Politics Magazine

Violence Against Americans by Americans – Individual Action Is Only Part of the Story

Posted on the 30 January 2011 by Andy96

Individual actions result from the influences of many factors. This is referred to as “systemic causation.”

Some factors are genetic but many are external: parents, spouses, siblings, other relatives, friends, scout leaders, religious leaders, teachers, bosses, books, movies, radio, TV, web browsing, tweeting, email, etc.. The presence, or absence, of these external factors in the individual’s life can and do change the actions they may or may not take. There are even times when the external factors or extenuating circumstances can make normal and good people do ‘evil’ things. When this happens it is referred to as “The Lucifer Effect.”

The Lucifer Effect takes systemic causation into account to explain why good people do bad things.

It’s not that individuals are prone to perpetrate bad deeds entirely of their own volition. It’s that there may be a set of extenuating circumstances, including a physical environment that provides a framework which makes bad deeds seem beneficial and maybe even necessary. The extenuating circumstances are descriptive labels that dehumanize a chosen enemy, uniforms or other apparel, insignia that identify friend or foe, loose rules of order, and/or lack of direct and remote supervision, etc.. Extenuating circumstances are also the environment: a home, a business, a church, a prison, a mob, or anywhere people can be centralized and exposed to the other extenuating circumstances.

Dr. Phil Zimbardo’s research into The Lucifer Effect grew out of his Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971 and was exemplified a few years ago by what happened at Abu Ghraib.

In both situations, good people were placed under extenuating circumstances, including a centralized location. They then committed evil deeds under lax and loosely specified guidelines from their remote leaders. The kind of loose and lax guidelines that lead to “plausible deniability” for those higher up the ‘food chain.’ In other words, these good Americans were placed in what Dr. Zimbardo refers to as a “bad barrel.”

This bad barrel also isolated the good Americans from limiting factors that could have prevented their evil deeds. No one was there to check and balance the resulting abuse. It’s like meetings of public officials where no security clearances are required, but the media is not allowed to attend. If no one is ‘watching’ with a critical eye, then those in attendance are more inclined to do something wrong or speak inappropriately. People do and say things in their home that they would never do in public – because of the isolation from critical eyes.

Dr. Zimbardo’s research also showed that any learned or inherent factors for doing good, with which individuals had entered the bad barrel, did little to inhibit their bad deeds. In both the Stanford Prison Experiment and Abu Ghraib, there was little effort by those in the bad barrel to self-limit their bad deeds. The extenuating circumstances, or bad barrel, overpowered or shut down any natural tendency to resist doing evil. Any natural ability to feel empathy was inhibited. It’s like what George Lakoff says about the brain’s two political modes of thinking – one frame inhibits the other.

Both the Stanford Prison Experiment and Abu Ghraib were centralized and the good Americans were randomly selected from different subsets of Americans – college students and enlisted military. Additional extenuating circumstances were purposely applied while other limiting circumstances were purposely or accidentally excluded.

Now imagine a decentralized, but still somewhat isolated, set of circumstances that could also cause good Americans to harm other Americans. Replace the central prison, which is a collection of cells, with a nationally distributed collection of cells: churches, homes, and cars. Add to these nationally distributed ‘cells’ additional extenuating circumstances which, unlike the centralized bad barrel, are purposely selected by the cell’s inhabitants. These additional extenuating circumstances serve to further isolate the inhabitants, by their choice, and provide a lax and loosely defined set of guidelines for this ‘distributed bad barrel.’

Relative to this distributed bad barrel, I asked Dr. Zimbardo, “Do you suppose a distributed system is possible that, when combined with remote authority figures, could also engender the Lucifer Effect and cause good people to do bad things?” He replied (uppercase is his):



So, imagine further that the cells of this distributed bad barrel are occupied by a particular subset of good Americans – as opposed to the randomly selected participants in the centralized case. Imagine this subset is the one referenced throughout this blog and known collectively as right-wing authoritarian followers.

This subset of good Americans needs and seeks out a particular leadership and invites them into their homes and cars, and travels to their evangelical churches. Unlike centralized prisons with centralized and assigned leaders, these chosen leaders are also distributed across the nation; in our governments, in our media, in our churches, and in certain political parties. These leaders are referred to as authoritarian social dominators .

This distributed system is as susceptible to the The Lucifer Effect as the centralized system. Both can influence good Americans to do evil things. Because of The Lucifer Effect, this distributed system, with its isolated followers and chosen leaders, has likely played a part in the killing of Dr. Tiller, other fear and hate based killings around the country, and the attempted killing of Congresswoman Giffords.

An authoritarian Social Dominator and
His Message to His Followers

In spite of the denial from the leaders of the right, The Lucifer Effect exists and they may have created the first national distributed bad barrel for getting a small number of good Americans to do evil things. Research is needed to confirm this.

Violence Against Americans by Americans – Individual Action Is Only Part of the Story

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