HOW TO BRING OUT THE WORST IN HUMAN NATURE
7 psychological studies on the dark side of "human potential"
"One does not become enlightened
by imagining figures of light,
but by making the darkness conscious."
- Carl Jung
Sometimes we can be a little naïve about human nature.
Maybe it’s part of our nature to be naïve about our nature.
We can sometimes think, “Well, I’m cool, and most of the people I know are pretty cool, so pretty much everybody, really, must be pretty cool.”
Sometimes this can work out just fine.
After all, we clearly have a lot of potential for good.
Ideas about “human potential” or “the higher reaches of human nature” (ala Maslow) often bring to mind heroes and saints, love and happiness, selflessness and spiritual awakening, puppies and butterflies, going to the moon and helping little old ladies across the street. All good stuff.
But it’s one thing to “think positive.”
It’s another to mistake “thinking positive” for “actually seeing the whole picture.”
If we want to see the whole picture, we have to look at the other side of the ledger.
Humans also have a lot of “potential” to be pretty horrific.
If our goal is to understand human nature more deeply, we can’t ignore the dark side of The Force. We have to look under the hood and get a little dirty.
And for that, we need strong stomachs.
If life was a romantic comedy, we’d be set. We’d know it all works out in the end, with a sprint to stop a wedding and a big sloppy kiss. But our existential playlist seems to have other options baked in – namely, “dark, gritty drama” and even “horror” – and try as we might, we can’t delete them. If we want to taste the full range of the human experience in all its depths, we have to explore all of the genres.
But really, we already know this. The idea that humans aren’t natural saints isn’t surprising to any of us.
Headlines and history tell a pretty vivid story.
People are often jerks, and ordinary people can do terrible things. It’s the same story, really, told with a lot of variations.
But it can get a lot more treacherous than just that. And it’s all due, of course, to good intentions.
Humanity has now started tinkering around in the field of “psychology.” which aims at a scientific understanding of human nature.
Seems like a great idea. Why not?
But in practice, it can be a hazardous endeavor.
While much of this effort to understand ourselves has meant groping around in the dark, we’ve also caught occasional glimpses of some things that are genuinely unsettling.
Which is to say, we now understand some things about how and why ordinary people do horrific things.
It’s a recurring theme in horror movies.
A group of kids discover a mysterious book of spells, or “ancient knowledge.”
They decide to play around and have some fun with forces they don’t entirely understand.
Bad things ensue.
Some discoveries might have been better left alone (like the ones we’re about to present.) But they weren’t left alone, though. Like nuclear warheads, biological weapons, and elevator muzak, we can’t un-discover certain discoveries we’ve made. This means our best option, at this point, is forward – which means learning how to defend against them.
Here are a few brief studies.
“Good people can be induced, seduced, and initiated
into behaving in evil ways.
They can also be led to act in irrational, stupid,
self-destructive, antisocial and mindless ways…”
- Philip Zimbardo (The Lucifer Effect, 211)
1. “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” (1968)
“I watched wonderful, thoughtful children
turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating little third-graders.”
The core dynamic in this “experiment” was simple.
1) Take any group of “ordinary” people.
2) Divide them into two groups. How do you divide them? It can be completely arbitrary. Tall vs short. Blond hair vs brown hair. Belly-button-“innies” vs belly-button-“outies.” It truly doesn’t matter. The key ingredient is the next step.
3) Pit both groups against each other. Highlight their differences. Mention the two different groups continually and relentlessly. Create friction. Encourage misunderstandings and disagreements. Treat one group much better or worse than the other. Find various pressure points and rub them raw. Emphasize how one group is better or worse than the other. Stoke envy, jealousy, and resentment at every possible opportunity. Deliberately cultivate ideas that involve dehumanization, stereotyping, and mutual blame.
To be clear, none of this needs to be true. The idea that “innies” are better than “outies” – or vice versa – is obviously absurd. But in this situation, truth is irrelevant. It’s the process that matters. Defining reality by way of narratives isn’t about actually informing or educating anyone directly. It’s about messing with people.
By subjecting any group – divided along any arbitrary lines – to this kind of treatment, it doesn’t take long for tensions to build and boil over.
The result is an entirely human-made dystopia where “wonderful, thoughtful children” turn “nasty” and “vicious.”
2. The Stanford Prison Experiment (1971)
“…we realized how ordinary people could be readily transformed from the good Dr. Jekyll to the evil Mr. Hyde.”
This classic study involves gathering a group of “ordinary” college students. Screen out any who seem out of the ordinary.
Then put them in closed, private quarters. Assign one half of the group, chosen at random, to be “guards,” and the other half as “prisoners.” Tell the guards to “maintain law.”
