Who Are the Killers?
Identities of the Perpetrators
If only there were evil people somewhere, insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGISTS HAVE LONG been torn between internal and external explanations of the forces that shape our responses to authority. In our parlance, we have referred to internal influences as dispositional, external influences as situational. Generally, we have a preference for seeking causal explanations in forces outside the individual—particularly features of the immediate situation. As a result, social psychologists, by and large, do not think of evil actions as the product of evil dispositions or personalities. In truth, though, any complete explanatory model of human behavior—including one of extraordinarily evil human behavior—must include both dispositional and situational components. We simply cannot ignore the interactional reality of the internal and external forces that shape our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Ultimately, a contest between dispositional and situational explanations is not productive. Overreliance on either type of influence runs the risk of unnecessarily constraining our understanding of how ordinary people commit extraordinary evil. Instead, what we should be concerned with is the relative importance of dispositional and situational factors in explaining extraordinary human evil. Not only do situations affect the person, but people also influence situations, primarily by our choice or creation of situations most conducive to the expression of our personalities. In other