Monthly Archives: October 2008

Most Evil

In honor of Halloween, let’s discuss evil.  Dr. Michael Stone is a man obsessed with it, and his obsession makes for an engaging cable show on Investigation Discovery. Most Evil has cracked open the tumultuous minds of the most notorious criminals in modern times. Dr. Stone is relentless in his search for root causes, motivations, predilections – anything that may help explain why someone commits an act of evil. 

Using a tool he devised, the scale of evil, Dr. Stone ranks each subject from one to 22, with the highest numbers reserved for perpetrators of the most heinously evil acts imaginable. Dr. Stone is exceptionally calm and reserved, but there are times when even he is thrown by what he learns when peering into the mind of a killer. 

Preview from an episode about delusional killers below…


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Jonathan Haidt on the Moral Roots of Ideology

Jonathan Haidt, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of The Happiness Hypothesis, wrote a provocative article for Edge not long ago about the moral roots of ideology, which garnered some notable responses.   The article and responses are well worth reading, and Haidt’s talk from TED 2008 below is also well worth the time.  Haidt focuses on the five moral values that form the basis of our political choices, whether we’re left, right or center and pinpoints the moral values that liberals and conservatives tend to honor most.

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Filed under About Belief, About Morality, Videos

Wrapping Your Mind Around Identity Politics

Of all the viruses that equally infect both the left and right of the political spectrum, ‘identity politics’ may be the most virulent.  But since it’s a non-partisan bug, merrily hopping from one political bent to the next, it’s also one of the most interesting.  Here’s a working definition:

Political attitudes or positions that focus on the concerns of social groups identified mainly on the basis of class, gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

During this U.S. presidential election, the germ has reached full-term infection on the right – with the Republican camp having relied on it for weeks now, chiefly manifesting in Sarah Palin, self-described duchess of ‘joe six pack’ America – the latest marquis oppressed social group; victims, in Palin’s words, of the “liberal elite.”  In this narrative scheme, certain parts of the U.S. are “the real America,” while others, and those who live in them, are presumably “un-American” or merely don’t count. 

In terms of mind, this is intriguing stuff – because in order for a narrative so extreme to actually influence peoples’ perceptions and beliefs, it must resonate at an unconscious level.  The term “real America” must have a visceral effect, tapping into an array of presuppositional beliefs and biases. For those who react as such, the result is strong galvanization as a group – the “Us” of Us and Them. 

On that note, The Situationist has a good short piece about Us and Them politics worth checking out.   And for a primer on the role of emotionalism in politics–a major component of identity politics–check out Drew Westen’s discussion of “The Political Brain” below. 


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Filed under About Belief, About Perception, Videos

This is Your Brain on Treats

What do blood glucose, marijuana and Republican political slogans have in common?  Check out this article in Scientific American to find out.  The psychology of snacking is always a tasty topic to munch on, and one that never fails to get a lot of ink especially as we enter the heavy snacking holiday season.  If you’ve got a sweet tooth for the science of sweets, you may want to check out…

This article in the New York Times on the psychology of over indulgence

This short piece on the discontinuity between good intentions and snacking

This article on the relationship between packaging size and snacking

This journal article on televised food advertising targeted to children

This interview with Kurt Ellis, maker of the documentary “King Corn”

And this review in Salon of Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food 

bon appetit!


Filed under About Neuroscience

So Long Theory of Everything, We Hardly Knew Ye

Over at Rationally Speaking, Massimo Pigliucci has posted a quite excellent synopsis of brand new research that throws the much-hoped-for Theory of Everything into the perennial trash bin of lost theories.  This has obvious implications for physics, where the hunger for the all-encompassing theory originated, but it also affects other areas of science where some have chided the “unscientific” minds of those who’ve been critical of scientisms’ boast to eventually “know everything about everything.”  Alas, it seems we’re never going to get there, and what’s more, it’s not even clear that there’s a “there” to get to.  I’m inclined to think that even the most elegant of theories of everything , like E. O. Wilson’s Conscilience–the complete unity of knowledge–are, while engaging, doomed to failure.  Nevertheless, science remains humanity’s best tool of critical discernment, as Massimo eloquently notes in his post:

“…science still remains by far the best (one could argue the only) way to understand the world, and the fact that its power is limited by the characteristics of the human mind, those of the physical universe, and by the laws of logic is just something that we have to live with. No “alternative” approach has come even close to doing any better.”


