If you took Psych 101 in college, you learned about Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford prison experiment of 1971. A group of students were randomly divided into two groups: “guards” and “prisoners” and told to act accordingly. Within five days, the guards were committing morally repugnant acts and five of the prisoner group were on the verge of mental breakdown. The point of the exercise was that given certain circumstances, roles, and influences, people who seemed to be good, moral, and virtuous would act otherwise.

Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil is speaking today at TED 2008, a  conference of “technology, entertainment, and design.” His topic: Abu Ghraib. In an interview on WIRED magazine’s website, Zimbardo says:

The situational forces that were going on in [Abu Ghraib] — the dehumanization, the lack of personal accountability, the lack of surveillance, the permission to get away with anti-social actions — it was like the Stanford prison study, but in spades.

Zimbardo was a defense witness for Chip Frederickson during his trial relating to Abu Ghraib. His argument was not that Frederickson wasn’t responsible for his own actions, but that the conditions Frederickson and others were put under created a perfect storm of conditions – the type of conditions under which good, moral people commit evil acts.

Evil is a fascinating topic – one that we tend to avoid in the mainline church or explain only in supernatural terms. And while I don’t think that science – behavioral or otherwise – can fully explain evil or tell us everything we need to know, studies like Zimbardo’s are worth paying attention to. Otherwise Christians are stuck wringing our hands over events that happened decades ago, exclaiming “never again!” yet not able to name it (or do anything about it) when it occurs in our own times.

Of course I have mixed feelings about throwing the term “evil” around too loosely – i.e. “Axis of Evil” pronouncements after 9/11 that were not helpful. But how do we in the mainline church find the language to talk about evil again?

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