October 08, 2008

Characterological Predispositions & Conscience

Angels and Devils by M.C. Escher

"The line between good and evil is movable and permeable. Good people can be seduced through that line. Good and evil are the yin and yang of the world.

"Evil is the exercise of power to intentionally harm people psychologically, destroy them physically, and commit crimes against humanity." ~Philip Zimbardo

"So instead of asking who is responsible, Zimbardo asks what is responsible. Psychologists generally understand the transformation of human character as dispositional (inside the individual) or situational (external), but Zimbardo argues that it can also be systemic, and that's what happened at Abu Ghraib." ~excerpted from "How Ordinary People Become Monsters or Heroes" by Philip Zimbardo

Ordinary people? Or pathological?
Does the situation create the monster? Or does the situation unveil the monstrous?
Social psychology is another key unlocking the mystery of human behavior. Learning how humans react to particular situations offers clarity into why people do the things they do. This includes the victim’s response to an abusive relationship. But if we’re describing evil, radical evil, evil such as the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, there is far more to consider than The Situation.

Genetics. Neurobiology. Character.

By diminishing the characterological component, we diffuse responsibility for individual choice and action. I’m sure any narcissist worth his or her diagnosis would be delighted for people to assume sane, moral and reasonable people would make similar choices, were they to be in similar situations. The assumption that human beings teeter on the cusp of intentional and malicious evil infers by default that the malicious are no different than anyone else.

Well, that’s a bald-faced lie. I don’t believe it for an instant.

It compares to excusing the narcissist’s misdeeds because s/he has a mental disorder and just can’t help themselves if someone offers a chance to abuse. But this time, instead of blaming-the-victim as culpable to their abuse, social psychology shifts towards blaming-the-situation.

In the video linked at the first of this post, Zimbardo describes the slippery slide towards evil, greased by seven social processes. By considering each of the steps Zimbardo has listed, we may be able to protect ourselves from ourselves. We can also use this list to protect ourselves from those who dehumanize others (step 2)---independent of the situation.

1-mindlessly taking the first small step
2-dehumanization of others
3-de-individualization of self (anonymity)
4-diffusion of personal responsibility
5-blind obedience to authority
6-uncritical conformity to group norms
7-passive tolerance of evil through inaction or indifference

Zimbardo attempts to warn people that each of us has the capacity to do things we’d never predict we were capable of doing. Most of us can reflect on a situation in which we behaved in ways that made us feel bad about ourselves, including passive inaction when we could have, should have, and probably would have spoken up had we not presumed someone else would assume responsibility. Life has lessons to teach and if we aren’t willing to stand up for others, we cannot expect others to stand up for us.

But what kind of ‘evil’ is Zimbardo describing? It's relevant to suggest that evil is a matter of degree. For the purpose of this essay, evil is on a continuum defined by malignancy of intention: internalized hatred fueling externalized aggression. This is what we’ve seen in Botero’s paintings when American soldiers went beyond typical and normal torture (as if there is such a thing as ‘normal’ torture) and applauded their sadistic power over vulnerable prisoners. The prison guards were smiling. Whether academics argue over the true meaning of a smile or not, I think it’s fair to say the perpetrators derived personal satisfaction from their brutal power.

Suggesting anyone would behave likewise defies reason. Why? Because we don’t. To admit we are influenced by the situation is true. To act outside ourselves because of the situation is true. That everyone has the capacity for ‘evil’ behavior is true though we also have the capacity to resist situational forces. That we are sometimes passive agents despite internal resistance is also true. “Why didn’t I speak up earlier?” our conscience demands afterwards. But why did the situation at Abu Ghraib escalate to a surrealistic reality, making it even more complex for conscientious people to take action when what they witnessed was dissonant with expectations?

Comparing the Stanford Prison Experience to Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo says, “Power without oversight is a prescription for abuse.”

Is it? Perhaps it’s more accurate to say, “Power without oversight of conscience is a prescription for abuse.”

Those of us on the receiving end of projected malice experienced a horrifying moment of awareness when ordinary evil escalated to extraordinary predation. Did the situation foster abuse because there were no witnesses? Or did the situation escalate beyond comprehension because the narcissist lacked conscience and enjoyed the perpetration of evil?

For most people, moral self-inquiry does not hinge on external authorities defining right from wrong--even when behavior is secreted from public scrutiny. But without an internal lord of ethical restraint, pathological aggression is limited only by consequences. Aggressors intent on proving their status, staunchly dare others to restrict their intention to harm, even kill, unfortunate victims (objects) of their hatred. In this vein of reasoning, external authorities may be the only means for countering pathological aggression. Someone must set the limits for them, because they will not limit themselves.