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The Lucifer Effect: An Interview with Dr. Philip Zimbardo

Social psychologist Philip Zimbardo has been studying the anatomy of human psychology for nearly four decades. In the summer of 1971, Dr. Zimbardo created the classic Stanford Prison Experiment, a simulation of prison life that investigated a provocative question: what happens when you put good people in an evil place?  The results were dramatic, and launched a decades-long journey to discover how situational forces and group dynamics can work in concert to make monsters out of decent men and women.

In The Lucifer Effect, Dr. Zimbardo takes the reader through this often dark journey, and in the process sheds light on topics ranging from corporate malfeasance to torture at Abu Ghraib to organized genocide.  Dr. Zimbardo was kind enough to make some time to discuss the book and his ongoing initiatives.         

Your book, The Lucifer Effect, has become one of the core texts of the “situationist” school of thought, which has been gaining momentum of late.  In what ways have you seen the Person-Situation-System understanding described in the book begin to take hold and tangibly change peoples’ thinking? 

It is only slowing being accepted because the dominant view in individualistic cultures, like ours in the United States, is entirely dispositional.  We are excessively focused on the Person, as solitary actor on an empty stage delivering his or her soliloquy improvised from a free will core.  We ignore the fact that every person is embedded in a social setting of co-actors, with varying costumes and props, and stage managers, and learned scripts.  Most of us play roles so often and so long that we forget it is a role as it becomes who and what we are.  Even more difficult to get the general public to accept is the power of systems to create, maintain and justify those situations that so significantly influence individual and group action.

All of our institutions also adopt the individual model of responsibility, guilt, liability, sin, affliction, madness, etc.  Religion, medicine, psychiatry, law, economics all are promoting individualistic orientations and the Medical Model of treatment, after the fact, of sickness.  What we need is a paradigm shift to a Public Health Model of Prevention that recognizes situational and systemic vectors of disease in society, such as violence, prejudice, bullying, corruption and more.

The Lucifer Effect is doing its best to nudge public thinking toward a more holistic view of the causes of human action, as requiring understanding of the Person’s characteristics, the Situation’s external influences, and the System’s combined power to make or break situations.  I also have tried to do so with my web sites for the Stanford Prison Experiment (, and the Lucifer Effect (, as well as crusading around the world in lectures on The Psychology of Evil and Heroism. I’ve given more than 50 talks in the last 18 months in 25 cities in 12 countries worldwide.


Often when discussing evil acts, people use language that distances them from the potential for doing evil – as if only “other people” are capable of doing bad things.  Why do we all seem predisposed to think this way?  Are we hardwired to externalize evil?    

We have been taught that there is a fixed, impermeable line between good and evil, with the comforting belief that We and our Kin are on the good side and They, Those Others are on the bad side.  This good-bad, dark-light dichotomy creates concepts of the other, the enemy, and supports not only prejudicial thinking, the in-group sense of superiority over the out-group, but worse of all it encourages dehumanizing others, thinking of them as undeserving creatures who are less than human.  It is not hardwired into us; it is learned from adults, from the media, from politicians, from slogans and propaganda all around us.


The Lucifer Effect ends with a discussion of heroism – the light on the other side of the “journey of darkness” the book takes us through.  As a society, are we moving closer to that light of heroism, or farther away from it?

It is hard to answer that from a national perspective because we are in such morally ambiguous times.  CNN is honoring ordinary heroes with big cash prizes based on more than 3,000 nominations from people in 75 nations, and HEROES is one of the most popular TV series.  There are now many web sites focused on different aspects of heroism as well.

