First, the world is filled with both good and evil -- was, is, will always be. Second, the barrier between good and evil is permeable and nebulous. And third, it is possible for angels to become devils and, perhaps more difficult to conceive, for devils to become angels.
- Philip Zimbardo
This book is not an easy read for anyone with empathy. Let's get that out of the way. Zimbardo discusses the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment and shares extracts from the diaries of the volunteers who took on the roles of prisoners and jail wardens. (The link above provides more details so I won't discuss the experiment.)
This book has been on our shelves for years but only recently did I pick it up for some research. I had to walk away from it for a few days before I could finish it. Part of the reason that I needed to set it aside for a while was the subject matter. It is not easy to read how easily people who, by all accounts, were similar in socio-economic status and educational experience could dehumanize one another just by virtue of being put in a fake position of authority.
All of us like to believe that we have strong principles that we will hold onto under all circumstances. The main argument in this book is that most people -- regular, everyday folk -- will perform acts of evil when placed in a situation that encourages such behavior.
I think this book is essential reading for anyone who wants to write believable motivations for villains. There are some who say that all villains consider themselves heroes of their own story, but I feel that it is likelier that some villains think of themselves as just doing what they are supposed to do. They are more likely to argue that they are "just doing their jobs". Evil, in so many ways, is banal.
It'd be a depressing read if Zimbardo didn't also include an uplifting final chapter (which he promises in the introduction, probably because he knows how depressing it is to read about regular people doing acts of evil). He discusses how heroism, like evil, can come from regular people placed in a certain situation. More importantly, he brings up the idea that people are more willing to do good once they begin doing small acts of goodness. Being good, like being evil, is a conscious decision and a habit.
I can't say that I enjoyed the book - reading about torture and why the torturers didn't think they were wrong is not a fun pastime in any sense - but it certainly was enlightening.