Contrary to what most of us experience in the presence of human suffering, current research on pathological narcissism suggests malignant aggression increases in the presence of vulnerability. A fragile victim does not trigger compassion, nor does vulnerability engage the screeching brakes of moral conscience. This is a reversal of what we assume to be humankind’s natural response to suffering.

Without conscience as an overseer however, vulnerability actively flames pathological hostility. There is no mistaking the limitless hatred fueling pathological aggression. But limiting aggression means limiting sadistic pleasure, which is why narcissists perceive vulnerability to be an opportunity. When people cannot defend themselves or are reduced to begging for mercy, the narcissist’s sadistic impulses flourish. If they can get away with subjugating others, they will. If sadistic behavior is encouraged by authority figures (absolved of responsibility themselves), we’ll witness what we’ve witnessed in the situation at Abu Ghraib: malicious torment, degradation, dehumanization, humiliation, all portrayed in photographic images of human trophies bearing measure of the tormenter’s use of power to brutalize others.

To accuse all human beings of a similar capacity for evil is a universal condemnation of human conscience. It’s an inaccurate assumption because it misses an integral component defining those who admire evil and the doing of it: those with characterological predispositions and an underdeveloped or even non-existent conscience.



Narcissistic Continuum. Fernando Botero's Abu Ghraib


  1. Great post, and that gets me thinking a lot. I've been in some extra out of the ordinary situations that have made me behave in ways I regret, but never to the extent somebody with NPD would do. I can't help believe that to act in evil ways requires a defect in a persons conscience after all I've been through and seen. Of all the bad things I've done, I've always exercised restraint and even fought against, and definately feeling regret when I failed. Comparing normal human behavior to to these disordered folk seems like a big mistake to me. I was with my ex-partner for so log and in the same situation and I always strove for something positive.

    Does the situation create the monster? Or does the situation unveil the monstrous? This question is extra perplexing to me because it often seemed as though my ex purposefully created and constructed situations that would bring about the monster.

  2. I suppose an unveiling of the monstrous is something many of us experience at some point in our lives. How do we react when our carefully crafted ‘self’ falls apart? What we see in ourselves may be hard to believe, even harder to accept.

    Did the other person intentionally break down our defenses so we would act outside normal boundaries of self? Maybe. Narcissists pit people against themselves to uncover hypocrisies they are sure are there. If they can get a good person to betray their core values and beliefs, then narcissists no longer feel inferior to us for being ‘good'.

    We, on the other hand, take no delight in finding out we’re not quite as good as we believed ourselves to be. Ha! If we reject the terrible news, we’ll project our shame and guilt on the narcissist and voila, the Dance Macabre begins.

    To pretend we are incapable of cruelty would be denial. Denial about our potential to harm others means we need never question our justifications or perceptions. We’d pretend we were always good/right and therefore, anything we did was justifiable. But to suggest that the horrors we have witnessed other people do is also a part of ourselves, denies the power of human conscience.

    It makes me uncomfortable splitting people into categories like “us’ versus “them” since it’s a fast track to dehumanizing others and projecting our disowned traits onto handy scapegoats. But it’s also a mistake to believe there is no difference between those who limit aggressive instincts and those who don’t.

    Maybe none of us is absolutely certain about what we’re capable of doing (or not doing) until we’re confronted with ‘the situation’. Most people don’t know themselves well enough to predict their own behavior…until we’re forced to make choices revealing our true character. Choices we make under ‘duress’, because the narcissistic relationship erupts in crisis at some point. During this inevitable and painful crisis, we come to know ourselves intimately by the choices we make.

    This is why I’ve been bold enough to say that despite ‘the situation’, there are limits beyond which I would never trespass. My assumption is that other people who’ve been through similar life experiences would say the same thing about themselves.


  3. Does the situation create the monster? Or does the situation unveil the monstrous?

    What an great puzzle.

    Well, after writing abut it for about an hour now I decided that "reveal" is the answer.


  4. This is a marvelous post and I agree with everything you write. The penultimate paragraph is brilliant.
    I agree that saying that anyone would become sadistic in the right situation is just flat out wrong. I don't believe it for a second either. People want to be able to nail down exactly why and how people become malicious. But they don't leave room for the unquantifiable, the genetic, the spiritual, the individual choices people make. Some people will go only so far and then draw lines for themselves. Some people won't even start down a road of evil. Universalizing it as a situational factor gives malicious sadists a free pass. Great post. love CS


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