Good Versus Evil

It has been widely believed that people are either good or evil, inherently so. However, psychologist Philip Zimbardo did not believe that this concept was quite so black and white. Sometimes it is the characteristics of the individual that makes them evil (bad apples). Sometimes it is situational and there is something within the environment and circumstance in which the person is in that is causing them to act evil (bad barrel). Sometimes it is the system, the characteristics of the environment, that causes this transformation of human character (bad barrel-makers). He believed that there are seven social processes that grease the slippery slope of evil. Zimbardo henceforth conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment to prove this hypothesis.


The Experiment: Zimbardo assigned, at random, subjects to be either prisoners or guards in his Stanford basement-turned-prison setting. Guards were dressed in khaki uniforms and given sticks and mirrored sunglasses (hiding identity). Prisoners were stripped naked upon their “arrest” and were forced to wear chains and other prison attire.

The Results: The guards ended up abusing their power. Though they were fully aware that they could have been assigned to be prisoners just as easily as they were assigned to be guards, they had still managed to dehumanize the prisoners. The guards were particularly worse at night, when they believed that the cameras were turned off. The study, which was supposed to have lasted 2 weeks, ended after 6 days, due to several nervous breakdowns held by prisoners.

Problems with the Experiment: This experiment was conducted in 1971, well before the existence of IRBs (institutional review boards) and various processes of ethics review. Also, the possible long-term mental effects of the prisoners were completely overlooked. The experiment would most likely not pass ethical standards of modern psychology. Another issue with this experiment is the lack of control group. There is no other group of people or similar experiment that Zimbardo could compare his results to.

Conclusion: The Stanford Prison Experiment by psychologist Philip Zimbardo proved the concept of situational attribution which in short concludes that even good people can do evil things, given the circumstance. It also demonstrates a clear obedience to authority figures.

Works Cited: 

“Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment.” PsychologistWorld, n.d.

“Psychology of Evil” Parkland SD, n.d.

Akert, Robin M.; Aronson, Elliot; Sommers, Samuel R. and Wilson, Timothy D.; Social Psychology Ninth Edition. United States of America: 2016. Print.



2 thoughts on “Good Versus Evil

  1. Jordan Smith

    I saw a documentary on Zimbardo’s prison experiment once, and I don’t think you can arrive at the conclusion that it “proves” situational attribution. There were quite a few problems that likely threw the experiment out of wack. You mention that it was done before any ethics were established. That’s the reason that it cannot be replicated. Because of how, (for lack of a better term), immoral it was. Also Zimbardo was the warden of the prison. The head of the experiment should not have been in such an integral role. One of the students who played a guard instigated a lot (or at least the first major) of the fights between the prisoners an the guards. Without this one instigator, the whole course of the experiment may have been drastically different. So due to these reasons I believe that this experiment alone cannot show definitive evidence for a conclusion that strong. Here is an article explaining the problems with the overall experiment a bit more in depth.

  2. Olivia Watkins

    Well written. I am currently watching a show called “Once Upon A Time”. The show focuses on good and evil within fairy tales from our childhood. I find this article especially intriguing because in the show they have had the good characters be bad and vice versa. The reasons of why the good went bad was due to the fact that they thought they were helping/protecting their families. There is something called the Fundamental Attribution Error that also could help understand this. When the FAE occurs, an individual judges others based on their personality rather than the situation that that person might be in. For example, you’re driving quickly and someone cuts you off. Your initial judgement is to think “Jerk!” while there may have been a mother in labor on her way to the hospital in that car. It is possible to be good and evil. Being Catholic kind of supports this as well. You may commit a sin; however, if you confess your sin to priest than you are forgiven and able to live your life just like you had before.

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