Then let them go.
This simulation was planned to go for two weeks. They had to shut it down after six days.
“At this point it became clear that we had to end the study. We had created an overwhelmingly powerful situation – a situation in which prisoners were withdrawing and behaving in pathological ways, and in which some of the guards were behaving sadistically.”
What happened seemed to surprise everyone.
“Half of our student prisoners had to be released early because of severe emotional and cognitive disorders, transient but intense at the time. Most of those who remained for the duration generally became mindlessly obedient to the guards’ demands and seemed ‘zombie-like’ in their listless movements while yielding to the whims of the ever-escalating guard power.”
- The Lucifer Effect, p196)
Several movies have been made about the experience, some highly fictionalized. The most true-to-life version, produced with the person in charge of the experiment, is “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” here. The principal book on the matter is The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. The primary website about the experiment is here.
3. The Milgram Shock Experiment (1962)
A respectable-looking authority-figure in a lab coat orders you to press a button that delivers painful electric shocks to another human being. (Or, what seem to be painful electric shocks.) The shock generator includes markings that range from 15 to 540 volts, and are indicated as “Slight Shock” to “Danger: Severe Shock.”
If you hesitate, or indicate a desire to stop the experiment, the authority figure says, in turn:
- “Please continue,” or “Please go on.”
- “The experiment requires that you continue.”
- “It is absolutely essential that you continue.”
- “You have no other choice; you must go on.”
How much would you press?
Even if you heard screams?
A lot of people, apparently, would press that button, quite a lot.
To be more precise: 65% of the individuals administered the full, massive 450-volt shock. 100% of them administered at least 300-volt shocks. This happened despite the subject hearing screams.
“…even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”
Milgram and others performed variations of this study throughout the world, with similar results.
4. The Asch Conformity Studies (1951)
Do you trust yourself?
More specifically: do you believe your own eyes, or do you just follow the herd?
Almost everyone these days thinks they think for themselves. But in practice, well, the data tells a different story.
Imagine you’re shown a few lines on a piece of paper.
You’re then asked to simply point out which line is longer or shorter.
The answer, it seems, would be obvious.
But now imagine this: the above happens in a group setting. Several individuals are asked the same question about the lines, and they all answer before you.
All of the other individuals in the study – unknown to you – are “plants.” They’ve been instructed (and are being paid) to give canned, pre-determined answers. And all of them say the opposite: they all declare, with confidence, that the longer line is shorter, and the shorter line is longer.
Then it’s your turn. What’s your answer?
A surprising number of people, apparently, follow the crowd. They reject their own “common sense” and follow the plants in the audience.
(As a reminder, this happened when there was really nothing at stake.)
5. “The Third Wave” (1967)
One day, in an “ordinary” high school class in California, a few students asked some simple questions: how could ordinary citizens have gone along with what happened in 1930’s Germany, or allowed it to happen?
The teacher didn’t just give them an answer. He showed them. Their questions were answered in ways far beyond what any of them were expecting. For many, it was both illuminating and haunting.
The teacher was eventually fired. The students who went through the experience are still in touch today. They gather here.
6. Police Battalion 101
Christopher R. Browning wrote a book called Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.
The title says it well. Nearly a century ago, an “ordinary” civilian police battalion was responsible for mass shootings as well as rounding up individuals for deportation to death camps.
Were these unique, unusually extreme, specially-selected individuals?
No, Browning says. They were, quite literally, “ordinary men.”
“…most of the men of RPB 101 were not fanatical Nazis but ordinary middle-aged, working-class men who committed these atrocities out of a mixture of motives…”
A thorough telling of the story is available in the book, here. Another book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, also explores the same topic with some different perspectives.
7. “The Push”
Most of us probably assume that ordinary people can’t be easily convinced to commit murder.
Many of us also assume that we’re relatively immune to manipulation.
“The Push,” however, suggests otherwise.
This show, created by Derren Brown and now available on Netflix, engineers a highly elaborate demonstration of exactly this. Brown engineers “an audacious social experiment demonstrating how manipulation can lead an ordinary person to commit an appalling act.”
The show can be found here.
So, what does this all mean?
The above glimpses are probably unsettling, at least a little.
But they also pose a problem.
If these all illustrate various ways to bring out the worst in human nature – well, what next? What should we do about it?
Well, one thing we can do is work to convert poison into medicine.
We can try to do this by extracting a few lessons.
For example, all of these illuminate one essential quality of human nature.
Humans really do have a lot of “potential.”
But it’s potential for both the better, and the worse.
Humans are like wet clay, at least in some ways. We can be shaped.
