given as a fine, an action becomes an economic, rather than moral, question.

 

  1. The induction mechanism:

People compare their present behavior to what they’ve done in the past. Another way people slide down the slope of unethical behavior is to stop seeing that behavior as bad. As the unethical becomes routine, the extremely unethical, once unthinkable, enters the realm of possibility.

 

  1. The compensation effect:

The compensation effect refers to the tendency for people to assume they accumulate moral capital. We use good deeds to balance out bad deeds, or alternately, we give ourselves breaks from goodness, like a piece of chocolate after a week of salads. This makes people more inclined to do bad things under the guise of “I’m a good person” or “It’s just this one thing.”  Sometimes people, having been moral and forthright in their dealings for a long time, feel as if they have banked up some kind of “ethical credit,” which they may use to justify immoral behavior in the future. An experiment from Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong found that people who have just bought sustainable products tend to lie and steal more afterwards than those who bought standard versions.

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  1. The pressure to conform:

The pressure to conform is powerful. When a group engages in unethical behavior, individuals are far more likely to participate in or condone that behavior rather than risk standing out. Nobody likes being a nuisance. In order to fit in with a group, people do things they might not otherwise. That can lead them to ignore abuses for the sake of peace or unity and go along with questionable decisions.

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  1. Social bond theory:

Wiseman and his team left wallets in the streets of the Scottish city of Edinburgh to see whether these would be returned by the finders. There was no money inside, but the wallets did contain other valuables such as discount vouchers, lottery tickets and cards. What Wiseman wanted to know is whether wallets which were easy to link to a person were returned more often. He investigated this by placing a photo in some of the wallets. The results were surprising: only 15 percent of the wallets without photos were returned. Wallets containing evidence of a donation to a good cause were returned slightly more frequently (20 percent), and wallets with a photo of an elderly person somewhat more frequently, at 28 percent. The wallets with a family photo did considerably better: 48 percent of these were returned. But the real cracker was yet to come: a wallet with a photo of a young child produced returns at 88 percent.  What do these results tell us? The bad news is that wallets without photos are almost never returned. The good news is that a wallet with a photo of a baby is almost always returned. The explanation offered is that the photo inspires caring feelings, appealing to the finder’s sense of responsibility. The research therefore shows people are more inclined to help someone with whom they can identify. The converse is also true: the more anonymous and distant a relationship, the less the sense of responsibility. According to ‘social bond theory’, developed by Travis Hirschi, people behave antisocially within a community when they do not feel a bond with it. If people feel detached from the community, literally or figuratively homeless, they will break the rules more easily, or form bonds with groups that hold norms and values destructive to society (such as gangs and other criminal organizations). People adopt the norms and values of those they feel connected with.

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  1. How others view you:

If others view you suspiciously and constantly treat you like you are a bad person, you are more likely to engage in immoral or illegal behavior, even though, initially you had absolutely no inclination towards such actions. The Pygmalion effect refers to the tendency people have to act the way that other people treat them. For example, if employees are treated like they’re upright members of a team, they’re more likely to act accordingly. Alternately, if they’re treated with suspicion, they’re more likely to act in a way that justifies that perception.

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  1. Time pressure:

In a study conducted by Princeton University, a group of theology students were told to preach the Good Samaritan story in a building and then report to another building, on the way to which they would encounter a “victim” that needed help. When there was no time limit to get to the other building, all subjects helped the distressed man. When they were told to arrive as soon as possible, 90% of the students ignored the “victim”.

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  1. The power of names:

What you name something is important, as it can skew people’s sense of reality. If companies assign unethical practices simple and humorous euphemisms (like “financial engineering” for accounting fraud), employees are less likely to take their unethical behavior seriously. Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM, was famous for saying, “Doing business is a game, the greatest game in the world if you know how to play it.” Something as simple as calling business a game can make people less likely to see that their actions have serious, real-world consequences.

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  1. Acceptance of small theft:

One might think that taking small things from the workplace, like notebooks, pens, and computer paper, is harmless. But when small thefts are ignored by management, people become far more likely to up the ante.

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Milgram experiment:

One of the most famous studies of obedience in psychology was carried out by Stanley Milgram (1963). Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted an experiment focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. He examined justifications for acts of genocide offered by those accused at the World War II, Nuremberg War Criminal trials. Their defense often was based on “obedience” – that they were just following orders from their superiors. The experiments began in July 1961, a year after the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Milgram devised the experiment to answer the question: Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?”   Milgram wanted to investigate whether Germans were particularly obedient to authority figures as this was a common explanation for the Nazi killings in World War II. Milgram selected participants for his experiment by newspaper advertising for male participants to take part in a study of learning at Yale University.  The subjects were asked to take part in memory research. The aim was to look into the effect of punishment on people’s ability to learn. Observed by the researcher, dressed in a white laboratory jacket, two participants drew lots to determine who was the teacher and who was the student (learner). The procedure was that the participant was paired with another person and they drew lots to find out who would be the ‘learner’ and who would be the ‘teacher’.  The draw was fixed so that the participant was always the teacher, and the learner was one of Milgram’s confederates (pretending to be a real participant).  The researcher then tied the student down on a chair and fastened an electrode to their wrist. The researcher smeared gel on the student’s wrist and casually remarked that this would prevent any heavy shocks causing lasting tissue damage. The researcher and teacher then went into the adjoining room, where there was a machine. The student must now answer questions. For every wrong answer the teacher must administer a shock, increasing by 15 volts each time, to a maximum of 450 volts. The switches were labelled as follows: ‘shock’, ‘moderate shock’, ‘strong shock’, ‘very strong shock’, ‘intense shock’, ‘extreme intensity shock’, and ‘danger: severe shock’. The final two switches were labelled with ‘XXX (= death)’. In order to show that the device worked, the teacher was given a shock of 45 volts by the researcher as an example.  What the teacher did not know, was that he was the only subject of research and that the student in the plot was always the same person (a much used trick in such experiments). Luckily no actual shocks were administered, but the teacher only discovered this afterwards. During the experiment the teacher could not see the student, but could hear him. In reality a tape was played, adjusted according the strength of the shocks administered: for light shocks faint sobbing could be heard. Gradually the cries increased, as did heated requests to stop (‘Let me go, let me go!’). From 300 volts banging on the wall could be heard, followed by a deathly scream. After this the student was unresponsive and there was dead silence. The teacher was told by the researcher that this should be taken as a wrong answer and the next switch should be used. In the case that the teacher hesitated or asked for advice, the researcher gave one of the four standardized incitements, which were strict, self-confident and devoid of emotion: at the first sign of doubt the researcher said, ‘Please go on’; at the second he said, ‘The experiment requires you to continue’; at the third, ‘It is absolutely essential that you continue’; and at the fourth, ‘You have no other choice, you must go on.’ If the subject refused after the fourth incitement, then the experiment ended. This also happened if the teacher gave someone the highest shock (450 volts).

Milgram was curious as to how fast people would drop out. What did he discover?

At the start of the experiment, Milgram predicted that 3% of participants would give the maximum shock. But 65% of participants went all the way to the maximum shock. The subjects persisted to an average of 360 volts, and almost two-thirds administered the highest and deadly shock of 450 volts. Many people refused to believe these results, so the research has been repeated many times, always with approximately the same results.

According to Milgram, the results show that ‘the essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view themselves as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and they therefore no longer see themselves as responsible for their actions’. According to Milgram this meant that Befehl ist Befehl (‘an order is an order’) was not something typically German (as was hoped at the time, as an explanation for the Second World War), but that almost everyone is obedient in certain circumstances and participates in reprehensible, disgraceful acts. According to Milgram perfectly ordinary people can be middlemen in a destructive course of events. Even when the effects of their behavior are clear, relatively few people have the strength to resist authority if they are asked to continue. Under the pressure of authority people’s morals melt away. The aura of authority was enforced in this experiment by a number of factors: the researcher was attached to a renowned university, wore a white lab coat, and talked in a self-confident tone. In organizations people gain authority through factors such as experience, age, income, status, education, communication skills, clothing and jewellery, and the size and interior design of their office. Although authority can be positive, it is important to keep an eye out for negative side effects. A leadership position encourages people to follow. Wherever there is leadership there will be people who follow. Asking others to do something means that they are less inclined to feel responsible for the execution and consequences, because they are not responsible for the request and can hide behind their leader. If you have power and authority, it is obviously morally unacceptable to abuse this power by asking others to do morally unacceptable things. Unfortunately it is not always so obvious. Approximately a third of the American professional population admits that their manager sometimes asks them to do unethical or illegal things. So if you are in a position of authority and ask something of someone, be aware that people will not necessarily only do things they agree with and see as ethically responsible. One might protest, but another will make the mental switch and do what is asked of him. In Milgram’s experiment people could relatively easily leave; in an organization this is considerably more difficult. Yet the participants of the experiment still went a long way in causing human suffering. How easy must it be to grant requests involving misdemeanours such as fraud, theft and scams, which have less human suffering as a consequence?

Conclusion:

Ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being.  Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from the way we are brought up. People tend to obey orders from other people if they recognize their authority as morally right and / or legally based. This response to legitimate authority is learned in a variety of situations, for example in the family, school and workplace.

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Milgrams’ Agency Theory:

Milgram (1974) explained the behavior of his participants by suggesting that people actually have two states of behavior when they are in a social situation:

  • The autonomous state – people direct their own actions, and they take responsibility for the results of those actions.
  • The agentic state – people allow others to direct their actions, and then pass off the responsibility for the consequences to the person giving the orders. In other words, they act as agents for another person’s will.

Milgram suggested that two things must be in place in order for a person to enter the agentic state:

  1. The person giving the orders is perceived as being qualified to direct other people’s behavior. That is, they are seen as legitimate.
  2. The person being ordered about is able to believe that the authority will accept responsibility for what happens.

Agency theory says that people will obey an authority when they believe that the authority will take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. This is supported by some aspects of Milgram’s evidence. For example, when participants were reminded that they had responsibility for their own actions, almost none of them were prepared to obey. In contrast, many participants who were refusing to go on did so if the experimenter said that he would take responsibility.

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Critical Evaluation:

The Milgram studies were conducted in laboratory type conditions and we must ask if this tells us much about real-life situations. We obey in a variety of real-life situations that are far more subtle than instructions to give people electric shocks, and it would be interesting to see what factors operate in everyday obedience. The sort of situation Milgram investigated would be more suited to a military context.  Orne & Holland (1968) accused Milgram’s study of lacking ‘experimental realism’, i.e. participants might not have believed the experimental set-up they found themselves in and knew the learner wasn’t really receiving electric shocks. The 65% headline figure, of people who followed the experimenters’ orders and went to the maximum voltage on the shock machine, implies that there was a single experiment. In fact there were 24 different variations, or mini dramas, each with a different script, actors and experimental set up. It’s surprising how often Milgram’s 24 different variations are wrongly conflated into this single statistic. The 65% result was made famous because it was the first variation that Milgram reported in his first journal article, yet few noted that it was an experiment that involved just 40 subjects. By examining records of the experiment held at Yale, it is found that in over half of the 24 variations, 60% of people disobeyed the instructions of the authority and refused to continue.

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Ethical Issues:

  • Deception – the participants actually believed they were shocking a real person, and were unaware the learner was a confederate of Milgram’s. However, Milgram argued that “illusion is used when necessary in order to set the stage for the revelation of certain difficult-to-get-at-truths”. Milgram also interviewed participants afterwards to find out the effect of the deception. Apparently 83.7% said that they were “glad to be in the experiment”, and 1.3% said that they wished they had not been involved.
  • Protection of participants – Participants were exposed to extremely stressful situations that may have the potential to cause psychological harm. Many of the participants were visibly distressed. Signs of tension included trembling, sweating, stuttering, laughing nervously, biting lips and digging fingernails into palms of hands. Three participants had uncontrollable seizures, and many pleaded to be allowed to stop the experiment. In his defence, Milgram argued that these effects were only short term. Once the participants were debriefed (and could see the confederate was OK) their stress levels decreased. Milgram also interviewed the participants one year after the event and concluded that most were happy that they had taken part.
  • Right to Withdrawal – The researchers should make it plain to participants that they are free to withdraw at any time (regardless of payment). Did Milgram give participants an opportunity to withdraw? The experimenter gave four verbal prods which essentially discouraged withdrawal from the experiment:
  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

Milgram argued that they are justified as the study was about obedience so orders were necessary. Milgram pointed out that although the right to withdraw was made partially difficult it was possible as 35% of participants had chosen to withdraw.

