Enthusiasm for evil

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Fifty years after classic social psychological studies showed that even normal, decent people can engage in acts of extreme cruelty when instructed to do so by others, a new study has shown awful acts involve not just obedience, but enthusiasm too.

Professor Stephen Reicher, Professor in the School of Psychology at the University of St Andrews, and Professor Alex Haslam of the University of Queensland, Australia, have published a landmark paper in the journal PLos–Biology on the nature of tyranny and evil.

The paper challenges a long-held belief that human beings harm others because they are programmed to obey orders.

These beliefs can be traced back to two seminal empirical research programs conducted by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Milgram’s Obedience to Authority research is widely believed to show that people blindly obey the orders of an authority figure, while Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) is commonly understood to show that people will take on abusive roles uncritically.

But, after a decade-long program of research, Reicher and Haslam have challenged the conclusions of both.

Professor Reicher said: “In short, people do harm not because they are unaware that they are doing wrong, but because they believe that they are doing right.

“It is this conviction that steels participants to do their dirty work, and that makes them act energetically and creatively to ensure its success.”

The program began when the two researchers ran their own prison study, which was broadcast by the BBC in 2002. This showed that people did not automatically slip into role.

In particular, the guards in this study only acted tyrannically when they actively identified with the group and believed that harsh measures were necessary to create order.

More recently, Professors Reicher and Haslam have conducted a series of studies which revisit Milgram’s conclusions. These show that people only go along with an authority when they believe that they are serving a greater good. Paradoxically, they show that giving orders tends to undermine this belief and hence undermines obedience.

Although the findings of Zimbardo and Milgram remain highly influential, Professor Haslam suggests their conclusions do not hold up well under close empirical scrutiny, he said: “Our own research shows that tyranny does not result from blind conformity to rules and roles, it is a creative act of followership that flows from identification with authorities who represent vicious acts as virtuous”.

Note to Editors

PLos–Biology is an open-access journal and the full text of Professor Haslam and Professor Reicher’s paper can be accessed at www.plosbiology.org.

Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews
Contact Fiona MacLeod on 01334 462108 / 0771 414 0559.
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