The problem with this focus is that most people who commit atrocities are not psychopaths, and individual variables alone can account for only a relatively small part of their actions. For instance, after carrying out war crimes, most perpetrators return to their “normal” lives and never again exhibit such pathological behaviour. Zimbardo therefore offers a second level of explanation, based on situational variables outside of individuals that usually provide more robust and comprehensive answers about the sources of (in)human behavior. At this level of analysis, factors such as ideology, political culture, deindividuation, domination, socialization, and dehumanization contribute to producing irrational and cruel actions. This focus on social dynamics does not deny the role of personal qualities, but it assumes that, on most occasions, there is an interaction between individual and their environment in which the latter is most salient for most people in most circumstances (Prontzos, pp. 170-76).
Fear, for instance, tends to bring out the worst in us, and it should not come as a surprise that,
people cling to their personal biases more tightly when feeling threatened. After thinking about their own inevitable death, they become more patriotic, more religious and less tolerant of outsiders…(Carey, 2009).
In other words, given the right “situational variables,” practically anyone will do terrible things to another human being.
Zimbardo stresses that horrors can be committed by “normal” people because human behavior is extremely malleable, producing contradictory behaviors by the same person in different situations. The simplistic dualism of believing that “an unbridgeable chasm separates good people from bad people” ignores the reality that human behaviour is characterized by its variability, so that evil is “something of which we are all capable, depending on circumstances”.
In mainstream U.S. political culture, however, the idea that Washington’s foreign policies might be motivated – like other states - by selfish economic and political considerations, rather than by the wish to spread freedom and democracy, is “beyond the bounds of thinkable thought” (Chomsky). “We” do not start wars of aggression, “they” do. We might make honest mistakes, but we cannot be the villains. We learn in schools and in the media that, “the United States is the greatest force for good the world has ever known” (Bob Dole).
Above all, Zimbardo places the blame for inhumanity primarily at a third level: systems of power which create situations, and which will do almost anything to maintain their domination.
It’s not just that “power corrupts,” but that power attracts the corruptible - hence Plato’s warning against those who seek to dominate.
From this perspective, the interaction between systems of power, situations and human nature may provide the broadest insights into our feelings, thoughts, and actions in general, and in particular for understanding humanity as the “zoon politikon” - the political animal.
There are multiple causes for the irrationalities that are all-too prevalent in political behaviour and ideology, from our “kluge” brain to the way we raise children and how we construct the societies in which we live. This paper has focused on some of the most important, yet mostly unconscious, factors which can shape ideologies and behaviours in ways which are problematic and potentially dangerous. Crises such as war, poverty, and global warming can never be solved if we continue to be at the mercy of such forces.
It is clear that these complex issues cannot be grasped without sufficient consideration of the psychological dynamics at work on individuals and in the culture at large. Only a more complete understanding of the causes of human belief and behaviour provide real hope for a more genuine democracy, one that is less susceptible to the irrational, and which allows us to live up to our potentials for compassion, rationality, and freedom.
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