What Everyone Needs to Know about Why Good People Do Bad Things.

In 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo and his team at Stanford University conducted an experiment designed to understand the development of norms and the effects of roles, labels, and social expectations in a simulated prison environment.  They recruited the most ordinary young men they could find and randomly divided the group into ‘prisoners’ and ‘officers’.

The experiment was to last two weeks but had to be abandoned after five days due to the distress of the ‘prisoners’ and the cruelty displayed by the ‘officers’. Absolutely nothing in the psychological tests undertaken by the boys beforehand suggested how they’d behave during the experiment. Zimbardo believes that the ‘institution’ they created was what caused these ‘good’ boys to turn ‘bad.’

He maintains that to say that evil is located only in the individual lets us off the hook as societies and, ‘…implies a simplistic, binary world of good people, like us, and bad people, like them.’ (1)

He says we need to see how our institutions – whatever they may be – contribute to human-induced evil, because,

While a few bad apples might spoil the barrel…a barrel filled with vinegar will always transform sweet cucumbers into sour pickles – regardless of the best intentions, resilience and genetic nature of those cucumbers. (2)

So what everybody needs to know about what makes good people do bad things is that the responsibility lies at the door of not only the perpetrators of evil within institutions, but also the individuals who create and support these institutions – namely all of us.


(1) 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, (pp 21-50). New York, Guilford Press.

(2) ibid