The social psychologist and co-author of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) explains how most people can be Pinochet or Guzmán and how ordinary people can justify doing evil.
This marvelous documentary makes viewers wonder about the psychology of cruelty and complacency. How could Pinochet sleep at night? How could his supporters have blinded themselves to evidence of his despotism? Why, even after his crimes had been amply documented, would thousands of Chileans refuse to believe a bad word about him?
The answers do not lie in simplistic explanations of good or evil. After all, here in the United States most Americans have not been protesting in the streets about our own government’s endorsement of torture and its flagrant violations of the Geneva Convention. The research in my field of social psychology offers a lesson that many find hard to accept: that “evil” is not something perpetrated by a few bad people. Evil acts are far more commonly perpetrated by good people who justify the evil they do in order to preserve their belief that they are good people. This documentary shows that there but for the grace of our circumstances and decisions most of us, too, could be Pinochet — and we could be Guzmán.
Imagine that you and your closest friend are at the top of a pyramid, sharing values, politics, beliefs. You see yourselves as good, kind, ethical people. Now something happens that requires you to take a stand or make a decision: Do you agree or disagree with George Bush’s claim that the war on terror requires some suspension of civil liberties? Accept or protest our military’s use of interrogation methods that the entire world, ourselves formerly included, regards as torture? Help a Muslim friend who is suddenly “detained” and held without bail and deprived of a lawyer or butt out, figuring that our security forces would never arrest an innocent person? You and your friend answer these questions differently — perhaps after a lot of soul-searching, but perhaps impulsively, even mindlessly. Hey, you’re busy; you have your own problems; the government knows what it’s doing. As soon as you take a step in one direction rather than the other, however, a hardwired mechanism in your brain sees to it that you will justify your choice as being the wisest, best one — because, after all, you see yourself as a smart, good person. If your decision causes harm to another person, that person must have deserved it — hey, he started it! Plus I hate his politics! And because, after all, you see yourself as a kind person who would never harm anyone without good reason. Pinochet himself describes the mechanism of self-justification perfectly, describing why he sleeps soundly without a moment’s remorse: “One always sees oneself as an angel.”
Once you have made a choice, your brain will now start blinding you to evidence that you might have been wrong. Soon, the decision that each of you made will start taking you farther down one path than the other, until you and your (former) friend are each standing at the base of the pyramid — miles apart.
We can see this process of decision, justification and entrapment in the actions of the general, the judge and the divided Chilean population. The people who blinded themselves to Pinochet’s cruelties may have done so initially because they supported him, valued national security over messy democracy and opposed Communism; later, because they feared for their own safety. Yet after years of self-justification, changing their opinion of Pinochet would have required them to admit that they had been wrong, that they had collaborated in perpetuating their government’s crimes — a realization that is devastating to accept. You can see what it took for Guzmán to realize how wrong he had been: repeated exposure to horrific evidence that not only could not be disputed or wished away, but that also forced him to confront his own self-concept of being a fair and incorruptible judge. That is why the Guzmáns of the world are so necessary — and so rare.
Carol Tavris, Ph.D., is a social psychologist, writer and lecturer. Her latest book, co-authored with the eminent social psychologist Elliot Aronson, is Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts (Harcourt).