The situationist’s recipe for transforming good people into perpetrators

First, you just need Condition A:

“An acceptable justification, or rationale, for engaging in the undesirable action, such as wanting to help people improve their memory by judicious use of punishment strategies. In experiments it is known as the `cover story’ because it is a cover-up for the procedures that follow which might not make sense on their own.”

Then you need Condition B:

“Some form of contractual obligation, verbal or written, to enact the behavior.”

This makes it easier for everybody.

Then Condition C:

“Meaningful roles to play (teacher, student) that carry with them previously learned positive values and response scripts.”

Everyone likes this.

Very important, Condition D:

“Basic rules to be followed, that seem to make sense prior to their actual use, but then can be arbitrarily used to justify mindless compliance.”

Then you need Condition E:

“Altering of the semantics of the act and action, from `hurting victims’ to `helping people learn (by punishing them).'”

Some people are so good at this. You’ll find it in sales.

You have to have Condition F:

“Opportunities for diffusion of responsibility for negative outcomes; others will be responsible, or it won’t be evident that the actor will be held liable.”

It gets good now with Condition G:

“Start the path toward the ultimate evil act with a small, insignificant first step (only 15 volts).”

It gets hotter with Condition H:

“Increase each level of aggression in gradual steps, that do not seem like noticeable differences (only 30 volts).”

This is where people really need to start reaching back for why they’re here, Condition A, Condition C, all that.

Almost there with Condition I:

“A gradual change in the nature of the Influence Authority from ‘Just’ to `Unjust,’ from reasonable and rational to unreasonable and irrational.”

And Condition J:

“The `exit costs’ are high, and the process of exiting is made difficult by not permitting usual forms of verbal dissent to qualify as behavioral disobedience.”

This is my favorite. The one time I tried to break up with somebody he said no. I wasn’t being transformed into a perpetrator, but still, it’s good example of how this works. His response really surprised me. We stayed together for about another year until I figured out what to do.

Excerpted and adapted with liberties from Zimbardo, P.G. (2004). A Situationist Perspective on the Psychology of Evil: Understanding How Good People Are Transformed into Perpetrators. In A. G. Miller (Ed.), The Social Psychology of Good and Evil (pp21-50). New York: Guilford Press.

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