What is the Psychology Behind Good and Evil Behavior?

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Everyday choices are made. These choices eventually become part of who we are and what we stand for. The question we then ask ourselves is what makes a choice good, and what makes it bad? How does one decide between the two? What draws a definite line between a good and bad choice? We all have choices to make but what is the psychology behind these good and bad choices? Through my research I have discovered what is considered good and evil actions, the three main factors behind making a choice, and how all decision is based primarily on two different beliefs.
Good and Evil Actions
Often time’s people discover throughout life that there are different kinds of conflicts. For example, when a person has to decide between to equally pleasing desserts this is called an approach-approach conflict. How then does someone decide to make a choice? Often times as human beings we incorporate into our agency of what others would think of our decision. We then decide on the consequences of our actions and whether or not society would treat the action as socially acceptable. If the choice seems to be met as “socially acceptable” it can then be determined that the choice is a “good” choice. J. David Velleman wrote a book based off the teachings of the Philosopher Richard Brandt entitled Brandt’s Definition of “Good”. In it he defined the scope of a good choice. “The patient draws on ‘the propositions justified by publicly accessible evidence… and the principles of logic; and he repeatedly and vividly, every item of such information that stands to exert a specific effect on his desires” (Velleman 1). The quote clearly states that people base their choices according to their desires and the effects of fulfilling that desire. A few questions one must ask are: will this choice fulfill my desires, and will the consequence of following through with the action, be socially acceptable? In society the choices considered to be good are simply those that society can accept. Then what exactly is evil? In the book The Social Psychology of Good and Evil by Arthur G. Miller, it states:
“In some instances, evil refers to particularly onerous or egregious acts, such as genocide, torture, terrorism, rape, or child abuse. In these contexts, social scientists appear to use the term evil in a way similar to that of the layperson. In other cases, the term is used not solely with respect to the horrific nature of the acts but more specifically in relation to the proclivity of ordinary or ‘good’ persons to engage in a wide variety of aggressive or criminal actions” (Miller 3).

