One of the tests for evaluating a worldview has been called the Explanatory Power and Scope test, where one is interested in determining whether a particular worldview is able to explain what we see in the world around us.1 One area in particular that is required of a worldview is whether it can explain the behavior of human beings: why do we have the capacity to engage in great and noble ventures, but also to perform the most horrendous and degrading acts.
Philip G. Zimbardo, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University, has just written a book entitled The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (Random House, 2007), which summarizes his more than 30 years of research into the question of what causes good people to behave badly. Dr. Zimbardo became well known for his having conducted the now-classic 1971 “Stanford Prison Experiment.” As he describes it: “In that study, normal college students were randomly assigned to play the role of guard or inmate for two weeks in a simulated prison, yet the guards quickly became so brutal that the experiment had to be shut down after only six days.”
Q. You keep using this phrase "the situation" to describe the underlying cause of wrongdoing. What do you mean?
A. That human behavior is more influenced by things outside of us than inside. The "situation" is the external environment. The inner environment is genes, moral history, religious training. There are times when external circumstances can overwhelm us, and we do things we never thought. If you're not aware that this can happen, you can be seduced by evil. We need inoculations against our own potential for evil. We have to acknowledge it. Then we can change it.
Q. So you disagree with Anne Frank, who wrote in her diary, "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart?"
A. That's not true. Some people can be made into monsters. And the people who abused, and killed her, were.
In reflecting on Dr. Zimbardo’s research and comments, I am struck again by the "contradiction" we find in human nature, and how accurately this contradiction is described in the worldview portrayed in the Bible. The Scripture tells us we are made in the image of God, and yet have become people who are “desperately wicked.” God's word also provides a way of escape for the person caught in the “situations” in which we find ourselves.
1. See Kenneth Samples’ soon-to-be-released book, A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test, (Baker, 2007).