Challenging the banality of evil

The British Psychological Society’s magazine The Psychologist has just been redesigned and relaunched and its cover article on the psychology of evil has been made freely available online.

The phrase the ‘banality of evil’ was coined by philosopher Hannah Arendt after witnessing the trial of high-ranking Nazi Adolf Eichmann who seemed, at least to Arendt, to be the most mundane of individuals whose evil acts were driven by the requirements of the state and orders from above.

A number of social psychologists, most notably Philip Zimbardo – famous for his prison experiment, have argued for a similar view of evil, suggesting that evil occurs when ordinary individuals are put into corrupt situations that encourage their conformity.

The cover article in The Psychologist re-examines key historical studies and new experimental evidence to challenge the “clear consensus amongst social psychologists, historians and philosophers that everyone succumbs to the power of the group and hence no one can resist evil once in its midst”.

For example, some Nazis who later claimed to be ‘just following orders’ often exceeded their orders in their brutality, while others deliberately avoided capricious violence, suggesting a significant amount of personal choice was involved.

Interestingly, this seems to apply equally to Eichmann and Arendt’s famous phrase may have been a result of her leaving the trial at a crucial point:

On the historical side, a number of new studies ‚Äì notably David Cesarani’s (2004) meticulous examination of Eichmann‚Äôs life and crimes ‚Äì have suggested that Arendt‚Äôs analysis was, at best, naive. Not least, this was because she only attended the start of his trial. In this, Eichmann worked hard to undermine the charge that he was a dangerous fanatic by presenting himself as an inoffensive pen-pusher. Arendt then left.

Had she stayed, though, she (and we) would have discovered a very different Eichmann: a man who identified strongly with anti-semitism and Nazi ideology; a man who did not simply follow orders but who pioneered creative new policies; a man who was well aware of what he was doing and was proud of his murderous ‘achievements’.

The article also looks at famous psychology studies, such as the Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram’s conformity studies, and argues that the people who were supposedly most likely to be led into brutality were actually psychologically quite different from the others, suggesting that they were not just ‘average people’.

It’s a refreshingly provocative look at the widely accepted idea that group pressure is the key driving force in the birth of ‘evil’.

Link to article ‘Questioning the banality of evil’ (with link to PDF version).

Full Disclosure: I’m an unpaid associate editor of The Psychologist.

2 thoughts on “Challenging the banality of evil”

  1. Interesting to reflect that the Arendt’s famous observation may be based on her failure to grasp the depths of Eichmann’s evil. Acceptance of her casual designation tends to dull perception of the visceral nature of hate and resentment and the actual violence that it creates. Eichmann’s evil was not banal, but evil itself is a spectrum. Lying or stealing are lesser evils than raping or maiming or dealing death to thousands. Some evil may be banal but not all evil. Perhaps she should have written about Eichmann and the prevalence of evil.
    Two films I have seen recently make the etiology of evil, and what is needed to quell it, hauntingly plain: Protagonist and This Is England.

  2. The question I find most interesting is whether you can predict the people who will do the evil acts. The authors of this article seem to imply you should be able to — at least that these people are different in some detectable way — but they don’t provide any evidence for that. If the evil-doers (or for that matter the good deeders and heroes) are fundamentally different, why does no one ever pick that up? I can’t see how they can refute the “banality” argument without such proof.

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