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The Stanford Prison Experiment:

Anyone who has taken an introductory psychology course or has ever glanced at the scientific literature on the psychology of evil is familiar with Philip Zimbardo’s now-famous experiment conducted in a make-shift prison in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford University in August, 1971, in which the social psychologist randomly assigned 24 student volunteers to be either guards or prisoners. The experiment was to last two weeks but Zimbardo had to terminate it after six days when these intelligent and educated young men were transformed into cruel and sadistic guards or emotionally shattered prisoners. Not a formal experiment per se–with control and experimental groups for comparison–a flip of a coin to determine whether a student subject would be assigned to play guard or prisoner allows us to draw conclusions about the power of the situation to effect similar people dissimilarly. In more mundane psychological terms, this research synthesized many of the processes and variables outlined earlier; those of anonymity of place and person that contribute toward creating states of deindividuation, of dehumanization of victims, of giving some actors (guards) permission to control others (prisoners), and placing it all within a unique setting (the prison) that most societies throughout the world acknowledge provides some form of institutionally approved sanctions for evil though the extreme differentials in control and power that prison foster.

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Subjects were recruited from among nearly 100 who answered our advertisements in the local city newspaper. They were given a background evaluation that consisted of a battery of five psychological tests, personal history, and in-depth interviews. The 24 who were evaluated as most normal and healthy in every respect, were randomly assigned half to the role of prisoner and half to be guards. The student-prisoners underwent a realistic surprise arrest by officers from the Palo Alto Police Department, who cooperated with our plan. The arresting officer proceeded with a formal arrest taking the “felons” to the Police Station for booking, after which each prisoner was brought to the prison in the reconstructed basement of the Psychology Department. The prisoner’s uniform was a smock/ dress with a prison ID number. The guards wore military-style uniforms and silver-reflecting sunglasses to enhance anonymity. At any one time there were 9 prisoners on “the yard,” 3 to a cell, and 3 guards working 8-hour time shifts. Data were collected in terms of systematic video recordings, secret audio recordings of conversations of prisoners in their cells, interviews and tests at various times during the study, post-experiment reports, and by direct, concealed observations.

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The negative situational forces overwhelmed the positive dispositional tendencies. The Evil situation triumphed over the good people. The projected 2-week experiment had to be terminated after only 6 days because of the pathology witnessed. Pacifist young men were behaving sadistically in their role of guards, inflicting humiliation and pain and suffering on other young men as if they had the inferior human status of prisoner. Some guards even reported they were enjoying doing so. Others, who had been intelligent, healthy college students were behaving pathologically, many having “emotional breakdowns,” as in stress disorders, so extreme that five of them had to be terminated within that first week. Their fellow prisoners who adapted better to the situation were those who mindlessly followed orders, became blindly obedient to authority, who allowed the guards to dehumanize and degrade them ever more with each passing day and night. The experiment was terminated not only because of the escalating level of violence and degradation by the guards against the prisoners that was apparent when viewing the video tapes of their interactions, but also because Zimbardo was made aware of the personal transformation that he was undergoing personally.  He had become a Prison Superintendent, in addition to that of Principal Investigator. He began to talk, walk and act like a rigid institutional authority figure more concerned about the security of “his prison” than the needs of the young men entrusted to his care as a psychological researcher.

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Zimbardo noticed that the guards became brutal and abusive toward prisoners after just six days, leading Zimbardo to prematurely end the experiment. The experiment showed that institutional forces and peer pressure led normal student volunteer guards to disregard the potential harm of their actions on the other student prisoners. “You don’t need a motive,” Zimbardo said. “All you really need is a situation that facilitates moving across that line of good and evil. The planned two-week study was terminated after only six days because it was out of control. Good boys chosen for their normalcy were having emotional breakdowns as powerless prisoners. Other young men chosen for their mental health and positive values eased into the character of sadistic guards inflicting suffering on their fellow students without moral compunction. And those “good guards” who did not personally debase the prisoners failed to confront the worst of their comrades, allowing evil to ripen without challenge. The terrible things these guards did to their prisoners were comparable to the horrors inflicted on the Iraqi detainees. These guards repeatedly stripped their prisoners naked, hooded them, chained them, denied them food or bedding privileges, put them into solitary confinement, and made them clean toilet bowls with their bare hands. As the boredom of their job increased, they began using the prisoners as their playthings, devising ever more humiliating and degrading games for them to play. Over time, these amusements took a sexual turn, such as having the prisoners simulate sodomy on each other. Once aware of such deviant behavior, Zimbardo closed down the Stanford prison. Zimbardo’s girlfriend at the time (now his wife of nearly 40 years), Christina Maslach, after seeing the guards abusing the prisoners during their late night toilet run–with bagged heads and chained ankles–insisted that Zimbardo end it before someone was seriously hurt (“She told me she wouldn’t marry me if I was the sort of person who would allow such a thing to happen” he recalled). At that moment he realized that he had become part of the experiment in the role of prison superintendent. “I called off the experiment not because of the horror I saw out there in the prison yard,” he explained in the technical write up of the experiment, “but because of the horror of realizing that I could have easily traded places with the most brutal guard or become the weakest prisoner full of hatred at being so powerless that I could not eat, sleep, or go to the toilet without permission of authorities.”

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Zimbardo said the experiment provides several lessons about how situations can foster evil:

  • Provide people with an ideology to justify beliefs for actions.
  • Make people take a small first step toward a harmful act with a minor, trivial action and then gradually increase those small actions.
  • Make those in charge seem like a “just authority.”
  • Transform a once compassionate leader into a dictatorial figure.
  • Provide people with vague and ever-changing rules.
  • Relabel the situation’s actors and their actions to legitimize the ideology.
  • Provide people with social models of compliance.
  • Allow dissent, but only if people continue to comply with orders.
  • Make exiting the situation difficult.

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Particularly notable, Zimbardo said, is that people are seduced into evil by dehumanizing and labelling others. “They semantically change their perception of victims, of the evil act, and change the relationship of the aggressor to their aggression—so ‘killing’ or ‘hurting’ becomes the same as ‘helping,’” he said. People’s aggression can also increase when they feel anonymous—for example if they wear a uniform, hood or mask, Zimbardo said. “You minimize social responsibility,” he explained. “Nobody knows who you are, so therefore you are not individually liable. There’s also a group effect when all of you are masked. It provides a fear in other people because they can’t see you, and you lose your humanity.” For example, an experiment in 1974 by Harvard anthropologist John Watson evaluated 23 cultures to determine whether warriors who changed their appearance—such as with war paint or masks—treated their victims differently. As it turned out, 80 percent of warriors in these cultures were found to be more destructive—for example, killing, torturing or mutilating their victims—than unpainted or unmasked warriors. What’s more, a person’s anonymity can be induced by acting in an anonymity-conferring environment that adds to the pleasure of destruction, vandalism and the power of being in control, Zimbardo noted. “It’s not just seeing people hurt, it’s doing things that you have a sense that you are controlling behavior of other people in ways that you typically don’t,” Zimbardo said. Human behavior is much more under the control of situational forces than most of us recognize or want to acknowledge. In a situation that implicitly gives permission for suspending moral values, many of us can be morphed into creatures alien to our usual natures. This research has catalogued the conditions for stirring the crucible of human nature in negative directions. Some of the necessary ingredients are: diffusion of responsibility, anonymity, dehumanization, peers who model harmful behavior, bystanders who do not intervene, and a setting of power differentials. Those factors were apparently also operating in Iraq. But in addition there was secrecy, no accountability, no visible chain of command, conflicting demands on the guards from the CIA and civilian interrogators, no rules enforced for prohibited acts, encouragement for breaking the will of the detainees, and no challenges by many bystanders who observed the evil but did not blow the whistle.

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Conclusions:

On August 20, 1971, Zimbardo announced the end of the experiment to the participants. The results of the experiment favor situational attribution of behavior rather than dispositional attribution (a result caused by internal characteristics). In other words, it seemed that the situation, rather than their individual personalities, caused the participants’ behavior. Under this interpretation, the results are compatible with the results of the Milgram experiment, in which ordinary people fulfilled orders to administer what appeared to be agonizing and dangerous electric shocks to a confederate of the experimenter. In the Milgram and the Zimbardo studies, participants conform to social pressures. Conformity is strengthened by allowing some participants to feel more or less powerful than others. In both experiments, behavior is altered to match the group stereotype. The experiment has also been used to illustrate cognitive dissonance theory and the power of authority.

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Criticism:

The guards and prisoners adapted to their roles more than Zimbardo expected, stepping beyond predicted boundaries, leading to dangerous and psychologically damaging situations. One third of the guards were judged to have exhibited “genuine sadistic tendencies”, while many prisoners were emotionally traumatized; five of them had to be removed from the experiment early. After Maslach confronted Zimbardo and forced him to realize that he had been passively allowing unethical acts to be performed under his supervision, Zimbardo concluded that both prisoners and guards had become grossly absorbed in their roles and realized that he had likewise become as grossly absorbed in his own, and he terminated the experiment. Ethical concerns surrounding the experiment often draw comparisons to a similar experiment, conducted ten years earlier in 1961 at Yale University by Stanley Milgram. Because of the nature and questionable ethics of the experiment, Zimbardo found it impossible to keep traditional scientific controls in place. He was unable to remain a neutral observer, since he influenced the direction of the experiment as the prison’s superintendent. Conclusions and observations drawn by the experimenters were largely subjective and anecdotal, and the experiment is practically impossible for other researchers to accurately reproduce. Erich Fromm claimed to see generalizations in the experiment’s results and argued that the personality of an individual does affect behavior when imprisoned. This ran counter to the study’s conclusion that the prison situation itself controls the individual’s behavior. Fromm also argued that the amount of sadism in the “normal” subjects could not be determined with the methods employed to screen them. It was found that students who responded to the classified advertisement for the “prison study” were higher in traits such as social dominance, aggression, authoritarianism, etc. and were lower in traits related to empathy and altruism when statistically compared to the control group participants. The study has been criticized for demand characteristics by psychologist Peter Gray. He argues that participants in psychological experiments are more likely to do what they believe the researchers want them to do. The guards were essentially told to be cruel. However, it could be argued that it was precisely this willingness to comply with the experiment’s questionable practices that showed how little was needed for the students to engage in such practices. Guards and prisoners were playing the role of their authority, which is subjective. They may have not acted the same in real life situations. Critics contend that not only was the sample size too minimal for extrapolation, but also having all of the experimental subjects be US male students gravely undercut the experiment’s validity. In other words, it’s entirely conceivable that replicating the experiment using a diverse group of people (with different objectives and views in life) would have produced radically distinct results; that is, had the test subjects come from divergent socio-economic and psychological groups, different experimental results may well have resulted.

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Similar study:

BBC prison study:

Psychologists Alex Haslam and Steve Reicher conducted the BBC Prison Study in 2002 and was published in 2006. This was a partial replication of the Stanford prison experiment conducted with the assistance of the BBC, which broadcast events in the study in a documentary series called The Experiment. Their results and conclusions differed from Zimbardo’s and led to a number of publications on tyranny, stress, and leadership. The results were published in leading academic journals such as British Journal of Social Psychology, Journal of Applied Psychology, Social Psychology Quarterly, and Personality and Social Psychology Review. The BBC Prison Study is now taught as a core study on the UK A-level Psychology OCR syllabus. While Haslam and Reicher’s procedure was not a direct replication of Zimbardo’s, their study casts further doubt on the generality of his conclusions. Specifically, it questions the notion that people slip mindlessly into role and the idea that the dynamics of evil are in any way banal. Their research also points to the importance of leadership in the emergence of tyranny of the form displayed by Zimbardo when briefing guards in the Stanford experiment.

