How Crowd Psychology Creates Evil

Observing Adolf Eichmann’s trial, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “banality of evil” to express the conclusion that men like him are not monsters but ordinary folk who fail to think for themselves. They have little guilt or shame because their sense of self-worth comes from peers who do not judge them for their crimes. On the contrary, failing to act immorally is what would have prompted social rejection. Thus moral principles are bent to serve identity rather than the other way around. In court Eichmann spoke of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, seeing it as an argument for absolute obedience rather than a variant of the “golden rule”, and while Kant imagined us defining our own absolutes, Eichmann handed that authority to Hitler. Others have also done great harm in the name of Christianity, which preaches love, or Communism, which seeks utopia, so even when we cling to the works of moral giants such as Kant or Jesus, we often tailor our morality to fit our personality.

Hoping to understand how someone might come to do this, Stanley Milgram conducted his famous experiment in 1963 in which confederates instructed “teachers” to administer increasingly painful shocks to a person in another room. In his first trial, 65 percent of the “teachers” administered the final 450-volt shock, presumably injuring or killing the other person. This is not to say we each have the potential to behave so, but society has the potential to create people who do. We are prone to submit to authority figures recognized by our peers e.g. experimenters in lab coats or political leaders. Everyday peer pressure and widespread scapegoating strengthen the group but make our individual vulnerabilities to mob rule commonplace. This is why evil is banal.

When we fail to think for ourselves we distance ourselves from our own identities and shift into the pre-established identity of the group. Because we then act as group members rather than individuals, we are not as easily regulated by individual feelings of guilt or shame. This process, known as deindividuation, was famously studied by psychologist Philip Zimbardo in 1971. His Stanford prison experiment proved how easily people relinquish personal responsibility and shift into assigned roles, whether prisoner or guard, echoing the Nuremberg defense: “Befehl ist Befehl”. Orders are orders. As a result, one of the Nuremberg principles for determining what qualifies as a war crime is that superior orders do not absolve us of our duty to uphold international law. Whether group identity calls on us to persecute Jews or tear down scientists for wearing sexist shirts, the principles of our group, no matter how justified we think they are, do not absolve us of our duty to think for ourselves.

David Volodzko is a former university lecturer and a writer for The Diplomat.

This is an excerpt from The Banality of Ferguson, which looked at some of the psychological and social factors at play in the Ferguson unrest of