The Lucifer Effect: TEvil of Inaction: Passive Bystanders

June 4th, 2007 - by admin

Philip Zimbardo / Common Ground Magazine – 2007-06-04 23:11:51

Understanding How Good People Turn Evil
In his new book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Stanford social psychology professor Philip Zimbardo looks at behavioral studies across the globe that were inspired by his famous 1971 “Stanford Prison Experiment” and analyzes them to find the all-important “why” and “how” behind man’s ancient and ongoing inhumanity to man and capacity for evil. One of his revelations is the debunking of the concept of the “bad apple,” replacing it with the “bad barrel”; the idea that most people are good until their circumstances and constructs around them steer them down a darker path.

In chapter 13, “Investigating Social Dynamics: Deindividuation, Dehumanization, and the Evil of Inaction” the professor (and expert defense witness in the Abu Ghraib trials) talks about the danger of “anonymity” and of thinking of others as “less human” (as in the racism that allows us to kill in war and perpetrate genocide), as well as the evil of passivity.

“The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
— British statesman Edmund Burke

“[W]e must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.

Our usual take on evil focuses on the violent, destructive actions of perpetrators, but the failure to act can also be a form of evil, when helping, dissent, disobedience, or whistle-blowing are required.

One of the most critical, least acknowledged contributors to evil goes beyond the protagonists of harm to the silent chorus who look but do not see, who hear but do not listen. Their silent presence at the scene of evil doings makes the hazy line between good and evil even fuzzier. We ask next: Why don’t people help? Why don’t people act when their aid is needed? Is their passivity a personal defect of callousness, of indifference? Alternatively, are there identifiable social dynamics once again at play?

The Kitty Genovese Case: Social Psychologists to the Rescue, Belatedly
In a major urban center, such as New York City, London, Tokyo, or Mexico City, one is surrounded by literally tens of thousands of people. We walk beside them on the streets, sit near them in restaurants, movies, buses, and trains, wait in line with them — but remain unconnected, as if they do not really exist. For a young woman in Queens, they did not exist when she most needed them.

For more than half an hour, 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens, New York watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens. Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off.

Each time he returned, sought her out and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called the police after the woman was dead. (The New York Times, March 13, 1964)

A recent reanalysis of the details of this case casts doubt upon how many people actually saw the events unfolding and whether they really comprehended what was happening, given that many were elderly and had awoken suddenly in the middle of the night.

Nevertheless, there seems to be no question that many residents of this well-kept, usually quiet, almost suburban neighborhood heard the chilling screams and did not help in any way. Kitty died alone on a staircase, where she could no longer elude her crazed murderer.

Researching Bystander Intervention
Social psychologists heeded the alarm by initiating a series of pioneering studies on bystander intervention. They countered the usual slew of dispositional analyses about what is wrong with the callous New York bystanders by trying to understand what in the situation freezes the prosocial actions of ordinary people.

At the time, both Bibb Latané and John Darley were professors at New York City universities — Columbia and NYU, respectively — so they were close to the heart of the action. Their field studies were done in a variety of New York City venues, such as on subways and street corners, and in laboratories.

Their research generated a counterintuitive conclusion: the more people who witness an emergency, the less likely any of them will intervene to help. Being part of a passively observing group means that each individual assumes that others are available who could or will help, so there is less pressure to initiate action than there is when people are alone or with only one other observer.

The mere presence of others diffuses the sense of personal responsibility of any individual to get involved. Personality tests of participants showed no significant relationship between any particular personality characteristics and the speed or likelihood of intervening in staged emergencies.

New Yorkers, like Londoners or others from big cities around the world, are likely to help and will intervene if they are directly asked or when they are alone or with a few others. The more people present who might help in an emergency situation, the more we assume that someone else will step forward, so we do not have to become energized to take any personal risk.

Rather than callousness, failure to intervene is not only because one fears for one’s life in a violent scenario, but also because one denies the seriousness of the situation, fears doing the wrong thing and looking stupid or worries about the costs of getting involved in “someone else’s business.” There is also an emergent group norm of passive non-action.

The Institutionalized Evil of Inaction
In situations where evil is being practiced, there are perpetrators, victims, and survivors. However, there are often observers of the ongoing activities or people who know what is going on and do not intervene to help or to challenge the evil and thereby enable evil to persist by their inaction.

It is the good cops who never oppose the brutality of their buddies beating up minorities on the streets or in the back room of the station house. It was the good bishops and cardinals who covered over the sins of their predatory parish priests because of their overriding concern for the image of the Catholic Church. They knew what was wrong and did nothing to really confront that evil, thereby enabling these pederasts to continue sinning for years on end (at the ultimate cost to the Church of billions in reparations and many disillusioned followers).

Similarly, it was the good workers at Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen, and hosts of similarly corrupt corporations who looked the other way when the books were being cooked. Moreover, as I noted earlier, in the Stanford Prison Experiment, it was the good guards who never intervened on behalf of the suffering prisoners to get the bad guards to lighten up, thereby implicitly condoning their continually escalating abuse.

At the level of nation-states, this inaction, when action is required, allows mass murder and genocide to flourish, as it did in Bosnia and Rwanda and has been doing more recently in Darfur. Nations, like individuals, often don’t want to get involved and also deny the seriousness of the threat and the need for immediate action. They also are ready to believe the propaganda of the rulers over the pleas of the victims. In addition, there often are internal pressures on decision makers from those who “do business there” to wait it out.

Excerpted from The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo. ©2007 by Philip Zimbardo. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group. Available at independent bookstores. Visit,

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