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Comparisons to Abu Ghraib:

When acts of prisoner torture and abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were publicized in March 2004, Zimbardo himself, who paid close attention to the details of the story, was struck by the similarity with his own experiment. He was dismayed by official military and government representatives’ shifting the blame for the torture and abuses in the Abu Ghraib American military prison on to “a few bad apples” rather than acknowledging the possibly systemic problems of a formally established military incarceration system. Eventually, Zimbardo became involved with the defense team of lawyers representing one of the Abu Ghraib prison guards, Staff Sergeant Ivan “Chip” Frederick. He was granted full access to all investigation and background reports, and testified as an expert witness in SSG Frederick’s court martial, which resulted in an eight-year prison sentence for Frederick in October 2004. Zimbardo drew from his participation in the Frederick case to write the book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, published by Random House in 2007, which deals with the striking similarities between his own Stanford Prison Experiment and the Abu Ghraib abuses. Before Abu Ghraib, Frederick was a model soldier, earning numerous awards for merit and bravery. After the story broke and Frederick was charged in the abuses, Zimbardo arranged for a military clinical psychologist to conduct a full psychological assessment of Frederick, which revealed him to be average in intelligence, average in personality, with “no sadistic or pathological tendencies.” To Zimbardo, this result “strongly suggests that the ‘bad apple’ dispositional attribution of blame made against him by military and administration apologists has no basis in fact.” Even after he was shipped off to Fort Leavenworth to serve his eight-year sentence, Frederick wrote Zimbardo: “I am proud to say that I served most of my adult life for my country. I was very prepared to die for my country, my family and friends. I wanted to be the one to make a difference.”  Zimbardo researched on factors that can create a “perfect storm” which leads good people to engage in evil actions. This transformation of human character is what he calls the “Lucifer Effect,” named after God’s favourite angel, Lucifer, who fell from grace and ultimately became Satan. The Lucifer Effect raises a fundamental question about the nature of human nature: How is it possible for ordinary, average, even good people to become perpetrators of evil? In trying to understand unusual, or aberrant behavior, we often err in focusing exclusively on the inner determinants of genes, personality, and character, as we also tend to ignore what may be the critical catalyst for behavior change in the external situation or in the system that creates and maintains such situations.

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Could the perpetrators of these evils are “good apples” who happened to find themselves in a “bad barrel”?

Historical inquiry and behavioural science have demonstrated the “banality of evil” – the fact that, given certain conditions, ordinary people can succumb to social pressure to commit acts that would otherwise be unthinkable.  To be sure, few of us will ever end up as inmates or guards in military or civilian or mock prisons, but many of us find ourselves in relationships where we dominate other people or are dominated by them. We spend our lives in institutions of one kind or another, from families, schools, and businesses, to homes for the elderly. And many times we bow to the will of the group even when it conflicts with our values.  In the prisons at Stanford and Abu Ghraib, men and women did terrible things to other people in part because responsibility for their actions was diffused, rather than focused on each of them as individuals; we find ourselves in a similar situation whenever we witness someone else’s trouble but fail to help because we assume others will. Likewise, the prisoners at Stanford and Abu Ghraib suffered unnecessarily because the guards regarded them as less than human; dehumanisation allowed the guards to treat prisoners as lower beings. The same applies to us when we allow members of a minority group to be derogated as inferior. Prejudiced beliefs lead to discrimination, and in turn to abuse. Situational forces affect us when we’re acting in the capacity of a role we’ve assumed; when rules govern our behaviour; when we’re in uniforms or dressed in ways that conceal our identity; and of course when we’re in a group whose acceptance seems vital to our self-image.  We want to believe that we are “good,” moral, and self-aware. We want to believe that we’re different from “bad” or “evil” people. Thinking so is essential to maintaining a sense of personal dignity and self-worth. But the line between good and evil is permeable, like the cell walls of our body that allow movement of chemicals across their boundaries.  Anything that any human being has ever done – anything imaginable – is potentially doable by any of us in the same situation.  This is not to excuse immoral behaviour; the point is simply that understanding how someone could have engaged in wrongdoing, rather than dismissing it as a bad deed done by a bad person, allows us to identify corrosive social forces – the very same forces we need to counteract if we want to avoid going down the same wrong path.

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The same social psychological processes—deindividuation, anonymity of place, dehumanization, role-playing and social modelling, moral disengagement and group conformity—that acted in the Stanford Prison Experiment were at play at Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo argued. So is it a few bad apples that spoil a barrel? “That’s what we want to believe–that we could never be a bad apple,” Zimbardo said. “We’re the good ones in the barrel.” But people can be influenced, regardless of their intention to resist, he said. As such, the Abu Ghraib soldiers’ mental state—such as stress, fear, boredom and heat exhaustion, coupled with no supervision, no training and no accountability—may have further contributed to their “evil” actions, he noted. “I argue situational forces dominate most of us at various times in our lives,” Zimbardo said, “even though we’d all like to believe we’re each that singular hero who can resist those powerful external pressures, like Joe Darby, the whistle-blowing hero of the Abu Ghraib prison.”

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Initial reactions were shock and disgust. How could Americans be doing this to anyone, even Iraqi prisoners of war? Some observers immediately blamed “the few bad apples” presumably responsible for the abuse. However, many social psychologists knew that it was not that simple. Society holds individuals responsible for their actions, as the military court-martial recognizes, but social psychology suggests we should also hold responsible peers and superiors who control the social context. Social psychological evidence emphasizes the power of social context; in other words, the power of the interpersonal situation. Social psychology has accumulated a century of knowledge about how people influence each other for good or ill. Meta-analysis, the quantitative summary of findings across a variety of studies, reveals the size and consistency of such empirical results. Recent meta-analyses document reliable experimental evidence of social context effects across 25,000 studies of 8 million participants. Abu Ghraib resulted in part from ordinary social processes, not just extraordinary individual evil. The meta-analyses describe how the right (or wrong) social context can make almost anyone aggress, oppress, conform, and obey.

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Zimbardo’s work suggests that we all have the capacity for evil, and that it’s simply environmental influences that tip the balance from good to bad. Doesn’t that absolve people from taking responsibility for their choices?

No.

People are always personally accountable for their behavior. If they kill, they are accountable. However if the killing can be shown to be a product of the influence of a powerful situation within a powerful system, then it’s as if they are experiencing diminished capacity and have lost their free will or their full reasoning capacity. Situations can be sufficiently powerful to undercut empathy, altruism, morality and to get ordinary people, even good people, to be seduced into doing really bad things — but only in that situation. Understanding the reason for someone’s behavior is not the same as excusing it. Understanding why somebody did something — where that why has to do with situational influences — leads to a totally different way of dealing with evil. It leads to developing prevention strategies to change those evil-generating situations, rather than the current strategy, which is to change the person.

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Not everyone at Abu Ghraib responded to the situation in the same way. So what makes one person in a situation commit evil acts while another in the same situation becomes a whistle-blower?

Common sense suggests that based on what we know about a person, we can predict whether they’re going to be a hero whistle-blower or the brutal guard. We want to believe that if I was in some situation [like that], I would bring with it my usual compassion and empathy. But when Zimbardo was the superintendent of the Stanford prison study, he was totally indifferent to the suffering of the prisoners, because his job as prison superintendent was to focus on the guards. As principal [scientific] investigator [of the experiment], his job was to care about what happened to everybody because they were all under his experimental control. But once he switched to being the prison superintendent, he was a different person. It’s hard to believe that, but Zimbardo himself was transformed.

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A neurochemical basis for virtue and vice:

Researchers have focused on the chemistry behind behaviors because people seldom offer clear explanations for why they are doing what they are doing. Motivations matter because they ascribe meaning to actions. So, we have people make decisions that are virtuous or selfish while measuring their brain activity.  Researchers have shown that virtuous behaviors are caused by the brain’s release of the neurotransmitter and hormone oxytocin. When oxytocin is high, costly caring and helping behaviors follow. When we inhibit oxytocin release (for example, in experiments where testosterone is administered to volunteers), virtue wanes and selfishness dominates. Oxytocin release makes us feel empathy and by doing so increases our sensitivity to the feelings of those around us.

Are humans moral or immoral biologically?

The biological answer is that we have evolved behaviors that increase our chances of survival and reproduction. When in a stable and safe environment with enough food in our bellies, having a biology of morality sustains our place in the community of humans who help ensure our biological imperatives. In highly stressful, resource poor environments, we’ll step on whoever is in front of us if it helps us survive. The exceptions to this rule are the five percent of the population who do not have an oxytocin response and are pathologically selfish, and another few percent who are nearly pathologically virtuous like Mother Teresa. The rest of us vacillate between good and evil. We’re a complicated species–both moral and immoral as our environment and physiology dictate.

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The line between good and bad people can be thinner than you think:

It is too easy for us to point towards the ‘bad people’, the criminals, the negatives, the people who have dodgy psychology that is so different from ours and that sets them apart from us. We draw a line between criminals and ourselves, deriving comfort from its presence and using it to justify how we treat criminals. The truth is that a distinct line does not exist – it is much more a matter of grey areas. You may never have broken the law, but have you ever cheated on a partner? Shoplifted? Siphoned off money from your employer? Kept money you saw fall from the pocket of the person walking down the street in front of you? Been in a fist fight? Insulted someone so vehemently you made them cry? Have you ever slapped your child? Spread a rumour or gossip you knew to be false? Kept the extra change the shopkeeper mistakenly gave you? The line isn’t a fixed space that you are not capable of crossing, it is far more fluid than that – there are many ways to hurt, to belittle, to cause emotional distress and we are all probably guilty of those behaviours at some time in our lives. Even though it does appear that we all have the potential to cross the line, there also appear to be some very common and consistent traits among those who end up in prison, such as chaotic family backgrounds, mental health challenges and very poor parenting, as well as a genetic predisposition to engage in behaviours that can be self-destructive as well as damaging to the community at large. However, there are also those in society who are high functioning, live in a much brighter place and still feel the need to engage in illegal behaviour, whether that need stems from bio-chemistry, genetics or unique episodes in life where they have experienced damaging learning. It may not be as common for this population to be convicted of crimes, but equally anyone can argue that those with a good level of education can often avoid being caught by the law even if they are doing harm to others.

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Are ordinary people deplorable?

Hillary Clinton did warn that she would be “grossly generalistic” before she began. “You can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables”, the Democratic nominee for president of the United States said at a fundraiser on September 9th, before classifying her opponent’s voters as “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it”. Conservative politicians and pundits pounced on the comment, comparing it with Mitt Romney’s ill-advised denigration in 2012 of 47% of American voters as “dependent” and “entitled”. Seeking to defuse the firestorm, Mrs Clinton apologised the next day—though only for having assigned a number, 50%, to the share of Mr Trump’s voters she believes are beyond salvage. She held firm on the assertion that such unsavoury characters lurk among Trumpistas in unspecified quantities. There is a candidate and his supporters who make wild generalizations about Mexican immigrants, about black people, about women, about LGBT folks. They continually make generalizations about marginalized people. This is a vital point, since it speaks to the logical flaw whenever Trump supporters assume an air of victimhood. It isn’t simply that a political ideology is something you choose whereas racial and gender identities are inherent parts of who you are. The power dynamic between the forces backing Trump’s campaign and the marginalized groups opposing it is not equal. When you make a generalization about a Trump supporter, you’re talking about hurt feelings, versus generalizations about marginalized people that lead to their oppression and mistreatment. This doesn’t mean that every Trump supporter is a drooling maniac or howling monster. There are many Trump supporters who are nice people but we have to be really careful when we talk about ‘nice people’ versus nice people who support harmful laws, ideologies, and beliefs. It is fashionable to say globalisation and a massive loss of jobs in the US is linked to the rise of Trump. Instead, research seems to show that the people who favour Trump are largely not the unemployed or poor. The characteristic feature of his supporters is that they are male, white, non-college educated Republicans who are employed and middle class by American standards. Many, if not most of them, are racist, sexist, chauvinist and ignorant. They are also nostalgic. They long for an America in which white men ran the show and everyone else knew their place. That is increasingly not the case. Their mom-and-apple-pie white American utopia is fast disappearing – and they are terrified.

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Why ordinary people elect and follow bad leaders?

Let me start with the characteristics of bad leadership.  According to Barbara Kellerman’s leadership research, the characteristics of a bad leader are:

  1. Incompetence
  2. Rigidity
  3. Uncontrolled, volatile behaviour
  4. Callousness towards others
  5. Corruption
  6. Insular behaviour
  7. Evil, destructive actions intended to harm or destroy

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Why ordinary people elect bad leaders?

Because their attention is focused on changing persons rather than institutions. The system by which they recruit the leaders of nation is deeply flawed. This is immediately evident in the premium they place on the personal popularity of candidates rather than on their capacity to articulate and defend a national plan. They place little value on debate and on educational campaigns to create intelligent voters. By their failure to stop vote-buying and electoral fraud, they allow politicians to prey upon the hunger of impoverished voters and the vulnerability of election workers. They permit candidates to raise unlimited amounts of campaign contributions from undisclosed sources, unmindful of the graft and corruption that follows when politicians start paying back every penny they received from expectant financiers. Elections are expensive and celebrity-oriented, public office has become the preserve of the very rich or the very popular. Political parties no longer look at their candidates’ fitness for office or inclination to public service. Their sole concern is “winnability.”  The majority of people are prone to numerous subconscious biases, prejudices, stereotyping and prefer their own “groups”. None of these things are particularly logical and invariably are not supported by actual evidence and reality, and people really don’t like being told things they don’t want to hear. People are also keenly aware of social status; we need to feel we are superior to others in some way to maintain our sense of self-worth. As a result, someone more intelligent saying complicated things that contain uncomfortable (but accurate) facts isn’t going to appeal to anyone, but someone demonstrably less-intelligent is not challenging to someone’s perceived social status, and if they’re going to say simple things that support inherent prejudices and deny uncomfortable facts, then so much the better. So bad leaders are elected. These bad leaders are discriminatory, aggressive and arrogant. They build a world around a self-centered idea of personal greatness that gives them personal license to break, bend and alter moral standards. By placing themselves on a pedestal above the law, bad leaders construct an insular bubble where they must always be right and anyone who suggests otherwise is mercilessly struck down.

