With all the recent displays of increased antisemitism around the world, people are rightly concerned what will happen next. Will things improve? Will they continue to deteriorate? Will there be another Holocaust?
Is there something essentially different between people in the modern world, and in Nazi Germany 80 years ago?
Are people today “good” and were people then and there “evil?”
Unfortunately, Social Psychology teaches clearly that the answer is no. There is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” person.*
Some things are generally agreed upon universal truths. Don’t steal, murder, torture for no reason. However, even these are not truly universal, as the “reason” part is subjective, and people can come to believe that under some circumstancees, these behaviors are ok, and even positive.
Socal psychology teaches that there are 4 factors that contribute to a person’s behavioral choices:
- Dispositional – a person’s “nature” – what’s inside.
- Education – what a person is taught from authority figures and observation of peers.
- Situational – the surroundings a person finds himself in and how these affect judgement.
- Systemic – the legal, political, cultural systems in which the person lives.
There are two famous experiments which all psychology students learn:
Milgram’s experiment in 1963 – he asked 1000 people: “Would you electrecute a stranger if Hitler asked you to?
Of course, they all said no, they never would. Psychologists predicted that maybe 1% would do it, since that’s the percentage of “innately cruel” people.
The experiment involved an “authority” figure telling the experiment subjects to administer shocks to a person for getting questions in a “Memory Test” wrong.
The result was that up to 2/3 went all the way to the highest voltage (450 volts), even though the person being “shocked” was screaming, begging for it to stop.
The factors that caused these otherwise “good” people to behave so horribly, was simply that they were being told it was ok, and that they saw other people doing it.
Stanford Prison Experiment – in this experiment, random people were assigned to be “guards” and “prisoners.” The experiment had to be stopped after 4 days, because the “guards” were behaving so savagely and cruelly. Literally acting like “different people” than their “normal” selves.
This experiment led to Zimbardo, the experimenter, to develop a group of factors that lead an otherwise good person to become evil.
Another famous incident illustrating this is Jim Jones, a cult leader, who persuaded almost 1000 people, some of them certainly “sane” and “rational,” to commit suicide.
Social Psychological teaches that people can act completely differently than their usual selves, because of the circumstances.
So – could another holocaust happen today? Could it happen in the USA?
The answer, social psychology teaches us, is yes, it definitely can.
Will it? What factors can we control? What can we do individually to make it less likely? What can education, government, and social power do to help?
Please comment below.
*The exception is the condition of sociopathy, which is a disorder where a person does not experience human emotion, and sees the world and other people purely as factors to be manipulated for his own benefit.