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He also makes another valid point in the fact of where evil is focused. He mentions the example of war, and how the focus should not be on the subordinates who follow orders but rather on the instigators who issue the orders. Evil is a description of the action someone takes and not a description of the person making the action. Another valid point in understanding this is the “snowball” effect. In the snowball effect one small action of “evil” leads to a larger action of evil. An evil act is defined as those that neglect the right for others to rightfully live in peace. A person is only considered evil when the actions they take are consistently imposing on another’s right to live in peace.
The Three Main Factors
Along with making a decision on the facts given, people incorporate in different factors into their decision making process, half the time without even realizing it. One of the biggest factors brought forth is the factor of other people. Is it socially acceptable? Will it affect those I love? Is someone going to do something? These are all questions taken into account when decisions are made. The term socially acceptable refers to what people think it right or wrong. There was an experiment conducted to show why people base their choices off what a higher figure thinks. This is one explanation as to why good people can be led to do morally wrong actions such as killing a stranger. The experiment is called Milgram’s experiment.
Milgram recruited more than 1,000 participants from all walks of life to be a part of his studies. They would arrive individually in the lab and be told they were helping psychological science to find new ways to improve memory through punishment and thereby help in the education processes. Teacher, the role assigned to the participant, helps the Experimenter. The Experimenter wore a white lab coat to symbolize his status. The Teacher than connects the Learner, a lovable middle-aged man, to the electrical shock apparatus; the victim is in an adjacent room. On the first trials, learning is going well; the word associates are being recalled. But then the Learner starts making errors and punishment begins, first small, then ever escalating. As it does, the Learner begins complaining, then yelling and screaming. The Teacher is upset; the Teacher never imagined it would come to this. Turning to the Experimenter, Teacher dissents, indicating he or she does not want to continue. The plea to stop is cast aside as the Teacher is reminded of the contract agreed to previously. The Learner then yells that his heart is beginning to hurt as the answers he gives are wrong, and the shocks are received. The Teacher then asks the experimenter who will be responsible if something happens. The Experimenter would simply reply, “I will, now please continue, Teacher.” At 375 volts the Learner screams and a loud thud is heard. Silence is the only thing heard from the shock chamber thereafter. Teacher is now really distressed (the women often cry, the men wince), and feels the experiment should be terminated because the Learner has stopped responding. The Experimenter then reminds the Teacher of the rules. “Failure to respond is an error, and all errors must be punished immediately with the appropriate level of reaction, “says the Experimenter. The Teacher would then continue to the extreme of 450 volts to end the experiment. (Zimbardo 8).
In this experiment it is evidently seen that when the “Teacher” seemed to be uncomfortable with killing the individual they still kept with the experiment just because the experimenter or “authoritative figure” thought that there was nothing wrong with it. The action of continuing was clearly a morally wrong action. The results of the experiment showed that out of 1000 participants 90% continued to the lethal amount of electric shock while only 10% stopped before. Out of the 90%, 100% said they did it only because of the experimenter’s persuasive statements.
Responsibility of how you act is also another key factor. Responsibility explains why or why not people are willing to help others. Ervin Staub defined this in his book, The Root of Evil. He stated, “... a feeling of responsibility for other people’s welfare greatly increases the likelihood of helping during an accident or sudden illness. This is partly a matter of personality, but it also depends on circumstances…” (Staub 11). Ervin Staub has clearly studied and proven that when responsibility falls onto someone who feels like they should act a certain way, they will most likely act in the manner needed to act. A final major factor that needs to be brought forth is the power of bystanders. Is someone else going to do something? Studies have clearly shown that the lower number of bystanders there are in a room, there is a greater chance of action being taken. This even incorporates into the factor of responsibility. For example, a doctor in a room full of injured people is more likely to help than if there was a room full of doctors with only one injured person. Questions are constantly running through the brain before making a decision, but decisions often times are all the more opinion right?
Two Different Kinds of Beliefs
Opinion is a personal view, attitude, or appraisal (dictionary.com). While rational is defined as using reason or logic in thinking out a problem (thefreedictionary.com). Decisions today are made on a combination of both these terms. People base their decisions off the practical application of their opinions. Meaning, they weigh out their attitude toward different situations and then act on what makes sense. To understand this concept we must understand what exactly the difference is on the two concepts of acting on reason and acting with rationality. The scope of this is divided into two different beliefs: your true belief and your rational beliefs. The book Rationalizing Rationality explained this concept in the example of a person going on a walk: Perhaps they believed it was cold because they often watched The Weather Channel. They then know the weather forecast calls for chilly weather, and they also can observe this by looking outside, so it must be chilly. Then if the forecast predicts warm weather it is typically warm outside. However on this particular day, it is sunny and a warm breeze can be felt despite a forecast for cold weather. Donning a coat for the walk, then, would not be an irrational act. Putting on the coat before the person ventured outside would be based on a rational belief, but not a true belief. Herein lies the distinction (Seidl 5). The example clearly clarifies the difference between true belief and rational belief and explains how wearing a coat in warm weather, just because The Weather Channel says it will be cold, is an irrational action. They act on what they are told (rational belief) then what they perceive (true belief). Another good example is walking on a cross walk when it “supposedly” safe to walk. Your rational belief tells you it is safe to walk, but on the contrary people still truly believe that there may still be hazard involved. People throughout their entire life’s appear to act more irrationally (on rational beliefs) than on what they truly feel. This also explains why people may do what they do. People act differently because they were taught differently.
Research has discovered the human world and how people analyze, judge, and act accordingly. Psychologists and Doctors alike have concluded that people only have evil actions but should not be considered evil people. The psychology behind one person’s action is completely different from another person’s action simply because everyone is different. Yes it is true that the factors people face are all same but acting on the factors will show different results for every individual. We have all been taught differently. We have all been influenced differently. We are all different.






Works Cited

Miller, Arthur G. "The Social Psychology of Good and Evil." books.google.com. The Guilford Press. Web. A Division of Guilford Publications, Inc., 2004. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.
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Seidl, Stephanie . "Rationalizing Rationality." Macalester Journal of Philosophy. Manchester College. Web. Manchester College, 14 March 2011. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.
Staub, Ervin . "The Roots of Evil." books.google.com. Cambridge University Press. Web. Cambridge University Press, 1989. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.
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Velleman, J. D. "Brandt's Definition of "Good"." The Philosophical Review. Duke University Press. Web. Duke University Press, July 1988. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.
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Zimbardo, Phillip . "The Psychology of Evil." Distinguished Lectures/Special Topics. Stanford University. web document. Stanford University, 31 March 2000. Web. 15 Mar. 2012. <[DOC] from wcdsb.ca>.






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