The lucifer effect and the psychology of evil.
So, I totally had a celebrity encounter while attending a conference in Berlin. Or maybe to be more accurate, I should probably say I totally had a celebrity encounter for a psychologist. And, when I say celebrity encounter I mean I walked by this aforementioned celebrity and nodded my head; he looked back at me and said hi.
Yes that’s right. If you can even believe it I was in the same room with the one and only Philip Zimbardo. Ok, I know for those of you with careers outside the field of psychology this means very little; however, if you took a social psych 101 class you might actually know who I’m talking about. Professor Zimbardo was the principle investigator on the Stanford Prison Study, a very famous study that had to be terminated 4 short days into a two week study because the participating college students took their jobs (as prison guards) and their incarcerations (as prisons) so seriously that the abuse and maltreatment of the prisoners very quickly got out of hand and the study had to be terminated for ethical reasons. It’s a basic study about the power and effect of positions of authority, the autonomy of uniforms and losing ones individual identity.
Well Professor Zimbardo is back and he is trying to explain the psychology of evil. He is doing this because he was called as an expert witness for the young soldiers who participated in heinous acts of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. He noted the whistleblower, a measly 18 year old reserve (whose conscience simply wouldn’t allow him to not report what he witnessed on a take home CD burned by one of the participating privates), was stalked and threatened so severely by fellow military men and former friends and neighbors from his very small home town in America (as they saw him as “anti-patriotic” to the Bush administration), that he and his wife and small child had to go into a witness protection program. Unbelievable. Really.
But enough about that…………..let’s move on, or rather let’s return to Berlin.
Berlin seems to be a city marked by the disappearance of a wall and an uncanny desire to judge nothing too critically. This city overflows with art and culture. Everywhere there are tributes to philosophers and activists. Everywhere there are galleries and museums. Its universities allegedly became Mecca’s for students of the 60s & 70s who wanted to experience the intensity of those political times in an environment that was on the edge of politics and the dynamics of history. And, according to my patriotic hosts, Berlin’s underground culture flourishes with an eclecticism that can’t be claimed elsewhere with the possible exception of New York City. In Berlin, the people seem to live simply yet this does not by any means mean they have simple lives.
If I were to personify Berlin I would say he is a tall, young, Caucasian, thin man who works with computers and plays jazz in the wee hours of the night. He is a serious fellow who moves briskly with lips tightly pursed. During the day his face remains expressionless, neither breaking into smile of satisfaction nor frowning with disappointment at the results of his work. The cuffs of his white shirt are typically rolled up to the elbows. His pants ever so slightly snug, his collar button open, his bright tie loosened. Now and then he stops typing to scribble note on his scratch pad next to his keyboard. Interestingly about half of his scratches are work related and half are music notes. Even though he tries hard and has a remarkable amount of self-control, the music can drift in, unexpectedly. After work he changes into a short black leather coat, wrinkled olive-green chinos, and brown work boots.
Inside a local deli, saxophone case hanging from his shoulder, this young man stops for a quick snack before a late night session with his band mates. They play in an abandoned building in East Berlin. It’s likely this neighborhood will be vibrant and in a few years to come, but for now it’s a carcass of a former soviet structure and if you look closely enough you might even see a few bullet holes from WWII. Backed up by a piano, drums, an acoustic bass and a clarinet, young Berlin finishes the night by playing a solo. His performance is not bad, decent technique with a love for the process that allows his personality to show through and make the listener's experience more personal, more intense. And this is his life. Somehow he manages to ride the fine line between good citizen and darkish explorer of the night; he does it well and is happy doing it.