I just finished The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo. It’s a fascinating read, and I highly recommend it. The first half of the book describes Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment in which young male college students participated in a psychology study on the effects of prison life on prisoners and guards. Carefully selected, these bright young men had no violent tendencies and no histories of mental illness. Randomly assigned to be either prisoner or guard, within 24 hours the experiment had turned ugly. Several guards became abusive and cruel; most prisoners became impotent, powerless and despairing. I won’t go into detail here, but the take home point is clear: good people do evil things all the time, and they do so because of dangerous, inherently unstable and abusive situations and corrupt systems. Zimbardo discusses the Abu Ghraib abuses in this context – a perfect example of Zimbardo’s point – in which the perpetrators were dismissed too quickly as “bad apples” when, in fact, they had been perfectly good people in a situation and a system that brought out evil. The final chapter discusses how we can learn from these examples and inspire and motivate people to do good.
This is the very purpose of humane education, to raise a generation to actively, joyfully, consciously choose to do good and to fix corrupt, abusive, dangerous systems so that they will not relentlessly create evil. We’ve found that our 4 Element approach (1. Provide accurate information 2. Nurture the 3 Cs of curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking 3. Instill the 3 Rs of reverence, respect, and responsibility, and 4. Offer positive choices and skills for problem-solving) gives people the tools they need to make choices that are humane. If and when we raise a generation with these tools, cruel systems won’t thrive and good people won’t be compelled to do evil things. Instead, healthy systems will emerge and people will choose good as a matter of course.