How evil can we be?

“If you give a person power over someone who is powerless, someone who has been demonised or made to seem less human, then that absoute power corrupts absolutely.” – David Wilson

Are humans inherently good or evil?

There has been an age-long debate over whether or not humans are inherently good or evil. While I believe that there is no correct answer nor concrete evidence that proves one opinion or the other, there have been social experiments conducted in the past that illustrates how “righteous and moral” people can commit evil acts when placed in certain environments.

Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted an experiment that focused on the obedience to authority, peer pressure and the threat of “isolation” to the group. The inspiration of his experiment¬†stemmed from examining the justifications for acts of genocide by war criminals at the Nuremberg trials. During the trials, the criminals stated that they were simply following orders from their superiors.

The Milgram Experiment (Source: Simply Psychology)

The Milgram Experiment (Source: Simply Psychology)

The experiment consisted of three people, an experimenter, student, and teacher. The experimenter prompts the student to answer questions and the teacher is asked to administer a stronger electric shock to the student for each additional wrong answer. The level of electric shocks ranged from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (severe shock). At first glance, one would assume that most people would not hurt another human being for a simple experiment. A slight shock may be understandable, but one would have to be a psychopath or pathological to deliver a sever shock. However, 65% of the participants continued to the highest level of 450 volts and all the participants continued to at least 300 volts.

While this experiment seems nowhere near the severity of complying to acts of genocide, it demonstrates how people are subject to obeying authority, even to the extent of killing another person. While some of the subjects demonstrated disobedience and empathy towards the students, the majority followed the instructions of the experimenter until the end.

When studying acts of genocide, sensible people generally show disgust and question how the oppressors could commit actions so violent and inhumane. However, when studying the stages of genocide and the psychology behind it, it becomes clear how ordinary people can manifest the darkest parts of humanity. We are all capable of committing terrible crimes which makes it important to study the root of these evils and how they come into fruition.





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