A New Study Suggests Something Unsettling About Our Capacity for Evil

A woman putting a pill in a glass of champagne behind her back

We're taught, from a young age, that hurting other people is bad. But what if you were ordered to hurt someone in the name of scientific research? 

You will likely do it. New research reveals that people who believe their actions are contributing to a greater good will do lots that they wouldn't normally do — even hurt someone else. And it doesn't take much to persuade people to believe their actions are part of a bigger plan (studies have shown that a nice white lab coat does the trick nicely).

The study, which was published in the Journal of Social Psychology, revisits the 1961 experiments of psychologist Stanley Milgram, who famously asked subjects to administer what they thought were painful electric shocks to unwitting volunteers. While Milgram concluded that anyone could be coerced into doing evil, the new study suggests that the volunteers may have administered the shocks because they thought their efforts were part of a greater good. 

The research: For one of the replicated studies, the psychologists wanted to find out how appearances influenced people's behavior to measure how what we see affects how we act. The researchers had people repeat what another person said via a microphone hidden in their ear. While the person telling the volunteer what to say sat in another room, an unknowing volunteer chatted with the person with the invisible mic. The volunteers didn't notice a difference; they thought they were simply talking to the normal person, sans hidden earpiece. The volunteers were blind to the other volunteers' changes in personality and speech. In other words, appearances reigned supreme.

In addition to repeating that experiment, the researchers took another look at the feedback from the people who volunteered to administer electric shocks as part of his 1961 study. To their surprise, the people who voluntarily hurt others were not in the least bit remorseful about their actions. Instead, most of the shock-administrators said they were happy to have participated in the experiment because they believed it was contributing to the advancement of science.

More importantly, the participants didn't think they'd done anything wrong. Just as the first experiment showed, appearances mattered above all: Milgram had done such a good job of convincing the people who took part in the study (even though the whole thing was a sham) that they were making vital contributions to science, they were totally okay with hurting others. His white lab coat and the furnishings of a basic lab setup were all it took to convince people that they were participating in an important science experiment.

Why it matters: The idea that anyone, anywhere, can be coerced into harming others, otherwise known as the "banality of evil" theory, has influenced nearly half a century of research into human nature. Philosopher Hannah Arendt originally used the phrase to describe Holocaust perpetrator Adolf Eichmann's seemingly mundane approach to the genocide. 

The new research could upend that model entirely. The knowledge that we don't merely do evil because someone tells us to, but rather because we believe it serves of a greater good, wouldn't justify atrocities. It would suggest that people aren't inherently bad, although it also suggests we should question how good our actions' ends really are.