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Two iconic sets of research — Stanley Milgram's 1960s "obedience to authority" studies and Philip Zimbardo's 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment — highlighted the unsavory reality that people can be prodded into harming others. Milgram found that participants were willing to administer apparently lethal electric shocks in the context of a scientific experiment, while Zimbardo demonstrated that some people assigned to the role of prison guard ended up treating prisoners brutally.

Are we all doomed to carry out evil deeds robotically under the right circumstances? Not necessarily, say psychologists S. Alexander Haslam, PhD, of the University of Queensland, and Stephen D. Reicher, PhD, of the University of St. Andrews. In a November essay in PLOS Biology, they offer evidence from history, from Zimbardo's and Milgram's work, and from their own research showing that people who tend to follow authority aren't sheep or robots, but rather people who enthusiastically identify with a group's or leader's agenda.

"We have this model of evil as a slippery slope, as something we fall carelessly into," says Haslam. "But there's plenty of evidence that many people don't go along with paradigms they don't believe in, and that when people do commit harmful actions in a group context, it's because they strongly identify with the cause."

A historical example is Adolf Eichmann, a chief organizer of the Holocaust who is often touted as the exemplar of a bland bureaucrat following orders. But historical texts show he was highly creative, elaborating many of the practical details of the "final solution" himself. What's more, Eichmann expressed no regret during his trial, justifying his decision to send millions of Jews and others to their deaths because he believed it would build a better Germany.

Similarly, a closer look at the Milgram and Zimbardo studies suggests that many participants don't fit the mold of blind conformist. Not all the guards in Zimbardo's study treated prisoners badly, and those who did were unusually ingenious in responding to Zimbardo's initial suggestion that they could create feelings in the prisoners, such as boredom or fear. In Milgram's studies, many subjects refused to deliver the highest level of shock allowed, and many obeyed the experimenter only when he justified their actions in terms of benefiting science — and even then, they were torn.

Newer studies are starting to add empirical teeth to these observations. Haslam and Reicher conducted a version of the Stanford Prison Experiment televised by the British Broadcasting Service in 2002, showing that participants didn't automatically conform to their assigned roles and only acted in line with group membership if they identified with the group. They're conducting other related studies now, as well.

These new perspectives suggest the need for more research questioning the notion that evil is always banal, Haslam says.

"It's important we keep examining this issue because the debate is germane to some central issues in psychology — the nature of group influence, processes and dynamics and the role of the individual in those domains."

— Tori DeAngelis