Why ordinary people follow bad leaders?

Ordinary people do follow bad leaders. As social animals, they can easily fall into dominance hierarchies where they are prone to follow the leader with the highest push to control. They then tend to regulate their behaviour in consequence. There is fundamentally a desire for protection. Then there is the social validation phenomenon. When a group of people goes along with someone’s leadership, it is much harder to question that leadership without being excluded by the group. Finally ordinary people follow bad leaders because they seek to divert attention away from their personal mediocre performance. Mediocrity breeds more mediocrity and poor leadership hires for poor performance or blind loyalty to keep the air pumped into their overinflated egos.

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Why do so many good people do bad things?

Perhaps the most inexplicable insider trading case involves Rajat K. Gupta, formerly head of global consulting firm McKinsey & Company and a former director of Goldman Sachs who was convicted of tipping Raj Rajaratnam, the founder of the Galleon Group hedge fund, about impending developments at Goldman. Mr. Gupta did not make any money from his actions, and before sentencing, his lawyers argued that the conduct represented an “utter aberration.” In imposing a two-year prison sentence, Judge Jed S. Rakoff of the Federal District Court in Manhattan said he had “never encountered a defendant whose prior history suggests such an extraordinary devotion, not only to humanity writ large, but also to individual human beings in their times of need.”  Why such a good person would do bad things looks to be unanswerable. That does not mean that good people should avoid punishment just because they have lead otherwise exemplary lives. But it does raise questions about how much punishment is appropriate for someone who has lost so much, and about how to ensure that people do not cave in to the pressure to engage in misconduct.  Each person has to look within himself and ask himself what is right, what is wrong.

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Wrong conclusions from Milgram and Zimbardo studies?

Half a century ago, Holocaust perpetrator Adolph Eichmann was on trial. The prosecutor called him “a new kind of killer, the kind that exercises his bloody craft behind a desk.” Reporting on the trial, Hannah Arendt drew a different conclusion. She argued that Eichmann was a plain bureaucrat, seeing himself as “a law-abiding citizen” who “did his duty” and “obeyed orders.” She called it “the banality of evil.” The core claim was that if you put good people in a bad situation, bad things will happen. Soon, evidence emerged to support this chilling idea. At Yale, psychologist Stanley Milgram showed that ordinary men would inflict severe pain on others simply because they were asked to do so by an authority figure in an experiment. When a man failed to learn a set of words, a scientist in a white coat told them to deliver increasingly harmful electric shocks. Many went all the way to 450 volts—even after the “victim” (an actor) complained of heart trouble. “It may be that we are puppets—puppets controlled by the strings of society,” Milgram lamented. At Stanford, psychologist Philip Zimbardo randomly assigned students to play the roles of prisoners or prison guards. Cruelty ensued: The guards forced the prisoners to sleep on concrete and took away their clothes. “In only a few days, our guards became sadistic,” Zimbardo writes: the “power of a host of situational variables can dominate an individual’s will to resist.” These were two of the most powerful demonstrations in social science, by two brilliant thinkers, and they have taught a generation of students. But what if we’ve drawn the wrong conclusions from them?

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Although many people do underestimate the power of situations in driving behavior, more recent evidence shows that individual differences matter far more than we thought.

Who signs up for a Prison Study?

In the prison demonstration, Zimbardo claimed that ordinary people underwent a transformation. In his book, he calls it The Lucifer Effect, proposing to explain “how good people turn evil.” Yet the students who participated were recruited for “a psychological study of prison life.” What kind of person volunteers for such a study? When psychologists Thomas Carnahan and Sam McFarland compared people who signed up for a psychological study of prison life versus a general psychological study, the differences were stark. The people who volunteered for a prison study scored:

  • 27% higher on aggression (tendency to attack or harm others)
  • 10% higher on authoritarianism (expecting obedience from subordinates)
  • 10% higher on Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate others for personal gain)
  • 12% higher on narcissism (seeing oneself as superior)
  • 26% higher on social dominance (believing in the importance of hierarchy)
  • 7% lower on empathy: (concern for others in need)
  • 6% lower on altruism: (motivation to help others at a personal cost)

Psychologists have long described narcissism and Machiavellianism as two thirds of the dark triad of personality. The third is psychopathy (antisocial behavior and a lack of empathy and remorse), and now there’s a fourth dark trait that parallels the behavior of the prison guards: sadism (the tendency to feel pleasure from inflicting pain). When people with these types of dark traits signed up for a prison study and became prison guards, they were surrounded by others who shared their tendencies, and they expressed them. People “do not automatically assume roles given to them,” conclude the psychologists Alexander Haslam and Stephen Reicher, after running their own prison experiment with cooperation from the BBC. Rather, “particular individuals with particular beliefs make tyranny possible.”

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Who’s willing to deliver a Deadly Shock?

In Milgram’s original research, only 65% of participants delivered the maximum voltage of electric shocks. The psychologist Thomas Blass, author of The Man Who Shocked the World, was curious about the differences between people who obeyed and those who objected. When Blass analyzed the 21 different variations of Milgram’s experiment, he found that certain personality traits and beliefs predicted who continued delivering the shocks. People were more likely to deliver painful shocks if they were authoritarian. The shockers were also significantly more trusting of others (they assumed the scientist would do the right thing) and used to following the lead of others (they believed life events were driven by external forces like luck, chance, or fate, rather than internal forces like effort and willpower).

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Bad Barrels or Bad Apples?

Could it be that good people don’t turn evil?

Even at war, most people aren’t willing to kill. As biologist Frans de Waal writes: “It is a curious fact that the majority of soldiers, although well-armed, never kill. During World War II, only one out of every five U.S. soldiers actually fired at the enemy. The other four were plenty courageous, braving grave danger, landing on the beaches, rescuing comrades under fire, fetching ammunition for others, and so on, yet they failed to fire their weapons… Similarly, it has been calculated that during the Vietnam War, U.S. soldiers fired more than fifty thousand bullets for every enemy soldier killed. Most bullets must have been fired into the air.” This isn’t poor accuracy; there’s clear evidence for intentionality on the part of soldiers.  As Dave Grossman writes in On Killing, “The weak link between the killing potential and the killing capability of these units was the soldier. The simple fact is that when faced with a living, breathing opponent instead of a target, a significant majority of the soldiers revert to a posturing mode in which they fire over their enemy’s heads.” Most people aren’t willing to inflict irrevocable harm on others. Consistent with this idea, historian David Cesarani has challenged Arendt’s original conclusions that Eichmann was just a bureaucrat. Arendt only witnessed part of the trial, where Eichmann managed to put on a “deliberately banal façade,” Cesarani writes in Becoming Eichmann. “Eichmann’s Nazi convictions and his unquestioning obedience to orders were part of the same ideological package… Either Eichmann wanted to kill Jews or he didn’t care if they perished… To the fully indoctrinated Eichmann, the Jews had no intrinsic claim to life.”  Bad people are more likely to opt into bad situations. When they band together, all too often, evil is the result.

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Situational vs. dispositional theory:

The Stanford Prison Experiment engages us on both emotional and intellectual levels to consider the nature of good and evil from a scientific perspective, In brief, the dispositional theory holds that evil is the result of bad dispositions in some people (a few bad apples), whereas the situational theory holds that evil is the product of corrupting circumstances (bad barrels that corrupt apples). The dispositional theory of evil is the one most commonly embraced by religion (original sin), medicine (internal disease), psychiatry (mental illness), and the law (personal culpability), whereas the situational theory of evil is more conventionally invoked by social psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists sensitive to the diversity and power of environments to shape human behavior.  In point of fact both of these theories contain an element of truth: by disposition we have the capacity for good and evil, with the behavioral expression of them dependent on the situation and whether we choose to act. That is, we all have the capacity to commit evil deeds, but the expression of such acts very much depends on circumstances and conditions.

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed in The Gulag Archipelago:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

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Our dual dispositional nature of good and evil arose from our evolutionary history as a social primate species practicing within-group amity and between-group enmity. In order to survive as individuals we must get along with our fellow in-group members, and this led to the evolution of such moral emotions as empathy, cooperation, and trust. These pro-social tendencies gave us a good disposition. But because of the very real threat that strangers posed in the environment of our evolutionary ancestry natural selection also shaped us to have such emotions as xenophobia, competitiveness, and violence. These anti-social tendencies gave us an evil disposition.

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Zimbardo’s arguments in favour of situational theory of bad behaviour:

Zimbardo says “The message of my little Stanford Prison Experiment is that situations can have a more powerful influence over our behavior than most people appreciate and few people recognize. Social psychologists like myself have been trying to correct the belief that most people hold that evil is located only in the disposition of the individual–in their genes, their brains, their essence–and that there are good apples and there are bad apples.”  There are bad apples, of course, Zimbardo conceded the point, but the vast majority of evil in the world is not committed by those few bad apples; instead, it is ordinary people doing extraordinary things under certain circumstances. Zimbardo prefers to err on the side of granting people the benefit of the doubt. “Before we blame individuals, the charitable thing to do is to first find out what situations they were in that might have provoked this evil behavior. Why not assume that these are good apples in a bad barrel, rather than bad apples in a good barrel?”  While a few bad apples might spoil the barrel (filled with good fruit/ people), a vinegar barrel will always transform sweet cucumbers into sour pickles — regardless of the best intentions, resilience, and genetic nature of those cucumbers. So does it make more sense to spend resources to identify, isolate and destroy bad apples or to understand how vinegar works, and teach cucumbers how to avoid undesirable vinegar barrels?

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How can we tell the difference between good and bad apples, and between good and bad barrels?

Zimbardo says that when he launched the experiment at Stanford he knew these students were good apples because he gave them a battery of tests–personality tests, clinical interviews, we checked their background, etc., and every one of them were normal. Then he randomly assigned them to be guards or prisoners. So, on day one they were all good apples. Yet within days, the guards were transformed into sadistic thugs and the prisoners were emotionally broken. Zimbardo’s bad barrel turned good apples rotten.

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The situationist approach continues to be dominated by the traditional dispositional perspective fuelled by reliance on the individualist orientation central in Anglo-American psychology, and in our institutions of medicine, education, psychiatry, law and religion. Acknowledging the power of situational forces does not excuse the behaviors channelled by their operation. Rather, it provides a knowledge base to shift attention away from simplistic “blaming of the victim,” and ineffective individualistic treatments designed to change the evil doer, toward more profound attempts to discover causal networks that should be modified. Sensitivity to situational determinants of behavior, also guides risk alerts for avoiding or changing prospective situations of vulnerability.

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The situational perspective has several related dimensions:

  1. First, we should be aware that a range of apparently simple situational factors can function to impact our behavior more compellingly than seems possible. The research outlined here points up the influential force of: role playing, rules, presence of others, emergent group norms, group identity, uniforms, anonymity, social modelling, authority presence, symbols of power, time pressures, semantic framing, stereotypical images and labels, among others.
  2. Second, the situationist approach redefines heroism. When the majority of ordinary people can be overcome by such pressures toward compliance and conformity, the minority who resist should be considered heroic. Acknowledging the special nature of this resistance means we should learn from their example by studying how they have been able to rise above such compelling pressures.
  3. Third, the situationist approach encourages us all to share a profound sense of personal humility when trying to understand “unthinkable,” “unimaginable,” “senseless” acts of evil. Instead of immediately embracing the high moral ground that distances us good folks from those bad ones, and gives short shrift to analyses of causal factors in that situation, the situational approach gives all others the benefit of “attributional charity” in knowing that any deed, for good or evil, that any human being has ever done, anybody could also do — given the same situational forces. If so, it becomes imperative to constrain our immediate moral outrage that seeks vengeance against wrong doers; instead to uncover the causal factors that could have led them in that aberrant direction.

