The Evil Within Us All

There has been a rise in interest lately about the way authoritarian types can dominate a society's political processes. The world has always had strong, ruthless leaders, and their history of abuses was one of the motivations for the creation of democratic governments.

So when the two most successful democratic governments (US, UK) start taking on the aspects of autocracy people's interest in the dynamics of the process increase. I'm not a psychologist, so my little review, below, is mostly going to be a set of references to those who are experts, but I think even for those who have little faith in studies of human behavior the issue will be worth examining.

I personally favor economic arguments for much of what motivates social change, but people can only be led when there is a leader, so history cannot be viewed as pure economics.

Without rehashing the history of the past 100 years, let's just say that two trends occurred at the same time. The first was the growth of real democracy. This began with the transformation to universal suffrage led by the UK and the US. Then there was the rise of organized labor and the simultaneous weakening of the power of the landed gentry and robber baron classes. Finally, the invention of the social safety net and the idea that everyone was entitled to certain guarantees by society. We could call this the age of the "common man". It was unprecedented.

At the same time the other trend was the creation of the most amoral totalitarian regimes the world has ever seen. Not only were these societies brutal, but their scope was widespread. Between China the USSR and the various Fascist states the number of people killed exceeded 100 million. No longer was the goal simple land acquisition, but the actual reshaping of the populace was the aim. This gave rise to such terms as "brain washing", re-education, ethnic cleansing and genocide. People were not only supposed to be obedient, but to actually think differently. So we see where the psychological aspect arises.

Starting with people like Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno there have been attempts to understand how authoritarian leaders could emerge and, more importantly, why some many people chose to follow them. After 60 years of research, I think several broad conclusions can be drawn.

1. There are a small group of born leaders who generally share several key characteristics, they are personable, they know they are right, they are amoral, and they operate on the basis of "the ends justify the means". Estimates are that this is 2-4% of the population.

2. There is a larger group (estimates of around 20%) who are born followers. These are the people who become the core group of a movement. Their characteristics include the need to belong, the fear of the out-group compared to their in-group, a belief in the need for a strong leader and a hierarchical social organization, and the ability to filter information so that only those "facts" which reinforce their prejudices are absorbed. In many organizations there is a conscious effort to make sure that information which questions the central dogma is not permitted.

3. The rest of population. This is the group that is the most interesting, as has been revealed by a number of studies. The relevant fact about this group is that, given the right environment, they can be made to act inhumanely. To prove that "evil" lurks within us all, I'm going to point to some of the relevant studies. First a quick look at the first two types.

The leaders have recently been classed as having a Social Dominance Orientation. They are dangerous, but only when they manage to get a following. The Wiki article has links to the underlying studies.

The followers have been classed as having a "right wing authoritarian" personality. The principle person working to describe this type has been Robert Altemeyer. Recently his work has come to public notice, first when John Dean used it for his book "Conservatives without Conscience" and then when Altemeyer, himself, published a summary of his work. This is available online for free, The Authoritarians. Once again having such a personality type seems to be part of the natural mix within the human race. Altemeyer did find that such people tended to become less rigid in their beliefs with exposure to the out-groups as well as broader education.

This leaves the 80% who are not exceptional. This is where the most troubling studies emerge. The first (and most famous of these) was the Milgram Experiment. In this classic work the subjects were ordered by the experimenter to administer painful electric shocks to the person being "trained". It revealed how few people could resist the commands of authority.

A similar experiment was conducted by Philip G. Zimbardo in what he calls the Stanford Prison Experiment. In this experiment, which has an eerie foreshadowing of Abu Ghraib, students were assigned to be either jailers or prisoners. The ease with which the jailers slipped into abusive treatment without any explicit direction except for an implicit understanding that whatever they did was allowable is eye-opening.

Psychiatrist Robert J Lifton has spent his career studying historical cases where leaders have engaged (or permitted) horrific behavior. In effect he has documented the real cases which the prior two citations just examined in the laboratory. Among some of his most important conclusions is that people can be put into situations where peer or social pressure forces them to conform. A good example is his classic study of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, "Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima". By his analysis, Truman was pressured into dropping the A bombs because he was thrust into an environment of scientists and military leaders who had been working on the project for years. As a new leader who had been kept in the dark about the plans by FDR he was unable to resist the pressure or make considered judgments. Lifton has since studied many other groups the latest being the present US administration.

What these studies all show is that the average person is not equipped to withstand psychological pressure and can be made to become a monster when the conditions are right. What the historical record also shows is that pressure alone is not sufficient, there also needs to be tacit approval for the actions and there needs to be a setting where the public at large is kept from knowing what is going on. This is why most abuse takes place in secret and those administering the torture are told never to speak of what happened.

A good example is the case of the police unit in Nazi Germany that was given the task of exterminating the local Jewish community. Even 50 years after the events it was almost impossible for historians to discover the details. The book "Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland" by Christopher Browning tells the story.

If we are all capable of evil, what is the solution? Well as dozens of brutal regimes have shown, force and brain washing can't be used to change human nature. But education and an open society (Karl Popper, George Soros) can make it harder for abuses to take place. First, because people will have been better educated as to what is moral and to the limits of their own objectivity and, second, because secrecy can be actively fought against by an informed citizenry. We can't make things perfect, but we can make them better.

Moral: As Pogo said: "We have met the enemy and he is us".


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Copyright © 2007 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.