When Good People Do Bad Things: The Dark Side in Everyone

Human beings are a perplexing species. On one end of the spectrum, we see the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, leaders who have determinedly advocated the principle of non-violence and championed the art of peaceful protest even in the face of oppressive forces. But shift your focus to the other end of the spectrum, and there you shall see the likes of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, dictators who were responsible for engineering the annihilation of millions of innocent lives.

That such glaring disparity can come from a single species is enough to befuddle social scientists and psychologists, but in the area of human morality, it is not the only mystifying matter there is. Because while it is tempting to divide the world into good guys and bad guys, in reality the distinction is often not all that clear. The line that separates the good apples from the rotten ones blur once we consider cases of otherwise mentally healthy, routinely morally upright, regular citizens suddenly being capable of horrific acts of violence and evilness when exposed to certain circumstances.

Take for instance the world-famous experiment of social psychologist Stanley Milgram. In 1961, he started a series of experiments that involved participants being divided into two groups: the “teachers” and the “learners.” The learners were each strapped into a chair and asked to memorize a list of word pairs. The teachers, on the other hand, were directed by a white-coated experimenter to administer electric shocks to a learner every time the learner missed recalling a word correctly. What the teachers didn’t know, however, was that the learners were just paid actors and were actually accomplices of the experimenter. They simply acted as if being shocked by an electric current every time a teacher administered the punishment.

The Milgram experiment aimed to discover whether people would follow the direction of an authority figure (the white-coated experimenter) and continue to administer stronger and stronger electric shocks to the learner, or choose to opt out from the experiment once they see the learner writhing in pain and begging for the shocks to stop. It’s easy for many of us to hypothesize that most “teachers” in the study would probably not choose to continue with the experiment as they witness the genuine pain of the learners they are punishing. After all, if we were in the same situation, we would of course refuse to continue administering electric shocks to someone already screaming in agony or who has apparently collapsed.

But the results of the Milgram experiment shocked the world when it showed that about two-thirds of the study participants continued to obey the white-coated experimenter to the fullest extent, administering dangerously high levels of shocks to learners who missed recalling their word pairs. Although many of these participants hesitated or were genuinely anguished by the sight of the tortured learners, they still carried on with administering the shocks nonetheless. Milgram’s experiment thus exposed a disturbing truth about human nature—that we are all capable of violence and being agents of a destructive process, without us being aware of it or even recognizing we hold a degree of accountability for the things we carry out for the sake of obedience to authority.

How can otherwise morally sound, well-meaning people evolve to become capable of such cruelty? One theory that attempts to explain the answer to this query is the attribution theory. According to this theory, there are two ways we can explain a person’s behavior or particular action: one, through situational attribution, and two, by way of dispositional attribution.

1. Situational Attribution

In situational attribution, we ascribe the cause of a person’s action to something in the environment or the situation. For instance, in the Milgram experiment, we say the participants in the study continued to administer the shocks because the situation mainly influenced them to do so—they have already agreed to the experiment, and it would’ve been seen as breaking a commitment if they opted out of it halfway through. Or, the presence of an authority figure led them to think they were simply following orders, and continuing with the experiment was for a good cause of helping researchers find out more about the relationship between learning and punishment.

In other social situations, situational attribution would sound something like this: The robber robbed the back because he was in dire need of money to meet his family’s needs. The politician committed an act of corruption because the system made it convenient for him to do so. Your spouse snapped at you when she arrived home because she had been under a lot of stress at work today. This is how we make situational attributions in everyday life.

2. Dispositional Attribution

As for dispositional attribution, we ascribe the cause of someone’s action not to the external environment or situation he is in, but to something innate in the person—say, his personality or intrinsic nature as an individual. In the Milgram experiment, then, we make a dispositional attribution when we say the study participants shocked those learners because they are, in fact, cruel by nature. The robber robbed the bank because he is a born criminal with no sense of right and wrong. The politician committed an act of corruption because he is an inherently fraudulent and untrustworthy person. Your spouse snapped at you when she arrived home because she is a grouchy person.

Several studies have revealed that when people are trying to explain someone else’s behavior, they tend to do so by making dispositional attributions instead of situational ones. In the case of the Milgram experiment, then, people are more likely to conclude that those who obeyed instructions to continue to torture learners did so because they were inherently cruel, and not just because they were being forced by the situation to carry on with administering shocks. This is what social psychologists have termed as the “fundamental attribution error.” This error is the tendency to ignore or underestimate the influence of the situation on how a person acts, while overestimating the role that personality traits play in how a person behaves.

The interesting thing is that we tend to reserve making the fundamental attribution error only when we’re aiming to find reasons for other people’s behavior. When it comes to explaining our own behavior, it’s an entirely different story. We favor making situational attributions over dispositional ones when we try to explain our failures and bad actions—we say we failed the exam not because we are hopeless dimwits, but because we were not able to study properly as the noise from the neighbors was so distracting, or the teacher is so vile she misled us with regard to the coverage of the exam she announced. When we want to explain our good actions and achievements, however, we tend to do so by making dispositional attributions rather than situational ones—we donated goods to the flood victims mainly because we are generous, kind-hearted individuals, not because we were simply required to bring donations as part of school requirements. This tendency to personally take credit for our good actions and accomplishment while letting the situation take account for our bad actions and unfavorable outcomes is what is called the self-serving bias.

Clearly, how we explain the behavior of others in terms of the attributions we make impacts the way we see and interact with them, and also influences the quality of our relationships with other people. A 2000 study by Karney and Bradbury revealed that happy couples tend to ascribe their partners’ shortcomings to situational factors (“He’s just dealing with a lot of stress from work, that’s why he shouted at me earlier), and their partners’ admirable actions to inherent personality traits (“He brought me a gift because he’s a thoughtful person”). Unhappy couples, on the other hand, have it the other way around. They tend to attribute their partners’ shortcomings to innate traits (“He shouted at me because he’s an aggressive person”), and their partners’ good actions to the situation (“He brought me a gift because he’s just pressured by the occasion”).

The attributions we make with regard to explaining our own actions also greatly impacts not only the way we view and appraise ourselves, but also what habits we eventually form as individuals and as members of society. Always attributing our own shortcomings to the situation or environment while ascribing our commendable actions only to our inherent goodness can lead us to develop a sense of self-righteousness and foster a habit of irresponsibility that will ultimately be destructive not only to us as individuals, but to the wider society.

None of us chose to be capable of supreme righteousness and unspeakable ruthlessness both at the same time. But our very nature as humans ties us to such paradox, and in so being, thus also binds us to the responsibility of choosing which capacity to nurture and act on. Shall we continue to solely blame and attribute other people’s bad actions to their innate traits and motives, while we ascribe our own failings and bad behaviors to faults in the system, shortcomings of those in power, or situations that “force” or make it convenient for us to succumb into wrongdoing?

We cannot choose the answer for everyone else, but we are free to choose the answer we shall live by in each of our own lives. ♠

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