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The obvious current instantiation of these principles is the rush to the “evil” disposition to characterize terrorists and suicide bombers instead of working to understand the nature of the psychological, economic, religious and political conditions that foster such generalized hatred of an enemy nation, that young people are willing to sacrifice their lives and murder other human beings. The “war on terrorism” can never be won solely by current administration plans to find and destroy terrorists, since any individual, anywhere, at any time, can become an active terrorist. It only by understanding the situational determinants of terrorism that the programs can be developed to win the hearts and minds of potential terrorists away from destruction and toward creation. Not a simple task, but an essential one that requires implementation of social psychological perspectives and methods in a comprehensive, long-term plan of attitude, value and behavior change.

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Is being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ an objective concept?

Broadly defined, behavior comprises the reactions and interactions of an organism to its environment and with other organisms. In a general sense, anything an organism does is behavior. When we refer to human behavior, we also consider what people think and feel as well as what they do. Thus, behavioral geneticists consider personality traits and intelligence as behaviors, which may seem odd to students who equate behavior with the mating activities of sticklebacks and prairie chickens.  Human Behaviour refers to the full range of physical and emotional behaviours that humans engage in; biologically, socially, intellectually, etc. and are influenced by culture, attitudes, perceptions, emotions, values, social norms and ethics of a society, religious inclination, authority, rapport, persuasion, coercion and genetics. What is good behaviour and what is bad behaviour is determined by culture of a society at a given moment of time. A society generally expects individuals to have good behavior and shuns wicked tendencies. The differentiation between goodness and badness varies between different cultures and between different times. So what is crime varies from one society to another and from one time to another. If one country allows transfer of one article into it legally, the entry of that article is non-criminal. However if the same country then bans the entry of this article, its transfer in becomes smuggling. Consensual homosexual relationship between two adults was a crime in India but now things are otherwise. The American Mafia rose to power through its success in the illicit liquor trade during the 1920s prohibition era but after end of prohibition, the same liquor trade became legal and the same criminal act became permissible act. The age of consent is the age at which a person is considered to be legally competent to consent to sexual acts, and is thus the minimum age of a person with whom another person is legally permitted to engage in sexual activity. The distinguishing aspect of the age of consent laws is that the person below the minimum age is regarded as the victim, and their sex partner as the offender. The age of consent in Germany is 14 years, while it is 18 years in India. So a 15 year old Indian girl and her boyfriend of 19 years can travel to Germany as tourist and have consensual sex legally while it would be rape in India. Such differences between different cultures are bound to exist and therefore what is good or bad is dependent on social and cultural norms. It is difficult to say that humans are inherently good or bad because the concept of good or bad is something agreed upon by the society. For example in some societies today, particularly in the Middle East and regions of Africa, it is considered good to stone disobedient women. Obviously, such idea in American or European societies is considered barbaric and wrong. But some Islamic countries consider it barbaric and wrong that their women are allowed to go out dressed in whatever they want. Good and Bad is something agreed upon by society; so how can a person be inherently good or bad if being good or bad is not an objective concept?

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Theory of human’s good or bad behaviour:

The human brain is the most complex of all biological organs; it not only gives rise to consciousness—that most fascinating but elusive phenomenon—but also mediates our behavioural responses. Scientists have made great strides in reducing the organisational complexity of the brain from the intact organ to its constituent neurons, the proteins they contain, genes, and so on. Using this template, we can see how human thought and action unfold at a number of explanatory levels, working upwards from the most basic elements. At one of the lower tiers in this hierarchy is the neurobiological level, which comprises the brain and its constituent cells. Genes direct neuronal development, neurons assemble into brain circuits. Information processing, or computation, and neural network dynamics hover above. At the middle level are conscious mental states, such as thoughts, feelings, perceptions, knowledge and intentions. Social and cultural contexts, which play a powerful role in shaping our mental contents and behaviour, occupy the highest landings of the hierarchy. The structure of the brain and its higher cognitive functions are the product of evolutionary history, embedded within the genome. Today, most scientists agree that genes alone do not cause behaviour, but merely influence how an individual will react to a particular set of environmental and biographical circumstances. Genes are seen as determinants of behaviour insofar as they code for the assembly of the neural circuits that are necessary for the development and survival of the organism. But how does the brain, which owes its functional structure partly to the concerted action of genes, give rise to or cause behaviour?

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I want to emphasize that intelligence and morality have no correlation. In fact intelligent people lie more often than unintelligent people. But combination of immorality and unintelligence is the worst possible combination and majority of ordinary people possess such combination. Combination of intelligence with morality is the best possible combination and very few ordinary people possess such combination.  Discussion in this article is about human behaviour and not human intelligence; please do not mix up.

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Biological factors:

Charles Darwin (1859) demonstrated the idea that genetics and evolution play a role in influencing human behavior through natural selection. Biological factors such as genes, hormones and the brain all have a significant influence on human behavior. Hormone X may explain a behavior. But Hormone X is coded by a gene, so we’re not just talking about endocrinology, anymore – we’re talking about genetics. And genes are subject to selection, so we’re also talking about evolution. Information isn’t just contained in the hormone, it is contained in the interactions between hormones. Combine two hormones together and you don’t necessarily get a combination of the two behaviors that they modulate. You might instead get a completely different behavior. The brain monitors not just hormone levels, but the rate at which hormone levels are changing. The biological approach believes that most behavior is inherited and has an adaptive (or evolutionary) function.  A central claim of evolutionary psychology is that the brain (and therefore the mind) evolved to solve problems encountered by our hunter-gatherer ancestors during the upper Pleistocene period over 10,000 years ago. The Evolutionary approach explains behavior in terms of the selective pressures that shape behavior. Most behaviors that we see/display are believed to have developed during our EEA (environment of evolutionary adaptation) to help us survive. Observed behavior is likely to have developed because it is adaptive. It has been naturally selected, i.e., individuals who are best adapted survive and reproduce. Behaviors may even be sexually selected, i.e., individuals who are most successful in gaining access to mates leave behind more offspring. The mind is therefore equipped with ‘instincts’ that enabled our ancestors to survive and reproduce. Biological psychologists explain behaviors in neurological terms, i.e. the physiology and structure of the brain and how this influences behaviour.

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The tainted history of using biology to explain criminal behavior has pushed criminologists to reject or ignore genetics and concentrate on social causes: miserable poverty, corrosive addictions and guns. Recognition is increasing that biological processes are at some level implicated in the development of criminal behavior. There is certainly debate about the precise contribution of such factors to crime outcome, and there is considerable debate about the precise mechanisms that these biological factors reflect. Researchers estimate that at least 100 studies have shown that genes play a role in crimes. “Very good methodological advances have meant that a wide range of genetic work is being done,” said John H. Laub, the director of the justice institute, who won the Stockholm Prize in Criminology. He and others take pains to emphasize, however, that genes are ruled by the environment, which can either mute or aggravate violent impulses. Many people with the same genetic tendency for aggressiveness will never throw a punch, while others without it could be career criminals. Everyone in the field agrees there is no “crime gene.” What most researchers are looking for are inherited traits that are linked to aggression and antisocial behaviors, which may in turn lead to violent crime. There is now a large body of evidence that supports the conclusion that individual differences in most, if not all, reliably measured psychological traits, normal and abnormal, are substantively influenced by genetic factors.

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Twin studies are conducted on the basis of comparing monozygotic (MZ) or identical twins and their rates of criminal behavior with the rates of criminal behavior of dizygotic (DZ) or fraternal twins. Ordinarily these studies are used to assess the roles of genetic and environmental influences. If the outcomes of these twin studies show that there is a higher concordance rate for MZ twins than for DZ twins in criminal behavior, then it can be assumed that there is a genetic influence (Tehrani & Mednick, 2000). Are identical twins more concordant for criminality than fraternal twins? The answer from many reviews conducted on this expanding field is undoubtedly yes. As one example, a review of all the twin studies of crime conducted up to 1993 showed that although twin studies vary widely in terms of the age, sex, country of origin, sample size, determination of zygosity, and definition of crime, nevertheless all thirteen studies of crime show greater concordance rates for criminality in MZ as opposed to DZ twins (Raine 1993). If one averages concordance rates across all studies (weighting for sample sizes), these thirteen studies result in concordances of 51.5 percent for MZ twins and 20.6 percent for DZ twins. Furthermore, the twin studies that have been conducted since 1993 have confirmed the hypothesis that there is greater concordance for antisocial and aggressive behavior in MZ relative to DZ twins (for example, SlutSkee t al. 1997; Eley, lichenstein, and Stevenson 1999).  Grove et al. (1990) studied thirty-two sets of monozygotic twins who were separated and reared apart shortly after birth, and found statistically significant heritabilities for antisocial behavior in both childhood (0.41) and adulthood (0.28). Such evidence for heritability cannot be due to being raised in the same environment. Twin analyses in another study also revealed significant genetic influence on distinct psychopathic traits (Fearless Dominance and Impulsive Antisociality).  Individuals with early warning signs of life-long psychopathy, callous-unemotional traits (CU) and high levels of antisocial behaviour (AB) can be identified in childhood. A study found remarkably high heritability for CU, and for AB children with CU. Many other twin studies have been conducted, but there is concern over the validity of those studies and their ability to separate out the nature and nurture aspects; therefore other sources of information should be examined.

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Two of the most cited personality traits that can be shown to have an association with antisocial or criminal behavior are impulsivity and aggression (Morley & Hall, 2003). According to the article written by Holmes et al. (2001), antisocial behavior between the ages of nine and fifteen can be correlated strongly with impulsivity and that aggression in early childhood can predict antisocial acts and delinquency. One statistic shows that between seventy and ninety percent of violent offenders had been highly aggressive as young children (Holmes et al., 2001). These personality traits have, in some research, been shown to be heritable. Twin and adoption studies indicate that most behavioral characteristics are heritable. Nonetheless, efforts to identify the genes influencing behavior have produced a limited number of confirmed linkages or associations. Behavioral genetic research also documents the importance of environmental factors, but contrary to the expectations of many behavioral scientists, the relevant environmental factors appear to be those that are not shared by reared together relatives.

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Genetic Influence on Behaviour: a 2009 study:

Researchers at Brown University and the University of Arizona have determined that variations of three different genes in the brain (called single-nucleotide polymorphisms) may help predict a person’s tendency to make certain choices. By testing DNA samples from saliva in conjunction with computerized cognitive tests, researchers found that the certain gene variations could be connected to certain choices — focusing on decisions that previously produced good outcomes, avoiding negative outcomes, or trying unfamiliar things even though an outcome is uncertain. In some cases, single genes can have surprisingly strong influences on particular aspects of behavior. The study examined the effects of three genes that control aspects of dopamine function in the brain while participants performed a computerized decision-making task. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps keep the central nervous symptom functioning. Its levels fluctuate as the brain feels motivated or rewarded. Variations in two of the genes — DARPP-32 and DRD2 — independently predicted the degree to which people responded to outcomes that were better or worse than expected, by reinforcing approach and avoidance type behaviors. These genes affect dopamine processes in the basal ganglia portion of the brain. Researchers found that variations in a third gene — COMT — predicted the extent to which people explored decisions when they were uncertain whether the decisions might produce better outcomes. COMT affects dopamine levels in the prefrontal cortex, known as an executive center of the brain. This level might be needed to prevent the more basic motivational learning system from always taking control over behavior, so as to gather more information and prevent getting stuck in a rut.

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Environmental Influences:

Thus far it has been established through research and various studies that genetics do influence criminal or antisocial behavior. Researchers agree on the point that genes influence personality traits and disorders, such as the ones just mentioned. However, researchers also agree that there is an environmental component that needs to be examined. Human beings perceive and understand the world through the senses, and epistemic connection with the world occurs via the transmission of information from the world through those senses into a mind. So environment influences individuals via the information that is generated in that environment and transmitted into the minds of these individuals. The family environment is critical to the upbringing of a child and if problems exist then the child is most likely to suffer the consequences. Families with poor communication and weak family bonds have been shown to have a correlation with children’s development of aggressive/criminal behavior (Garnefski & Okma, 1996). Another indicator of future antisocial or criminal behavior is that of abuse or neglect in childhood. A statistic shows that children are at a fifty percent greater risk of engaging in criminal acts, if they were neglected or abused (Holmes et al., 2001). This has been one of the most popular arguments as to why children develop antisocial or delinquent behaviors. Another significant factor in the development of antisocial or delinquent behavior in adolescence is peer groups.

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One additional research finding in the debate between genetic and environmental influences on antisocial or criminal behavior has to deal with the age of the individual. Research seems consistent in recognizing that heritability influences adult behavior more than environmental influences, but that for children and adolescents the environment is the most significant factor influencing their behavior (Rhee & Waldman, 2002). As an adult, we have the ability to choose the environment in which to live and this will either positively or negatively reinforce our personality traits, such as aggressiveness. However, children and adolescents are limited to the extent of choosing an environment, which accounts for the greater influence of environmental factors in childhood behaviors.

