In a recent TED Talk called “Evil – What Makes People Go Wrong?”, social psychologist Philip Zimbardo discussed the situational pressures that can lead people to commit what he terms “evil” acts against others, including torture, cruelty, killing, and genocide. Zimbardo was the creator of the well-known Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) at Stanford University in 1971. In this talk, he outlines how ordinary young men were selected for their normality and psychological stability before being randomly assigned as either prisoners or guards in a mock prison. Within days, the experiment had to be stopped because the participants playing  the “guards” had become so engrossed in their roles that they abused the “prisoners” to the point of mental breakdown. Zimbardo explains how this demonstrates the “power of the situation” in which systemic factors such as role assignment, anonymity, obedience to authourity, and peer pressure can overwhelm people’s positive qualities and lead them to commit atrocities. He draws a parallel between his experiment and the prisoner abuses carried out by some American soldiers at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq, but the same lesson can just as well be applied to the ordinary people who have repeatedly become the perpetrators of genocide throughout history. Zimbardo draws the conclusion that people who commit evil acts are not necessarily inherently evil, but rather that absolutely any human being is capable of doing such harm.

While this may seem like a disheartening message at first, Zimbardo explains that it also means people can be encouraged to become everyday heroes and engage in prosocial behaviour that benefits their fellow human beings. This can be done by “changing the system” in which people live and work. Such psychological experiments are highly significant for the genocide prevention community because every genocide is the result of systemic pressures that push ordinary individual to obey their leaders and murder the innocent – often their own neighbours. Understanding how such pressures work, coupled with effective early warning, means that genocide prevention can be achieved through nonviolent means that modify the harmful structures of a society. Essentially, once we understand the pressures and social processes at work in a situation-of-concern the Sentinel Project can cooperate with local stakeholders to change the system and ensure that people make the choice not to commit genocide.

Zimbardo has also written a detailed account of the SPE and his involvement with one of the Abu Ghraib abuse trials in his book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.