The Social Psychology of Evil: Can the Law Prevent Groups from Making Good People Go Bad?

Article excerpt

TABLE OF CONTENTS

I. From Abu Ghraib Prison to Enron Corporation ........ 1443

II. Cognitive Dissonance and Related Phenomena ....... 1444

A. Festinger's Theory of Cognitive Dissonance ............. 1444

B. Zimbardo's Prison Simulation: Role-Playing and the Dissonance Phenomenon ......................................... 1445

C. Small Steps: How Cognitive Dissonance Works to Induce Behavior Gradually ....................................... 1446

D. Entrapment in Escalation: From the Dollar Auction to the Concorde Fallacy ........................................... 1447

E. Implications of Dissonance-Related Phenomena for the Law .................................................................... 1449

III. Persuasion Toward Wrongdoing ............................... 1452

A. Conformity and Group Influences: Asch's Experiments ............................................................. 1452

B. Authority as a Factor in Persuasion ........................... 1455

IV. The Necessity of Enforcement .................................... 1457

A. Bottom-Up Enforcement and Top-Down Enforcement ............................................................ 1458

B. Designing Avenues for Automatic Enforcement at the Time Regulations Are Promulgated .................... 1460

C. Implications of These Conclusions for the Examples That Began This Article ............................................ 1462

V. Conclusion ...................................................................... 1464

The year was 2000. The City of Los Angeles had discovered widespread corruption in its police department. About seventy officers were under investigation, and hundreds of convictions were likely to be overturned because of official misconduct.1 Citizens reading their newspapers must have wondered: "What can we do so that these abuses will never happen again?"

And that question led to a more basic puzzle: Why had things turned out so badly at the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), in the first place?

"The lines between right and wrong became fuzzy and indistinct," former officer Rafael Perez explained at his sentencing hearing.2 "The 'us against them' ethos of the overzealous cop began to consume me."3 With his voice quavering, Perez added:

To do our job fairly was not enough. My job became an intoxicant that I lusted after. I can only say I succumbed to the seductress of power. Used wrongfully, it is a power that can bend the will of a man to satisfy a lustful moment. It can open locked vaults to facilitate theft. It can even subvert justice to hand down a lifetime behind bars.4

But even with all of his candor, Perez's explanation remained incomplete. His testimony did not shed any light upon the mechanism by which he and his fellow officers were induced to "succumb to the seductress of power." It did not show how to distinguish dangerous situations, in which bad behavior was likely to develop, from cases in which officers did not abuse their authority. Perez's testimony also did not tell us how to minimize the likelihood of similar misconduct in the future.

I. FROM ABU GHRAIB PRISON TO ENRON CORPORATION

Obviously, the LAPD is not the only organization in which good people sometimes go bad. At Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, American jailers photographed each other committing acts of abuse against detainees, thereby subjecting themselves to prosecution and losing credibility for the United States.5 At Enron Corporation, executives tolerated and committed pervasive acts of fraud that lost billions of dollars for shareholders.6 Observers wondered how individuals in these cases had gone so far wrong. In fact, the questions raised by the Los Angeles experience are raised by countless other events in which ordinary people, who otherwise seem unlikely to become criminals, do in fact engage in criminal activity. …