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In Philip Zimbardo’s book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, he recounts in detail his famous Stanford Prison Experiment where college students, randomly assigned to be guards and inmates, were transformed in such a shocking way that they had to end the experiment early. Without being told how to behave, the guards naturally became brutal and sadistic while the inmates became resigned and emotionally broken. The roles were assigned randomly. The students who played the guards were not bad people. Those who played inmates were not weak-willed. They were both simply changed by the situation they were put in. so good apples in bad barrels can become bad apples. The environment that we are in has a profound effect on our thinking and actions. Most people believe they can act independently of their environment not realizing how much of their action reflects the values of those around them and the situation they are in. We all want to belong and gain acceptance from those around us. It’s natural and it happens without our conscious awareness. Ordinary people become bad by psychological processes of dehumanization, diffusion of responsibility, obedience to authority, unjust systems, group pressure and conformity, moral disengagement, anonymity, false self and social modelling, to name a few. The clothes that we wear, the way we speak, the car that we buy, these decisions are all made to gain social approval. Even those who fight against the status quo and conformity want to gain acceptance from others fighting against conformity.  Ordinary people can be transformed into committing mass murders that are alien to their past history and to their moral development by putting them into a situation in which they had “official” permission and encouragement to act sadistically and brutishly against those arbitrarily labelled as the “enemy.” Ordinary people can succumb to social pressure to commit acts that would otherwise be unthinkable. Situations can be sufficiently powerful to undercut empathy, altruism, morality and to get ordinary people to be seduced into doing really bad things. The right (or wrong) social context can make almost anyone aggress, oppress, conform, and obey.

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Gene-Environment Interactions:

How do genes and the environment come together to shape animal behavior?

Both play important roles. Genes capture the evolutionary responses of prior populations to selection on behavior. Environmental flexibility gives animals the opportunity to adjust to changes during their own lifetime. Evolution has acted so that genes and environment act to complement each other in yielding behavioral solutions to the survival challenges faced by animals. Innate, or instinctive, responses allow animals to benefit from generations of natural selection on behavior. Learning gives animals tools to respond to local conditions and changing environments. Understanding the relative roles of genes and the environment in determining human behavior continues to create controversy. Behavior is best seen as the result of evolutionary processes that sometimes create, through genetic coding, behavioral instructions for animals and at other times create flexible mechanisms to allow animals to solve problems specific to their environment. Today we recognize that both genes and the environment influence behavior, and scientists studying behavior focus on the interaction between these two factors. Genes, via their influences on morphology and physiology, create a framework within which the environment acts to shape the behavior of an individual animal. The environment can affect morphological and physiological development; in turn behavior develops as a result of that animal’s shape and internal workings. Genes also create the scaffold for learning, memory, and cognition, remarkable mechanisms that allow animals to acquire and store information about their environment for use in shaping their behavior.

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There is a long standing controversy regarding the importance of heredity and environment. Supporters of heredity say that the environment cannot change a dog into a goat. On the other hand, the environmentalists are of the opinion that for the development of a plant only seed is not important but also environment like sunlight, manure, water, etc. Innumerable studies have been conducted on both sides. However, the results indicate that heredity and environment are interdependent forces. Whatever the heredity supplies, the favourable environment brings it out. Personality characteristics attained by heredity are shaped by environment. There cannot be enough possible evidence to conclude the point that genetics play the most important role in the outcome or behavior of an individual. The opposing viewpoint of environmental factors is not without its doubts either as to being the prominent factor influencing antisocial or criminal behavior of an individual. Researchers, however, have certainly come far in their progression, to the point where there is a large consensus of the fact that genes do influence behavior to a certain extent and these same researchers also believe that environmental factors account for what cannot be explained by genes. Therefore it seems obvious to reach the conclusion that an individual’s antisocial or criminal behavior can be the result of both their genetic background and the environment in which they were raised. Your natural features, such as your hair and eye color, are determined by genetics. But how you style that hair and what kind of sunglasses you wear over those eyes, well, those may be part of your genetic personality, but they’re also likely influenced by the people you hang out with and other social cues in your environment.

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Because there are so many elements involved and they interact with one another in such complex ways, it is extremely difficult to disentangle the influence of genes from the influence of the environment. To tease out these different strands and estimate their relative power, behavioral geneticists use twin studies, comparing identical twins (who share all their genes) and fraternal twins (who share about half their genes). The genetic influence on a characteristic such as intelligence, temperament, personality, cognitive style, or psychophysiology is greater when the trait is more similar in identical twins than in fraternal twins. Researchers also study adopted children to see if they are more like their biological parents (with whom they share genes) or their adoptive parents (with whom they share the environment). These studies, which are becoming increasingly analytical and sophisticated, show that antisocial behavior is moderately heritable (Moffitt, 2005), especially antisocial behavior that begins early in life (Arseneault et al., 2003; Rhee and Waldman, 2002).  In addition, scientists have discovered that some genes interact with a particular environment to actually produce a disorder (Rutter et al., 2006); some genes are expressed or turned on (or not) because of physical, social, and cultural factors in the environment; and some genes—for example, those that influence difficult temperament, impulsivity, novelty seeking, and lack of empathy—predispose people to be exposed to environmental risks. Genes even help shape the environment. Genes influence how parents bring up their children; genes affect the responses that children evoke from their families and the others around them; and, as children grow older, genes sway their choice of companions and surroundings (Caspi and Silva, 1995; Plomin, Owen, and McGuffin, 1994). It’s important to remember that heredity is not destiny. With the right environmental interventions at the right time, even a trait with a strong genetic foundation (such as antisocial behavior) can be altered.

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Can we separate genes from environment vis-à-vis our behaviour?

The tangled roles of genes and environment were recognized right from the start of the modern science of genetics. One of the clearest statements of the problem was made in 1911 by Wilhelm Johannsen, the scientist who coined the word “gene.” Johannsen laid out the paradox at the heart of genetics that makes it so difficult to pin down the role that genes play in in our lives. The paradox is this: Organisms that have the same genes can still have different traits. And organisms that share the same traits may in fact have different genes. So while you inherit your genes from your parents, those genes will not necessarily manifest themselves in the same way in your body. And most crucially, as Johannsen showed in his experiments on bean plants, differences in traits that are caused by slight variations in the environment can be indistinguishable from differences that are caused by genetics. The often indistinguishable effects of genes and environment are important to keep in mind especially when we read about genetic studies of behavioral or mental traits, which, unlike many physical traits, can be directly transmitted from parents to offspring, independently of genes. A trait that is mostly influenced by genetics in one population may be more strongly influenced by the environment in a different population. And a changing environment can account for rapid changes in highly heritable traits, most famously in the case of the Flynn effect and IQ. There is no question that our genes play a role in our behavior, but to tease apart genes from environment requires careful experiments coupled with the formidable mathematical toolbox of modern genetics. And even then, it’s often very hard to do. Often we cannot distinguish effects of genes from effects of environment on our behaviour.

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Deciding whether a trait is caused by genes or caused by environment is a fool’s errand. It is like asking whether the area of a rectangle has more to do with its length or its height. There is no gene that won’t change the way it is expressed when under an extreme enough environment. There is no environment that will teach a chimp to speak. It’s all about the variability in the genes or the environment. A huge error here, however, is the assumption of nurture. The science says that the environment of your peer group has a much stronger effect on your behavior than the environment of your parents. The same goes for your fetal environment, where hormonal randomness and other factors can have a dramatic effect on the way you will turn out.

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A good example of how genes and environment can interact is a schizophrenia study. On average, about 1% of the population has schizophrenia. Children who were adopted by a schizophrenic parent, but whose biological parents weren’t schizophrenic, had a 3% chance of getting the disease. If their biological parents had the disease, but their adoptive parents didn’t, they had a 9% chance. This would lead you to conclude that it is “more” genetic than environmental. But what about when you combine the two? A child raised by parents who had the disease, whose biological parents had the disease, had a 17% chance of getting the disease. This means that when genes and environment work together, the effects can be more than additive. And just to make things even more complicated, there are some environments where a gene will do the opposite thing when the environment is changed enough.

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Gene-culture co-evolution:

Gene–culture coevolution theory says that human behavior is a product of two different and interacting evolutionary processes: genetic evolution and cultural evolution. ‘Culture’, in this context is defined as ‘socially learned behavior’, and ‘social learning’ is defined as copying behaviors observed in others or acquiring behaviors through being taught by others. The use of socially learned information (culture) is central to human adaptations. Human characteristics (good or bad) are the product of gene–culture coevolution, which is an evolutionary dynamic involving the interaction of genes and culture over long time periods. Gene–culture co-evolution is responsible not only for a taste for fairness, the capacity to empathize and salience of morality and character virtues but also for bad behaviour, vices, selfishness and aggressive behaviour depending of prevailing situations and circumstances, with core biological goal of survival. Co-evolutionists debate whether cultural evolution was largely controlled by selection acting on genes or whether cultural evolution often played the leading role during human evolution. The most common criticism of the analogy between genetic and cultural evolution is that the gene is a well-defined, discrete, independently reproducing and mutating entity, whereas the boundaries of the unit of culture are ill-defined and overlapping. In fact, however, this view of the gene is out-dated. We now know that overlapping, nested and movable genes have some of the fluidity of cultural units, whereas quite often the boundaries of a cultural unit (a belief, icon, word, technique, stylistic convention) are quite delimited and specific. Similarly, alternative splicing, nuclear and messenger RNA editing, cellular protein modification and genomic imprinting, which are quite common, undermine the standard view of the insular gene producing a single protein, and support the notion of genes having variable boundaries and having strongly context-dependent effects. Moreover, natural selection requires heritable variation and selection, but does not require discretely transmitted units.

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Actually, the vast majority of the DNA doesn’t code for proteins. Instead, these genes form an extremely complex network of “if-then” clauses. These are called transcription factors. Rather than thinking gene A codes for protein A, we now have to revise our thinking. Instead, it’s more like gene A activates gene B if and only if gene C is active and gene D is inactive. This means that most of the information isn’t actually coded in the genes themselves. It’s coded in the way the genes interact with one another. This changes our view of evolution, because it allows for drastic changes to occur in a short period of time. One of the most striking examples is the evolution of the FOXP2 gene, which plays a role in language. It is virtually the same in most animals on the planet, but the human version has changed a great deal in a short period of time. This model of evolution is called punctuated equilibrium. Rather than slow, gradual change, species apparently remain in a relatively static state for long periods of time. All the change occurs when DNA networks are reconnected and combined in new and interesting ways.

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Good genes for good behaviour and bad genes for bad behaviour:  Encoded morality in brain:

David Buss of the University of Texas asked his students if they had ever thought seriously about killing someone, and if so, to write out their homicidal fantasies in an essay. He was astonished to find that 91 percent of the men and 84 percent of the women had detailed, vivid homicidal fantasies. He was even more astonished to learn how many steps some of his students had taken toward carrying them out. We all have evolved from animals so that we all possess natural instinct to kill others to thrive and survive. The real question is not what makes people kill but what prevents them from doing so. Evolutionary biologically, we have evolved behaviors that increase our chances of survival and reproduction. In order to survive as individuals we must get along with our fellow in-group members, and this led to the evolution of such moral emotions as altruism, empathy, cooperation, and trust. But because of the very real threat that strangers posed in the environment of our evolutionary ancestry, natural selection also shaped us to have such emotions as selfishness, xenophobia, competitiveness, and violence. In resource poor highly stressful environments, we’ll do whatever necessary to survive including stealing and killing others. We all have sub-cortical neurochemical drive called sexual lust necessary for human reproduction, consensual or otherwise depending on situation. All these shows we have inbuilt biological mechanism for goodness and badness necessary for survival and reproduction. In other words, we have good genes for good behaviour and bad genes for bad behaviour inbuilt in us; the proportion varies from person to person. On one hand we have prophet who has almost all good genes and on the other hand, we have psychopath who has almost all bad genes. Most ordinary people fall in between these two extremes and vacillate between good and evil. Biologically human nature by default is good albeit goodness may result from anticipation or acquisition of reward in return. This proves that most ordinary people have more good genes for good behavior than bad genes for bad behaviour. We have the capacity to empathize with people we have never met, and there certainly isn’t any other species capable of empathizing with fictitious characters. There is also a good chance that we are the only species capable of feeling empathy for another species. Neuroscientific studies exhibit clearly the genetic basis for moral behaviour. Brain regions involved in moral judgements and behaviour include the prefrontal cortex, the orbitalfrontal cortex and the superior temporal sulcus. These brain structures are virtually unique to or most highly developed in humans and are doubtless evolutionary adaptations. The evolution of the human prefrontal cortex is closely tied to the emergence of human morality. Patients with focal damage to one or more of these areas exhibit a variety of antisocial behaviours, including the absence of embarrassment, pride and regret, and sociopathic behaviour. This is because human nature by default is good and when that goodness is destroyed by damage to these areas, bad behaviour which was so far supressed by good behaviour is now expressed. Humans are both moral and immoral being dictated by their biology and environment. Environment or situation can be good or bad depending on how it helps or harms human survival and reproduction. For example, coming from rich or upper middle class background with lot of money can help getting better food, better housing and better health care resulting in better chance of survival. On the other hand, poverty is a bad environment as there is struggle for survival on daily basis. Living with good cultured family is good environment and living with criminals is bad environment. Then there are complex environments, combination of good and bad. Living with good cultured family which is in poverty and living with criminals who are very rich are complex environments.

