Why do some people perform acts of evil? A standard answer is that there exists a subset of people that are just evil by nature. Having an evil nature could be the result of bad genes or a series of bad life experiences and decisions that led to the person having a morally defective character. There are just some bad apples out there that are rotten to the core. Many social psychologists argue that this picture of human psychology is wrong. Instead of thinking of people in terms of good and bad apples, psychologist Philip Zimbardo (2004) argues that people should be thought of as cucumbers. While cucumbers may have different qualities (e.g. genes, shape, size, color), they are all capable of being turned into sour pickles. But cucumbers will not just become pickles on their own. They need to be stored in vinegar for some time. To understand why some people perform acts of evil, we have to look at all of their exposures to vinegar. To extend Zimbardo’s metaphor in the other direction, in order to understand why some people perform acts of good, we have to look at all of their exposures to sugar. If the cucumber metaphor is right, we might not have free will. (At least not as much as we think we do.) In this post, I will argue that while I think cucumbers are a much better metaphor than apples, it would be a mistake to think that the metaphor captures everything about human behavior or that it poses a significant threat to free will.
Both psychologists and philosophers make a distinction between internal and external causes of behavior (see chart below). Examples of internal causes would be character traits, psychological states (e.g. addiction, strong desires), genetics, the brain (e.g. reflexes, automatic processes), and free will. Examples of external causes would be environmental factors (e.g. lead), third party sources (e.g. bribery, coercion and brainwashing), socioeconomic conditions, and
Social psychologists believe that role of situational factors are often underestimated in our explanations of human behavior. Some go as far as suggesting that situational factors are the sole drivers of our behavior, and others who argue that our moral character are weak drivers of behavior, easily overpowered by factors beyond our control (Doris 2002). There are even those who suggest that moral character traits (e.g. benevolence, malevolence) may not exist (Harman 1999). I will now give a brief summary of the social psychology literature on situational factors (c.f. Doris 2002, Zimbardo, 2004; 2007, and SEP for thorough reviews).
It has been found that psychologically normal people are significantly less likely to engage in helping behaviors if they are in a hurry, surrounded by others (look up "the bystander effect"), or subjected to loud noises (e.g. a lawnmower). People are significantly more likely to engage in harming behaviors if they are a position of authority (look up "The Stanford prison experiment"), given orders by a person of authority (look up "The Milgram experiment"), or if their identity is concealed in some way (e.g. wearing a mask, cyberbullying). On the flipside, people are more likely to engage in helping behaviors if they themselves had been helped or rewarded beforehand (e.g. finding a coin in a phone booth).
Zimbardo and others suggest that situational factors can explain the occurrence of events such as the Holocaust, 9/11, and the Rwandan genocide. The idea is that many of the perpetrators of such atrocities were mostly psychologically normal people like you or I. The reason why they engaged in such acts is because of various situational factors that you or I were not subjected to. If we had been subjected to the same situational factors, then we would have participated in such atrocities.
If the social psychologists are largely right about these matters, then both free will and moral responsibility are posed with a genuine threat. If it's situational factors that are determining most of our behavior, and we are not responsible for being subjected to such factors, then we cannot be responsible for most of our behavior.
In a previous post, I discussed how brain scan studies were misinterpreted to provide grounds for casting doubt upon the existence of free will. I think that the situationist challenge to free will makes the very same mistake as the neuroscientific one. In order for the challenge to be devastating, you would have to assume that the findings in these psychological studies generalize to all of human behavior and to all humans. I see no reason to think that they generalize in this way. The findings are consistent with other, I think, more likely possibilities. For instance, it may be that we a majority of people are moral sheep, but that some of us are not really affected by situational factors. Another possibility is that situational factors really do affect us all in the ways social psychologists say they do, but that we are not subjected to them on a regular basis. The idea is that our conscious will regularly drives our behavior but that in certain situations, our agency diminishes. I think that social psychologists have identified a possible threat to free will, but that there is, at the moment, insufficient evidence to say that it is a genuine threat.
Doris, J. M. (2002). Lack of character: Personality and moral behavior. Cambridge University Press.
Harman, G. (1999, January). Moral philosophy meets social psychology: Virtue ethics and the fundamental attribution error. In Proceedings of the Aristotelian society (pp. 315-331). Aristotelian Society.
Zimbardo, P. G. (2004). A situationist perspective on the psychology of evil: Understanding how good people are transformed into perpetrators. The social psychology of good and evil.
Zimbardo, P. G. (2007). Lucifer Effect. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
*This post is part of a series on free will.