However, our leaders have let us down, starting with the lies and manipulations of the current administration to justify preemptive war of aggression in Iraq, which has taken an enormous toll on American lives, the budget, and caused the loss of the high moral ground on which the United States has stood for so long.  Add the revelations of torture at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and the Abu Ghraib prisons, along with the suspension of human and civil rights of hundreds of “enemy combatants” held indefinitely without charge.  Then we add to that the crisis of collective greed on Wall Street and beyond, of financiers making endless high risk loans without the necessary credit or sufficient reserves.  Supposedly experienced, smart, well-educated leaders of finance have sold out the rest of the nation in ways that will reverberate for years to come and cause needless suffering to working class American families.

Yet, I am an optimist and believe in bottom up change.  I am leading a charge to create a nation of “Everyday Heroes-In-Waiting” that will be the antidote to evil.  The Heroic Imagination Project will explore the nature of heroism with new research; extend and amplify the concept through new curricula in schools, summer camps, and web-based programs; and inspire public commitments from millions of people in the United States and eventually around the world to take the necessary civil actions that promote the greater good in their communities.  The Lucifer Effect ends with a glance at the banality of heroism as the flip side of the banality of evil—Hannah Arendt’s concept of societal monsters emerging only when put in situations that elicit evil behaviors.

I argue that most evil is done by ordinary people cast into evil-generating situations or systems.  On the other hand, some of those cast into challenging situations, are inspired by the heroic imagination to oppose evil or to aid others in need.  My goal is to democratize and demystify heroism so that mainstream Americans will begin to see heroic action as realistically possible for any one of us, and invite young people to see their lives as heroes’ journeys.


Regardless of who is elected our next President, what sorts of policies do you think need to be enacted to create a system that does not produce an atmosphere of enabling evil acts?

He must regain the trust of Americans that the office of the president promotes first and foremost the interests and good will of the general public – that he will not serve the usual big money or ideological interest groups– whoever is underwriting his marketing budget.

He must become a model of fair mindedness, and make his entire administration and his party accountable for their words, choices and actions.  Our next president will have to succeed both at passing legislature establishing personal liabilities and support the vigorous prosecution of individuals in business, government and military for committing fraudulent, illegal, or unethical acts when working inside their organizations.  He will need to help transform the language of accountability from “EPA screwed up, or Exxon polluted the environment” to “the managing director such-and-such screwed up and the CEO such-and-such failed to institute monitoring that caused an oil spill.”

The next president will also need to inspire mainstream Americans and draw a Bright White Line of Goodness for the nation by supporting, encouraging and celebrating those who have the moral courage to become heroes in the community, education, business and government.  If either candidate can communicate this message and then walk that high road for the next four years, the United States can undo some of the damage to its reputation caused by the old guard in Washington and rekindle the hope that we are a nation of citizens who can become real heroes when they are put to the test.


Watch Dr. Zimbardo’s speech from the 2008 TED Conference here.


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More Metaphors, Colonel?

Scientific American has a good piece on the use of metaphors in the “war on terror.” The power of a single metaphor, like “war,” can have massive implications for foreign and domestic policy. Consider the arguments in support of the Patriot Act, which many opponents saw as opening a door to the violation of civil liberties. Proponents repeatedly used the war metaphor to give the sense that we are in severely dire circumstances and radical measures are justified.  If you’re in a war, after all, you’re more likely to make concessions about such matters that you may otherwise not.  The Bush administration, guided by a neoconservative foreign policy of “preventative war,” has been fond of using this metaphor since it came to power, with quite obviously major consequences in the U.S. and abroad. From the article:

The war metaphor helps to define the American perception of the threat of terrorism. If terrorism is war, then the national security, indeed the existence, of each side is threatened. The conflict is zero-sum; the outcome will be victory for one side or the other. Being in a state of war also requires national unity, and dissent is easily interpreted as unpatriotic. The solution has to be military. Thus, the Department of Defense must play a lead role in shaping policy, and the president’s duties as commander in chief must take precedence over his other tasks. An expansion of executive power accompanies the war metaphor: measures that would not be acceptable in peacetime, such as restrictions on civil liberties and brutal interrogation practices, are now considered essential.

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