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How ordinary people commit extraordinary evil:

Evolutionary biology of Brain Circuits through Natural Selection:

It is the reasoning “circuits” that underlie the processes by which ordinary people can commit extraordinary evil.

Social psychological research has identified many different apparently universal principles and processes for how humans think and relate to each other. Each of these different processes (for instance, how we react to authority, or how we react to people who are not part of the groups we belong to, etc.) developed as an adaptation for survival during the course of human evolution. Social psychologists refer to these processes as “universal reasoning circuits” meaning that:

  1. They are common to all normal humans and human groups,
  2. They structure the ways that humans process information and events,
  3. While related, the different “circuits” operate separately from one another (just as, for instance, the electrical circuit that powers the lights in one room is different from the circuit that powers an appliance in another room) and developed to meet somewhat different needs.

From an evolutionary perspective, the reason that these different “circuits” developed as they did was because they were adaptive. In other words, individuals and groups that had these characteristics tended to survive (protect themselves, obtain resources, and procreate effectively). The context of these developments and adaptations, however, was much different than the current setting. During most of human history people lived in small hunting-gathering groups. So, the adaptations worked in this type of situation. However, the modern world is dramatically different. In many ways, individuals and groups are trying to operate in a modern setting with hunter-gatherer brains. The same basic adaptations that give rise to the most moving acts of charity and altruism can also give rise, under certain circumstances, to genocide, torture and rape. In other words, genes for good behaviour and genes for bad behaviour have evolved as adaptations necessary for survival and reproduction depending on environmental situations by encoding reasoning circuits in our brain.

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When Blass analyzed the 21 different variations of Milgram’s experiment, he found that certain personality traits and beliefs predicted who continued delivering the shocks. Bad people are more likely to opt into bad situation. Majority of ordinary people have predominant good genes for good behaviour and fewer bad genes for bad behaviour, but since bad situations are commonplace, these people will behave badly as their bad genes are provided suitable environment to express as proved by Milgram and Zimbardo experiments. So good apples in bad barrel will become bad apples. Can bad apples in good barrel become good apples?  Yes, but difficult. Bad people will always opt for bad environment and in this world, bad environment is commonplace. For the sake of experiment, if a child with predominant bad genes for bad behaviour is brought up in highly cultured environment with excellent moral education, these genes will not be expressed and the person is reared to become a gentleman. However as this child become adult, heritability influences adult behavior more than environmental influences. As an adult, he has the ability to choose the environment in which to live and this will either positively or negatively reinforce his personality traits, such as aggressiveness. So instead of becoming gentleman, this person may choose bad environment to suit bad genes and becomes a crook. Of course no debate about the extremes; prophet will never kill innocent and psychopath will never empathise no matter environment (situation) is good or bad.

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The third force: Human Neo-Cortex:

Humans process information and experience through multiple brain systems. Unlike most other animals, instead of relying primarily on pre-programmed instincts and habits acquired through stimulus response learning, we also process information through complex emotional programming acquired early in life and rational/logical filters which have the capacity to override the other processing systems. The vast majority of our information and decision making machinery operates at an implicit level: outside our consciousness, but still calling the shots. Our response to every situation is the result of a complex combination of all the systems, although for many of us, the conscious rational level is the only one we know to acknowledge. This leads to befuddling situations such as making New Year’s resolutions we know are to our benefit, but which we immediately abandon for no apparent reason. Our instinctual programming and emotional patterning is the key to what has happened: emotional has overtaken logic blocking our success. Rational processing takes place in the neo-cortex, the seat of thinking, logic, reasoning and language. The neo-cortex is comprised of the large grey lobes you see in depictions of the human brain, and has two hemispheres, popularly referred to as the left and right brains. In the foremost area of the neo-cortex, located directly behind our  forehead, lies the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which mediates an  impressive list of functions, including attuned communication,  emotional balance, response flexibility (i.e. the ability to override  instinct and unconscious programming), empathy, fear moderation,  intuition, future based thinking and morality.  It is precisely these functions that differentiate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. We can consciously resist our impulses. We act by moral codes. We can think into the future and create things that don’t exist today, allowing us tremendous power over our natural environments. We are the only animal for whom a great deal of our neural processing is devoted to imagining various future possibilities and creating advance strategies for dealing with them.

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During the process of evolution, the brain didn’t simply get larger. It also developed completely new structures. In particular, the mammalian brain developed a neo-cortex—the outer “grey matter” layer of the brain—which grew atop the older sub-cortex (sometimes referred to as the “reptilian” brain). The neo-cortex provides a mechanism for fine-tuning and augmenting the functions of subcortical structures, like adding power steering and fuel-injection to a car to enhance its performance. To use another automobile analogy, imagine that the brain drives behaviour like a person drives a car. More specifically, imagine that a teenager in a driver’s education class is like the sub-cortex, and his expert instructor, sitting next to teenager with his own steering wheel and brake, is the neo-cortex. The student does well in most situations, but when it comes time to Parallel Park—an advanced manoeuvre—the instructor may have to take control of the wheel. The two drivers aren’t in conflict—that is, they both have the goal of parking the car. But to perform this complex task effectively, the student needs the help of the instructor. In this way, the neo-cortex functions to take control of one’s behaviours to override our immediate, but sometimes inappropriate, reactions various stimuli. The emotional system is the limbic system, the set of structures deep within the brain that fires up in situations which have implications for our survival and well-being. The interaction between the limbic system and the neo-cortex is a two-way street. Your limbic system informs your neo-cortex, but your neo-cortex can also control your limbic system.  You can over-ride your limbic system’s tendency to let your emotions control your life, but it takes effort. You have to decide to be the one in charge of your emotions, or your emotions will take charge of you. Unlike the hardwired parts of the brain, the programming of the neo-cortex can be changed through various kinds of learning. Also, neural connections exist from it to the ancient regions of the brain (reptilian brain). Because of these, calls for extreme action from the amygdala and other ancient parts of the brain can be overridden by the neo-cortex. Time is needed for the neo-cortex to complete its slower — but much more sophisticated — analysis of the situation and then act as compared to sub-cortical structures that react instantaneously. Neo-cortex is an evolved mechanism that can override or augment reflexive and habitual reactions in order to orchestrate behaviour in accord with our intentions. This mechanism is commonly referred to as ‘cognitive’ in nature and their function is to control lower-level sensory, memory and/or motor operations for a common purpose. So cognitive control is essential for what we recognize as intelligent behaviour. Insight into the neural mechanisms for cognitive control may come from what is arguably their most important feature: they are sculpted by experience. Virtually all intended behaviours are learned and so depend on a cognitive system that can acquire the rules of the game — what goals are available and what means can be used to achieve these goals.

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Irrational decisions driven by emotions and rational decision involve overriding of emotions: a 2006 study:

Irrational behaviour arises as a consequence of emotional reactions evoked when faced with difficult decisions, according to new research at UCL (University College London). The UCL study suggests that rational behaviour may stem from an ability to override automatic emotional responses, rather than an absence of emotion per se. It has long been assumed in classical theories of economics that people act entirely rationally when taking decisions. However, it has increasingly become recognized that humans often act irrationally, as a consequence of biasing influences. For example, people are strongly and consistently affected by the way in which a question is presented. An operation that has 40 per cent probability of success seems more appealing than one that has a 60 per cent chance of failure. This study provides neurobiological evidence that an amygdala-based emotional system underpins the biasing of human decisions. Brain imaging revealed that the amygdala, a region thought to control our emotions and mediate the ‘fight or flight’ reaction, underpinned bias in the decision process. The authors found that people are rational, or irrational, to widely differing amounts. The amygdala was active across all participants, regardless of whether they behaved rationally or irrationally, suggesting that everyone experiences an emotional reaction when faced with difficult choices. However, authors found that more rational individuals had greater activation in their orbitofrontal cortex (a region of prefrontal cortex) suggesting that rational individuals are able to better manage or perhaps override their emotional responses. In other words, neo-cortex can manage or override sub-cortical emotions for the benefit of individual.

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Biologically all humans are animals but we also have something that no other animal has: the most complex social structure on Earth. We gather in families, tribes, clans, nations. We have an incredibly sophisticated method of interacting — speech. We can communicate over time and distance through printing and broadcasting. Our memories are the longest, our interactions the most intricate and our perception of the world the broadest and most detailed. The combination of biology and society (environment) is what makes us what we are and do what we do. Biology guides our responses to stimuli, based on thousands of generations of ancestors surviving because of their responses. Our social structures dictate restrictions on and alterations in how we carry out our biological responses. Neither biology nor society stands without the other. For some people, this is a contradiction — either nature (biology) controls people, or nurture (society) does. But in fact we process both to determine how we react to stimuli. That processor, that reasoning apparatus is our human neo-cortex.  Although there are two sides of human behaviour, the biological basis of our responses to the world around us and the social factors (environmental situations) that affect those responses, these are the same two sides that guide behaviour of all animals, the genes (nature) and the environment (nurture). But what makes us human is our highly developed and advanced neo-cortex which can process behaviours guided by biology and society.

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The combination of genetic and learned responses to stimuli creates an animal’s reaction to stimuli. The higher the complexity of the nervous system of the animal, the more likely strategies are learned rather than instinctive. Sharks, with a relatively simple nervous system, hunt by instinct and need no instruction on how to go about it. Lions, with a complex system, must learn the techniques of stealth, stalk, and attack. Also learned responses can mitigate the instinctive, depending on the complexity of the animal’s nervous system. A starving rat will run across an electrified grid that gives it painful shocks if there is food on the other side. Although shocks cause the instinctive fight-or-flight physiological changes, these aren’t going to kill it but starvation will. So rat leans a survival strategy mitigating the instinctive.  Humans have the most advanced neo-cortex as compared to all other animals which endows them with far better learning ability. This far better learning ability help human evolve superior strategies to tackle environmental changes and override natural inbuilt instincts at will.