There’s a spectrum on the topic. Determinists, on one side, argue that everything we do is fixed and rigid. They claim that we’re like billiard balls bouncing according to fixed laws of physics, and there’s no freedom or choice in the matter. The other side of the spectrum, however (sometimes called “voluntarism”) argues that we’re essentially “blank slates,” and can be molded into almost anything.
The above studies seem to point us toward the middle. We aren’t totally determined. But we aren’t completely free, either.
We’re like unassembled IKEA sets. We seem to have certain raw materials – instincts, genes, hormones, various environmental influences, and so on that give us basic elements to work with. But at the same time, as many thinkers have noted (Locke, Frankl, Sartre, Lewis, Gurdjieff, Girard, etc), there’s something at our core that’s yet unfinished, plastic, able to be molded or shaped in one direction or another.
We’re incomplete. This creates an opening where we can move closer to angels or monsters.
This places each of us on a “battlefield.”
As Dostoyevsky said, “…the battlefield is the heart of man.”
We sometimes think that “things are fixed.” There are “good guys,” and “bad guys” (and girls), and we can assume, without considering any alternative, that we’re good, and the people who disagree with us are bad.
Sometimes, this might well be the case. But Russian Gulag survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn also paints a picture that's slightly more complex:
“If only it were all so simple!
If only there were evil people somewhere
insidiously committing evil deeds,
and it were necessary only
to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.
But the line dividing good and evil
cuts through the heart of every human being.
And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
This helps bring the challenge into clear focus.
If the above is about bringing out the worst in us, how can we do the opposite?
How can this “dark knowledge” be turned on its head and used for good?
Can we convert poison into medicine, and turn the dynamics above against themselves?
If so, how?
Maybe we can distill the essential elements of what brings out the worst in each of the scenarios above, and, quite simply, do the opposite, in order to bring about the reverse effects.
Here are a few possible examples.
1) Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes: Don’t divide people into groups and play them off each other. Don’t get baited into hating. If someone tries to use these dynamics to stir up trouble, we can work to expose them.
2) Stanford Prison: Watch out for identifying with roles, and identifying so much that you lose your humanity in the process. Be human first, a social role second.
3) Milgram: Question authority. Don’t blindly obey. Anyone saying, “Trust us, we’re experts!” deserves skepticism and scrutiny.
4) Asch Lines: Be a nonconformist. Trust your own experience. Don’t let anyone invalidate your perspective. Do the right thing, even if nobody around you is. (After all, everybody around you might just be a plant.)
5) The Wave: Learn cult, coercion, and manipulation tactics, and how to resist them. Question ideologies. Avoid pressure tactics. Be cautious about the groups you join.
6) Police 101 Battalion: All of the above. Also, work to become psychologically healthy, spiritually literate and existentially fit. Clarify your life philosophy and basic assumptions about life, and when it comes to others, don’t get baited into hating. Don’t dehumanize or scapegoat. Look instead for their humanity.
7) The Push: Don’t assume that you’re immune to manipulation tactics. They're incredibly powerful, even when you know about them, but especially if you don't. So, gear up. Become educated about them, be on guard, and learn how to defend yourself against them.
Of course, there’s much more to this.
But it’s a start.
“How to bring out the best in human nature” is a big topic.
It takes us into asking Big Questions. What is best that humans are capable of? What are we supposed to be “capable” at, anyway? What, in other words, are we supposed to be doing here? What, in other words, is the meaning of life? In order to know this, won’t we have to get to know ourselves? And in order to accomplish this, won’t we have to become more psychologically literate? If so, how? What kind of “inner work” can we do to develop inner strength needed to resist and overcome the kinds of soul-crushing tactics at work in the scenarios above?
There’s a lot to explore in these areas.
The above all point us toward some powerful forces at work.
Like the “thing of power” archetype that make appearances in many stories (Infinity Stones, The One Ring, Chaos Emeralds, Philosopher’s Stone, etc), this knowledge can be put to work in the direction of either helping humanity or destroying it. There’s reason for caution, prudence, and humility in all this.
After all, the world can sometimes seem to conspire to bring out the worst in us. If we’re caught unprepared and untrained, it can sometimes be devastatingly effective.
But there’s also good news.
At this point, knowing this, we’re at least a little more prepared and trained than we were before.
But there’s more than just that.
Each disheartening study above can also serve as a “tell.”
It can reveal the game.
Sure, certain scenarios bring out the worst in us. But that means that part of the game, apparently, lies in figuring out how to bring out the best in ourselves, despite what the rest of the world might try to do with us.
It takes work, and smarts, and guts, and more.
But maybe it’s possible to overcome the world.