Why good people do bad things

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We all know about the horrors that took place during the Second World War, in Cambodia, in Rwanda.

The history of humanity, in virtually every culture, is littered with stories where one group of people abused their power over another.

What do we infer from these stories?

One inference is that is was all down to a small group of individuals who were fundamentally evil and were able to dictate what was done from their position of power.

From Vlad the Impaler to Pol Pot, from the Nazis to Saddam’s Iraq, we can point the finger and find one person to blame, or a group of people that should be tried and punished.

Would you act differently if you were in their position?

The evidence suggests that you would not.

In a famous experiment conducted in 1971 at Stanford, researchers found that it took only six days to turn nice, normal college boys into sadistic monsters.

They did this by creating a prison, making some of the boys guards and others prisoners and setting up a simulation where the guards had absolute power over the prisoners.

They set up conditions that:

  • Dehumanized the prisoners
  • Deprived them of sensory stimulation – no clocks, no views of the outside world
  • Took away their identify – they were referred to as a number
  • The guards could punish infractions of the roles or improper attitudes

The end result was that the situation these people were put into brought out and magnified some of the worst aspects of their humanity and the experiment had to be abandoned after only six days.

Why is this relevant to us now?

Surely all this is just something that happened a long time ago somewhere else to people not at all like us?

The problem is that we tend to think that bad things happen because the people involved are bad rather than because the situation they are in allows them to do bad things.

This is called the fundamental attribution error and has been described as the “conceptual bedrock” of social psychology.

In every day life, we explain away our lapses by finding reasons in our environment for how we behaved as we did.

With other people, however, we tend to conclude that others are lazy, incompetent or thoughtless, explaning their behaviour as due to their internal characteristics.

Understanding that the environment has a huge impact on how people behave is crucial in some situations.

For example, I recently heard a someone talk about visiting a care home where the staff referred to the residents by their door numbers.

“Room 32 needs a change, Room 42 is hungry”.

This is the first step to removing that person’s identity – reducing them to a number rather than a person.

Such practices should have no place in an organisation – especially one where people have power over others.

Finally, on an individual basis, we place great emphasis on personal fulfillment.

For example, do work that makes you happy.

It turns out that what makes you happy is less to do with the work you do, and more to do with the conditions of your work – do you have autonomy, feedback and control over what you do?

People in charge of designing organisations need to realize just how important the environment is in influencing how the people in that organisation behave.

If you want your people to perform, first create the right environment for them to be good.

3 Replies to “Why good people do bad things”

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