Why Good People Make Bad Decisions

I’m currently re-reading The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo. I’m still amazed with how relevant the book’s message can be to group culture and specifically fraternity and sorority life. Here are some excerpts from the introduction:

The Lucifer Effect is my attempt to understand the process of transformation at work when good or ordinary people do bad or evil things. We will deal with the fundamental question “What makes people go wrong?” But instead of resorting to a traditional religious dualism of good versus evil, of wholesome nature versus corrupting nurture, we will look at real people engaged in life’s daily tasks, enmeshed in doing their jobs, surviving within an often turbulent crucible of human nature. We will seek to understand the nature of their character transformations when they are faced with powerful situational forces.

When I first read the book, I was initially turned off by what I mistakenly thought was the author’s dismissal of personal responsibility. I falsely thought (before finishing the book) Zimbardo’s conclusion was that humans should not be held responsible for bad or evil behavior because we are only products of our group’s culture. But Zimbardo cleared up this misconception just a few pages into the book:

Throughout this book, I repeat the mantra that attempting to understand the situational and systemic contributions to any individual’s behavior does not excuse the person or absolve him of her from responsibility in engaging in immoral, illegal, or evil deeds.

And Zimbardo explains here how he concludes the book on a positive note, with a discussion of heroes:

We have come to think of our heroes as special, set apart from us ordinary mortals by their daring deeds of lifelong sacrifices. Here we recognize that such special individuals do exist, but that they are the exception among the ranks of heroes, the few who make such sacrifices. They are a special breed who organize their lives around a humanitarian cause, for example. By contrast, most others we recognize as heroes are heroes of the moment, of the situation, who act decisively when the call to service is sounded. So, The Lucifer Effect journey ends on a positive note by celebrating the ordinary hero who lives within each of us.

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