Reem Masri

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What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph?

Okay so some of you may be familiar with The Stanford Prison Experiment. Or perhaps The Lucifer Effect. But for those who aren't: It is a psychological experiment where people are randomly divided into two groups: the prisoners and the guards. Gradually the guards seem to develop a sadistic, abusive, and vile authority over the prisoners. The guards provoke them, offend them, abuse them...etc. Consequently, the prisoners become distressed and they resort to violence as a way of rebellion.
How would you have behaved if you were a prisoner in this situation? Would evil prevail? Or would the goodness in people triumph?
I'd like to see your opinions regarding this. :)

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    Jan 21 2014: Our species has existed for roughly 150,000 years. Over that time, the one constant has been our ability to raise ourselves above our circumstances, leaving ourselves one step higher for the next generation to build upon. This is true not just for technology, but for philosophy, art, law, and the social sciences.

    Humanity triumphs over the environment.
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      Feb 7 2014: Until the next extinction event.
      We are evolving, but every person on this planet isn't more evolved than those in the past, just the average is.Still plenty of bad apples amongst us that could change that.
  • Jan 21 2014: For a start, be careful what you define as "evil", as its not exactly universal, more a matter of perspective.

    As for the question itself, from my experience, men and woman are as much a product of their environment as they are a product of their own decisions. In extreme enough cases, almost anyone can be driven to do almost anything; the question is just how much motivation it takes, which most definitely varies from person to person.

    I probably wouldn't have started abusing anyone as a guard--I try to avoid hurting anyone without good cause. As a prisoner on the other hand, I may well have turned to violence as a form of rebellion. The self defense aspect of the latter makes it a stronger motivator then the simple sadism (sadly a motivator for some people) and social conformity of the former.
  • Feb 9 2014: Its been a few years since I've read it but I highly recommend Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning". In it he talks about his experience in Auchwitz. He talks about the last and most basic freedom he had being his choice in how to respond and think about the situations like the one your talking about. Great book, I'm gonna have to reread it now to make sure I'm remembering his points correctly.
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    Feb 6 2014: The question should perhaps consider the effect of being either in a group, or alone. There's a massive difference in the outcome. Often people behave in response to an expectation of their peer group. Take the peer group away and you have pure moral at play.
  • Feb 4 2014: In the UK the BBC attempted to carry out a repeat of the Stanford experiment for TV which was halted by the overseeing ethics committee after (IIRC) 7 days.

    There were several of these types of experiment carried out in the 1950s & 60s, which would be considered unethical today e.g. the Milgram experiment, which found that two-thirds of the subject were willing to give what they were told was a 450-volt electric shock to an actor taking part in the experiment.
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    Jan 30 2014: Reem,
    I observed the example you provide quite a lot during my time volunteering with the department of corrections. I suggest that it is not a matter of prisoners BECOMING distressed and resorting to violence. Many of them are distressed and violent, and that is why they are incarcerated. So, it doesn't take much to antagonize them, because they are constantly acting/reacting with a "knee jerk" reaction...not thinking about their actions or the consequences.

    We addressed this scenario in the "cognitive self change" sessions I co-facilitated. The guys were often antagonized by some correctional officers, and they rebelled in the way they knew how....fighting back either verbally or physically, which often got them more time in jail, solitary confinement, etc., depending on the severity of what they did. They were not thinking about consequences.

    Our suggestion was simply to take a minute and think about the consequences. No matter what the CO was doing or saying, they had choices regarding how they reacted.

    One guy I remember had fun with the process of learning different ways to respond. When a CO said or did something which seemed to have the intent of antagonizing, the guy said respectfully to the CO...."thank you for the opportunity to be patient with you", and he walked away! Of course, when this guy came back to the sessions and talked about his experience, it encouraged others to try it as well, and it was successful for many of them.

    I don't perceive this as a question of good or evil people. They/we are people who have learned certain ways of taking care of ourselves....protecting ourselves, and unfortunately, those who are incarcerated, often did not have very good role models to follow in their family and environments. Some of the COs did not have very good models either. Many of the guys in the program, were in for assault, which they learned as kids, as a way to "resolve" issues. When we suggested different behaviors, sometimes it worked!
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    Jan 30 2014: Considering the argument of Good vs. Evil, it is important to remember that in human nature, the forces of both are intrinsically linked and many may argue that the forces are equal. Good and evil acts are ‘choices’ and depending on how the argument is viewed from varying perspectives, the lines between choosing to commit good or evil actions can often appear blurred.

    In a scenario that presents an individual the opportunity to commit a good or an evil action, the route one takes is influenced by ones view of their past circumstances and present proceedings coupled with an assumption of a predicted consequence of their action. The person therefore has a choice to ‘choose’ good or evil, and why they will choose either is uniquely personal to the individual in question and what is ‘good’ for one individual, can be perceived as ‘evil’ to another.

    Therefore, the definitions of good and evil are completely subjective to the scenarios that they are held within. In this sense, from different perspectives, good and evil can share the same definition, which; if good and evil can cancel each other out, do either really exist at all?

    I believe that neither good, nor evil will prevail as the balance of good and evil in the wider picture of the world has and always will exist. Yes, there will be times when the scales will lean towards one and not the other, but human nature is akin to a turning tide and once a breaking point is reached, the tide will turn.
  • Jan 23 2014: I personally believe that it depends on the history and minds of the individuals in the experiment. Given that each and every mind is unique, it follows that the outcome would be completely dependent on those individuals. Now while it is true that a mind can be provoke or guided by environment, its still dependent on the individual's mind set and emotional status.
    What would I do? I truly don't know as I'm a pacifist by nature. However I have also been known to put my self at risk to help/spare those in my group. So how I would respond is again dependent on the other individuals involved, and situations they create.
  • Jan 23 2014: Reem,

    I would suggest "Lord of the Flies" and "Animal Farm".
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      Jan 23 2014: I have read Animal Farm! The way the animals become savages in the end depicts that sometimes an uprising isn't always good. But does that mean that evil will eventually triumph? What would you say?
      • Jan 23 2014: the pigs become inhuman as the humans because they gain power, control with no checking mechanism. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

        I think you believe in the goodness of mankind - I do not. I guess we will have to agree to disagree.
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    Jan 22 2014: I suppose you could complain to the guards about their behavior. Then, if they don't change, complain to the "warden," that is, the person playing the warden. But if that gets you nowhere, then I think the experiment fails, in a real American prison if you complain to the warden and aren't satisfied with his or her response, you can go higher in the system, higher than the warden.
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    Gord G

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    Jan 22 2014: Reem, if you're looking for an interesting read related to your question, I suggest "The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact" (2005) by Jean Baudrillard. (I won't attempt to encapsulate his ideas in this comment)