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Human behaviour is dependent on three factors: genes, environment (religion, culture, society, situation, parents, teachers and peers etc.) and his/her mind (neo-cortex in brain). Some genes are turned on or off because of physical, social, and cultural factors in the environment; and some genes may predispose people to be exposed to environmental risks. Genes even help shape the environment and with the right environmental interventions at the right time, even a trait with a strong genetic foundation (such as antisocial behavior) can be altered. Often we cannot distinguish effects of genes from effects of environment on our behaviour.  Genes (good behaviour and bad behaviour genes) and environment (good, bad and complex situations) do influence us but final decision is taken by neo-cortex. Part of neo-cortex is closely tied to the emergence of human morality or immorality based on genes (good or bad) evolved through gene-culture co-evolution. However, our highly advanced neo-cortex including pre-frontal cortex can override sub-cortical emotions, instincts and motivations as well as inbuilt morality evolved due to gene-culture co-evolution by reason & logic. The highly developed and advanced neo-cortex of humans can process behaviours guided by genes and environment. This human neo-cortex endows them with far better learning abilities that help them evolve superior strategies to tackle environmental changes and override natural inbuilt instincts at will.  Animals have rudimentary neo-cortex so they cannot think & reason like humans. This neo-cortex in our brain gives us our humanness. It is the human neo-cortex that can override behaviours driven by genes and environment. Animals have rudimentary neo-cortex, so they are always guided by genes and environment although higher animals can learn survival strategy overriding instinctive behaviour depending on development of neo-cortex. Sadly, most of ordinary humans have not allowed their neo-cortex to override behaviours driven by genes and environment. When some ordinary human indeed does so, he/she becomes extraordinary like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. There is duality at the heart of gene-culture co-evolution for expressing good or bad behaviour with the sole biological goal of survival and reproduction. Genes for good behaviour and genes for bad behaviour have evolved as adaptations necessary for survival and reproduction in different environmental situations by encoding reasoning circuits in our brain. The same basic adaptations that give rise to the most moving acts of empathy and altruism can also give rise, under certain situations, to genocide, torture and rape. This duality unknowingly operates within each one of us: the force that compels us to live by our values, give and receive love, and be a contributing member of the community; and the force that holds us back, sabotages our efforts, and repeatedly steers us toward bad choices.  Our conscience should be set at such a high level that our strong will operate through our neo-cortex to override behaviours guided by dual genes and good/bad environment. Our neo-cortex needs to be developed by strong will to override behaviours guided by genes evolved through gene-culture co-evolution and environmental situations and psychological processes. Strong will means ability to strengthen self-control.  It is a tall order. In my view, most ordinary people will become bad as they do not have strong will power to override behaviours guided by bad behaviour genes constantly opting for bad situations which are commonplace everywhere. If genes predispose a certain behavior but environment doesn’t support it, then that behavior won’t manifest. Bad behaviour genes won’t work in good environmental situations. Yes, if bad situations become rare then bad behaviour genes cannot express and that can be done only by good political and religious leaders. These leaders can metamorphose entire society in such a way that bad situations do not arise. But for that to occur, they should themselves have maximum number of good behaviour genes to overcome bad situations already existing. History shows that leaders like Hitler created such situations that ordinary people acted in most brutal ways. History also shows that leaders like Lee Kuan Yew created situations and systems which made ordinary people hard working and honest resulting in transforming his nation Singapore from third world to first world in a single generation. Leaders of nations have to create situations and systems which eradicate corruption and discrimination, and make their people hard working and honest. People are always personally accountable for their bad behaviour. Understanding the reason for someone’s bad behaviour is not the same as excusing it. Out of genes, environmental situations and neo-cortex, we cannot change genes but we can change evil-generating situations and we can develop will power in neo-cortex to override bad behaviours driven by bad genes and bad situations. This will lead to strategies to prevent ordinary people from committing evil acts. In a nutshell, majority of ordinary people are immoral and dishonest until they develop their will power strong enough to override bad behaviours guided by genes and environment and/or they elect good leaders who will create good situations & systems to prevent ordinary people’s bad behaviour genes from expressing itself.

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The figure below shows synopsis of interaction of factors responsible for human behaviour:

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Moral of the story:

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  1. Human beings are neither inherently good or nor inherently bad because being good or bad is not an objective concept. The concept of good behaviour or bad behaviour is something agreed upon by the society. Altruism and empathy would be considered as good behaviour while harm to others would be considered as bad behaviour in most societies.

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  1. Unethical, immoral and dishonest behaviour is widespread in our society.

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  1. Although humans have both goodness and evilness in them, scientific studies show that human nature by default is good albeit goodness may result from anticipation or acquisition of reward in return. We have the capacity to empathize with people we have never met, and there certainly isn’t any other species capable of empathizing with fictitious characters. There is also a good chance that we are the only species capable of feeling empathy for another species. Also, studies show the evidence of the existence of pure altruism in humans. Humans have become bad due to influences of environmental situations. Ordinary people become bad by psychological processes of dehumanization, diffusion of responsibility, obedience to authority, unjust systems, group pressure and conformity, moral disengagement, anonymity, false self and social modelling, to name a few.

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  1. Anything that makes someone feel anonymous, as if no one knows who they are, creates the potential for that person to act in evil ways if the situation gives permission for violence, cheating or stealing. 60 to 70 per cent ordinary people will steal or cheat if they think there’s a good chance they won’t get caught. People who have cheated earlier will cheat again. When others are cheating and getting away with it, the norm of fairness says it must be all right, so non-cheater starts cheating. When the perception is that wrongdoing is common, it increases the amount of wrongdoing.

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  1. The mere smell of money can make ordinary people behave unethically. Corruption exists among ordinary people of India on amoral conviction that money is more important for the ends it achieves and not the means by which it is obtained.

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  1. The biggest lie is to say that I have never lied. Lying starts at an early age and children with a high IQ lied more often. Lying needs more intelligence and more imagination than telling truth. We can lie with dry eyes because we have made ourselves blind to the truth. We justify lying by rationalising it.

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  1. Most people are unable to resist temptation by their nature. However anticipating temptation may reduce unethical behaviour and acknowledging that temptations are constant or recurrent can help strengthen self-control.

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  1. If others view you suspiciously and constantly treat you like you are a bad person, you are more likely to engage in immoral or illegal behavior, even though, initially you had absolutely no inclination towards such actions. We not only shape ourselves according to the mould made for us by others, but also that which we make for ourselves. People who see themselves as bad, malicious and untrustworthy will behave that way. And people who see themselves as honest, truthful and trustworthy are more likely to behave well.

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  1. When people’s actions differ from their morals, they begin to rationalise both to protect themselves from a painful contradiction and to build up protection against accusations. Do not rationalise and justify even small indiscretions, this will prevent incrementally bigger deceptions and people will stop engaging in unethical or immoral actions. Remember when the unethical becomes routine, the extremely unethical, once unthinkable, enters the realm of possibility.

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  1. Belonging to a group makes people more likely to harm others outside the group. Groups promote anonymity, diminish personal responsibility, coerce conformity, and encourage reframing harmful actions as ‘necessary for the greater good’. Additionally when people are in groups, they “lose touch” with their own morals and beliefs, and become more likely to do things that they would normally believe are wrong.

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  1. Perfectly ordinary people can participate in reprehensible, disgraceful and destructive acts by carrying out orders given by an authority figure especially when they believe that the authority figure will take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Under the pressure of authority people’s morals melt away.

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  1. The most important reason why ordinary people elect and follow mediocre leaders is unintelligence and mediocrity of ordinary people. The majority of ordinary people are prone to numerous subconscious biases, prejudices, stereotyping and prefer their own “groups”. None of these things are particularly logical and invariably are not supported by actual evidence and reality, and people really don’t like being told things they don’t want to hear. People are also keenly aware of social status; they need to feel they are superior to others in some way to maintain their sense of self-worth. As a result, someone more intelligent saying complicated things that contain uncomfortable (but accurate) facts isn’t going to appeal to anyone, but someone demonstrably less-intelligent is not challenging to someone’s perceived social status, and if they’re going to say simple things that support inherent prejudices and deny uncomfortable facts, then so much the better. Mediocrity breeds more mediocrity and mediocre leadership hires for poor performance or blind loyalty to keep the air pumped into their overinflated egos.

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  1. Ordinary people can be transformed into committing mass murders that are alien to their past history and to their moral development by putting them into a situation in which they had “official” permission and encouragement to act sadistically and brutishly against those arbitrarily labelled as the “enemy.”

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  1. Is it bad apple or bad barrel? Vast majority of evil in the world is not committed by those few bad apples; instead, it is ordinary people doing extraordinary things under certain circumstances. Ordinary people can succumb to social pressure to commit acts that would otherwise be unthinkable. Situations can be sufficiently powerful to undercut empathy, altruism, morality and to get ordinary people to be seduced into doing really bad things. Transition from good to evil depends on situation and you don’t need motive for that transition. The right (or wrong) social context can make almost anyone aggress, oppress, conform, and obey. On the other hand, although we all have the capacity to commit evil deeds, the expression of such acts also depends on certain personality traits and beliefs. Bad people are more likely to opt into bad situations.

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  1. My theory of human’s good or bad behaviour:

Human behaviour is dependent on three factors: genes, environment (religion, culture, society, situation, parents, teachers and peers etc.) and his/her mind (neo-cortex in brain). Some genes are turned on or off because of physical, social, and cultural factors in the environment; and some genes may predispose people to be exposed to environmental risks. Genes even help shape the environment and with the right environmental interventions at the right time, even a trait with a strong genetic foundation (such as antisocial behavior) can be altered. Often we cannot distinguish effects of genes from effects of environment on our behaviour. We have good genes for good behaviour and bad genes for bad behaviour inbuilt in us; the proportion varies from person to person. Genes for good behaviour and genes for bad behaviour express themselves with the sole biological goal of survival and reproduction depending on environmental situations.  On one hand we have prophet who has almost all good genes and on the other hand, we have psychopath who has almost all bad genes. Most ordinary people fall in between these two extremes and vacillate between good and evil. Biologically human nature by default is good albeit goodness may result from anticipation or acquisition of reward in return. This proves that most ordinary people have more good genes for good behavior than bad genes for bad behaviour. Humans are both moral and immoral being dictated by their biology and environment.  Genes (good behaviour genes and bad behaviour genes) and environment (good, bad and complex situations) do influence us but final decision is taken by neo-cortex. Part of neo-cortex is closely tied to the emergence of human morality or immorality based on genes (good or bad) evolved through gene-culture co-evolution. However, our highly advanced neo-cortex including pre-frontal cortex can override sub-cortical emotions, instincts and motivations as well as inbuilt morality evolved due to gene-culture co-evolution by reason & logic. The highly developed and advanced neo-cortex of humans can process behaviours guided by genes and environment. This human neo-cortex endows them with far better learning abilities that help them evolve superior strategies to tackle environmental changes and override natural inbuilt instincts at will. Animals have rudimentary neo-cortex so they cannot think & reason like humans. This neo-cortex in our brain gives us our humanness. It is the human neo-cortex that can override behaviours driven by genes and environment. Animals have rudimentary neo-cortex, so they are always guided by genes and environment although higher animals can learn survival strategy overriding instinctive behaviour depending on development of neo-cortex. Majority of ordinary people have predominant good genes for good behaviour and fewer bad genes for bad behaviour, but since bad situations are commonplace, these people will behave badly as their bad genes are provided suitable environment to express. Sadly, most of ordinary humans have not allowed their neo-cortex to override behaviours driven by genes and environment. When some ordinary human indeed does so, he/she becomes extraordinary like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. There is duality at the heart of gene-culture co-evolution for expressing good or bad behaviour with the sole biological goal of survival and reproduction. Genes for good behaviour and genes for bad behaviour have evolved as adaptations necessary for survival and reproduction in different environmental situations by encoding reasoning circuits in our brain. The same basic adaptations that give rise to the most moving acts of empathy and altruism can also give rise, under certain situations, to genocide, torture and rape. This duality unknowingly operates within each one of us: the force that compels us to live by our values, give and receive love, and be a contributing member of the community; and the force that holds us back, sabotages our efforts, and repeatedly steers us toward bad choices. Our conscience should be set at such a high level that our strong will operate through our neo-cortex to override behaviours guided by dual genes and good/bad environment. Our neo-cortex needs to be developed by strong will to override behaviours guided by genes evolved through gene-culture co-evolution and environmental situations and psychological processes. Strong will means ability to strengthen self-control.  It is a tall order. In my view, most ordinary people will become bad as they do not have strong will power to override behaviours guided by bad behaviour genes constantly opting for bad situations which are commonplace everywhere. If genes predispose a certain behavior but environment doesn’t support it, then that behavior won’t manifest. Bad behaviour genes won’t work in good environmental situations. Yes, if bad situations become rare then bad behaviour genes cannot express and that can be done only by good political and religious leaders. These leaders can metamorphose entire society in such a way that bad situations do not arise. But for that to occur, they should themselves have maximum number of good behaviour genes to overcome bad situations already existing. History shows that leaders like Hitler created such situations that ordinary people acted in most brutal ways. History also shows that leaders like Lee Kuan Yew created situations and systems which made ordinary people hard working and honest resulting in transforming his nation Singapore from third world to first world in a single generation. Leaders of nations have to create situations and systems which eradicate corruption and discrimination, and make their people hard working and honest. People are always personally accountable for their bad behaviour. Understanding the reason for someone’s bad behaviour is not the same as excusing it. Out of genes, environmental situations and neo-cortex, we cannot change genes but we can change evil-generating situations and we can develop will power in neo-cortex to override bad behaviours driven by bad genes and bad situations. This will lead to strategies to prevent ordinary people from committing evil acts. In a nutshell, majority of ordinary people are immoral and dishonest until they develop their will power strong enough to override bad behaviours guided by genes and environment and/or they elect good leaders who will create good situations & systems to prevent ordinary people’s bad behaviour genes from expressing itself.

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Dr. Rajiv Desai. MD.

December 22, 2016

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Postscript:

For my entire life, I lived like ordinary human. You can judge whether I am good human or bad human. I have updated my website and made is mobile friendly so that people can download my articles on mobile phone quickly and comprehensively. This is the last article of 2016. I wish Merry Christmas to everybody and hope that year 2017 shall bring peace, prosperity and security to the whole world.

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Enjoy Christmas with laughter:

What is good and what is bad is also a matter of individual perception.

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