Business Book of the Week – Zimbardo on the nature of Evil

The other week, I found myself watching the film, “The Last King of Scotland” – an account based on events in Uganda under the Presidency of Idi Amin. We saw an individual who had been a model soldier, was liked by the international community, and popular with his people, progressively become a violent dictator and instigator of the murder of an estimated half-a-million people.

We use the word ‘evil’ to describe events that are so horrific that we cannot understand what is going on in the minds of their perpetrators. In the 20th century alone, we have witnessed many examples of ethnically-focussed, mass murder (or genocide) similar to that of Amin. Most people are aware of the atrocities committed under Hitler’s leadership, in which over 6 million people were selected for their ethnicity and murdered.

Such events though have continued almost without interruption to the present day. They happen around the world.

In 1971, 3 Million civilians were slaughtered by the Pakistan Army during the Bangladesh War of Independence. Between 1987 and 1988, the Iraqi government under Sadaam Hussein, massacred an estimated 186,000 Kurdish civilians, including as many as 10,000 in just two days in one town. In 1994, one million Tutsis were murdered by Hutus in Rwanda. In 2003, Sinafasi Makelo, a representative of Mbuti Pygmies, told the UN’s Indigenous People’s Forum that during the Congo Civil War, his people were hunted down and eaten as though they were game animals. Both sides in the war regarded them as “subhuman” and some say their flesh can confer magical powers. We know that between 2003 and 2007, 450,000 people have been killed in Darfur in Western Sudan. This year, 2010, following the killings of ethnic Uzbeks, in the South Kyrgyzstan riots, thousands of refugees have fled to Uzbekistan. Behind almost all of these events, lie a small handful of principal perpetrators, though their crimes are often committed by many seemingly normal members of the public.

Mass murders by individuals always shock us, and yet they too are far from rare occurences. Many countries have their notorious killers. In Britain, in recent years, there have been Michael Ryan, Michael Stone, David Copeland, Thomas Hamilton, John Thompson, Harold Shipman, Dennis Nilsen, Peter Sutcliffe, Steve Wright, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, Peter Tobin and Fred and Rosemary West.

Defining ‘evil’ is a pretty difficult thing to do. Some experts draw on Faith-based definitions, others on internal psychological processes. Although some authors restrict themselves to evil that causes physical harm to people (such as torture and death), others take a wider view and might describe anyone whose actions cause suffering and whose personality is focused more on satisfying their own needs than anything else, as ‘evil’.

Since the earliest days of cinema, the depiction of extreme violence has drawn record-breaking audiences. It seems that the more unbelievable a scenario is, the more attracted people are to it. Thirty years ago, audiences still thought that most crime was perpetrated by local miscreants, well known to the Police, who were expected to come from the poorer parts of the community. The ‘mob’, ‘mafia’, ‘gangs’ and ‘syndicates’, were generally seen as exceptions rather than the rule. We still stopped people at Customs and asked politely whether they had “anything to declare?” Today, we are still resistant to the idea that much of the worst crime is managed like a vast enterprise and that the Police, and other law enforcement agencies, are best focused on intelligence gathering and targeted actions.

Some of the many arms of this ‘organisation’ – drugs, prostitution, human trafficking, and the dealing in arms – even though they affect the lives of millions, can be isolated out and we can choose to see their perpetrators as a small minority.

When we extend the definition of ‘evil’ beyond direct physical harm, and instead look at causing some degree of suffering while benefiting oneself, it becomes far harder to separate the many functions of society, government, and finance especially, from ‘evil’.

In the business world, there has long been an association between excessive ‘greed’ and ‘evil’. It was in 1987, that the phenomenon of greed as evil was portrayed so accurately in the film, “Wall Street”, that even today, the star, Michael Douglas, is approached by rational human beings and denigrated for the impact ‘his’ philosophy has had on a generation of financial workers. At a UN meeting recently, journalists even tried to blame him for the recent financial downturn!

That there are powerful forces at work on a global scale is not difficult to believe. Evidence of corruption and the abuse of power is widespread. The individuals that we can identify are almost certainly only superficial – small fry in a massive industry. As soon as something outrageous happens, we seek out a more powerful agent who might be behind it. Whether we believe these conspiracy theories or not, they have a tremendous appeal to the popular imagination. At the heart of a, now well entrenched, such theory lies the banking and global business empire of Rothschild – their extraordinary net of inter-related activities, and their control of more than half the world’s wealth, their effective ownership of the Federal Reserve Bank and the Bank of England, make them an obvious ‘target’ for such projection. At what point, though, do the normal functionings of banking, government and industry and the inevitable emergence of massive super-players shift from ‘business as usual’ to ‘pure evil’?

We WANT to believe that evil exists and that it is the reason why the world is not the way we might like it to be.

Dr Philip Zimbardo knows what evil looks like. He has studied it throughout his academic career, and it was this that led to him serving as an expert witness during the Abu Ghraib trials. The behaviour of the guards in the prison outraged the public, and the US (and UK) governments were quick to distance themselves, describing the individuals involved as ‘bad apples’ and so on.

Zimbardo wrote “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil” soon after the trials. From Nazi comic books to the tactics of used-car salesmen, he explores a wealth of sources in trying to explain the psychology of evil.

A past president of the American Psychological Association and a professor emeritus at Stanford, Zimbardo retired in 2008 from lecturing, after 50 years of teaching his legendary introductory course in psychology. In addition to his work on evil and heroism, Zimbardo has also published “The Time Paradox”, which explores different cultural and personal perspectives on time.

Still well-known for his controversial ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’, Zimbardo in his new research looks at the psychology of heroism. He asks, “What pushes some people to become perpetrators of evil, while others act heroically on behalf of those in need?”

Professor Zimbardo deserves heartfelt thanks for disclosing and illuminating the dark, hidden corners of the human soul.” Václav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic.

In his first TED talk, in 2008, he describes his work on evil and subsequently on heroism.

In his TED talk in 2009, he spoke about the theme of Time.

Click here to order, “The Lucifer Effect” and “The Time Paradox” from Amazon.

Best wishes

Graham Wilson – 07785 222380

PS My previous Business Book of the Week was “The Element – How finding your passion changes everything” by Sir Ken Robinson (13/11/10) – Helping leaders see situations, organisations, themselves and others, differently – Motivation and advice for senior executives exploring new opportunities

London (W1 & EC3) – Oxford (OX2) – skype

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