Featured Stories

Why Do Good People Follow Evil Orders?

Brutal acts are often achieved because of compliant supporters and an unwillingness to stand up to immorality, argues Julia Shaw

Sarah Griffiths
Feb 21 · 4 min read
Credit: jcgwakefield/Getty Images

The idea that evil is subjective has fascinated Julia Shaw, PhD for years. In her new book, Making Evil, Shaw, an honorary research associate in the Department of Psychology at University College London, explores the science behind this sentiment. What makes “good” people follow “evil” orders, or simply do nothing while atrocities are committed?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Medium: There are countless examples of “good” people becoming “evil” accomplices, from children joining in the taunting of an outsider in the playground, to the horrors of the Holocaust, which was famously said to have involved “one million accomplices.” What makes people comply?

Julia Shaw: Following orders is the default human tendency, so if there’s someone in authority, or someone who has authority over you, then you are likely to follow their orders, unless you are in danger. That’s for a host of social reasons, not the least of which is that we are generally trusting of our fellow humans and if we’ve placed them in a position of responsibility — a political office, for example — then we trust the decisions they are making are not going to break social norms or moral values.

It’s also a lot of work to stand up against authority and think for ourselves in a situation when we feel we don’t have to, so we quite readily outsource immorality as our brains are effectively a bit lazy and are constantly trying to conserve resources.

What does it take to avoid becoming an accomplice?

There are three things you can do. The first is to learn about things and prepare yourself when times are good for when times are bad. We should be thinking about what our morality is and how we would behave in the face of atrocity or difficult moral situations, in case they occur. It’s quite a fun activity and you can only win from trying to understand your own morality better.

The second thing you can do is “foster heroic imagination,” which is an idea of psychological scientist Philip Zimbardo. So you can picture yourself swimming against the tide of “evil” and going out of your way to do good things for other people — playing the hero.

The third thing is to make sure that when you are in a situation requiring morally challenging decisions, that you deliberately fight the urge to give in and go with the flow. In other words, you resist compliance and you make an active call, whether you comply with orders or you’re going to do something other than passively accepting them. This means you’re activating higher order thinking and fighting neuro laziness. If you don’t, you may live to regret it and others may just not live at all. That’s the really dark side of compliance.

Does the internet make us lazier and more likely to be complicit?

Certainly. Internet trolling is a good example and this behavior goes far beyond echo chambers. People have always surrounded themselves with people who think the same way as they do, but what’s new is the size of the tribes online, which can spread problematic views. So if you have a very deviant view that’s racist, xenophobic, or extremely right wing, you are almost guaranteed to be able to find someone online who shares that view, which can amplify it. Deviant views become more justified online and it’s more likely people will express those hateful opinions if others are doing so as well. This, in turn, makes it more likely that some people will silently accept their presence, with the difficult alternative being standing up publicly against a group.

How has the internet amplified hate speech?

You can be more unfiltered online when you’re communicating with people who think like you, you might actually let even more deviant ideas shine than if you met them in person. It’s possible that the internet makes it more likely for people to find each other and to realize they have the same horrible views. There’s no need to meet someone in person for social influence to take place and for real harm to happen in the real world.

Infamous murderers and dictators are often said to be “inhuman” because of the harm they inflicted. Do “evil” individuals start as average people?

People have often called politicians “evil,” which is a catastrophic argument, because it elevates them beyond the realm of humans, which almost deifies them in a weird way and shuts down meaningful conversation. So if we really think someone is doing terrible things, or has the capacity to do them, to call them evil is to shut down the conversation, and is the worst thing we can do.

Average people could become like Adolf Eichmann — one of the organizers of the Final Solution who famously argued that he was “just following orders” when he sent Jews to their deaths — but it is unlikely. We think of those who murder others, or help in the murder of others, as nonhuman and that’s simply not the case. In fact, the people who end up being capable of doing great harm are much, much more like you and I than you might think. That’s a large premise of the book.

We all have the fundamental tendencies in us to create harm, but it’s how those manifest in our daily behavior and how we control them that’s an individual thing. Unlike in films, there’s no such thing as good versus evil in real human beings — and it’s important to remember that we’re not less than human or more than human either — that thinking can lead to harmful cults.

What have you learned from writing ‘Making Evil’?

I think the word “evil” is lazy, and dehumanizing. I started writing knowing I had a problem with the concept of evil and calling people monsters. Now, I feel entirely confident that we have so much in common and that all of us could be this thing called evil. It’s a positive thing for ourselves and humanity that everyone has a dark side, as it can make us empathize with people such as criminals, whom we often write off and dehumanize.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade