Bad Apples, Bad Barrels and Bad Barrel-Makers
“The line between good and evil lies at the center of every human heart. It is not an abstraction out there. It’s a decision you have to make every day inside.” — Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Russian poet imprisoned under Stalin
“You can’t be a sweet cucumber in a vinegar barrel.” — Phil Zimbardo, social psychologist
After his iconic, and controversial, Stanford Prison Experiment, Phil Zimbardo spent a career trying to understand the nature of evil, and particularly the influences on individuals to perform evil acts. He resisted the individualistic notion that evil was perpetrated solely by inherently bad people and strove to answer the age-old question of why “good people” do “bad things.” He concluded with a three-part schema of influences that spanned from the micro to the macro — from the individual to the larger institutions in society. He referred to these causes of evil as “bad apples, bad barrels and bad barrel-makers.”
This is the straight-forward, linear cause-and-effect logic we’re used to. A bad person does bad things. And there’s certainly some truth to it. One does not have to ponder long before examples aplenty come to mind to prove its efficacy. Adolf Hitler. Charles Manson. Ted Bundy. But rarely are people — bad people — so one dimensional or extreme. As Zimbardo says,
We imagine a line between good and evil, and we like to believe that it’s impermeable. We are good on this side. The bad guys, the bad women, they are on that side, and the bad people never will become good, and the good never will become bad. I’ll say today that’s nonsense. Because that line is … permeable. Because sometimes, just like human cells, material flows in and out. And if it does, then it could allow some ordinary people like you to become perpetrators of evil (Wargo, 2006).
Think about it for a moment. Are you a bad person? I’m guessing most people reading this would answer that “No.” But have you ever done anything “bad?” This time, I’m guessing that most would answer that one “Yes.” What is the nature of the disconnect? What happened to make “good” you do a “bad” thing? I’m sure there are reasons, and some of them valid ones —…