Good People Doing Bad Things

We tend to assume that only criminals are capable of murder, rape, fraud, etc. But there are plenty of law-abiding citizens who, under different circumstances, might commit such crimes. If there was great political or economic instability in your country you’d see a sharp increase in criminality. It even happens in places where you wouldn’t expect it, such as in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Culture and economics influence human behavior in profound ways. When you think of a country like Germany today you think of one of the most progressive countries in the world. Yet it wasn’t that long ago that a large percentage of the population (of a previous generation) became corrupted by Nazism. The psychologist, Jordan Peterson, made a good point when he once said that any one us living in such circumstances might have fallen for it as well (or at least complicity gone along with it).

Decent people are capable of doing horrific things if they find themselves in a desperate or confusing situation. Decent people are capable of doing horrific things even when they’re not in such situations. This was demonstrated experimentally in the Stanford Prison experiment in 1971, when a few university students who were given merely a bit of power went overboard with it. And in a 1961 Yale experiment, where participants were politely asked by a perceived authority to shock someone repeatedly.