are countless examples of "good" people becoming "evil"
accomplices, from children joining in the taunting of an
outsider in the playground, to the horrors of the Holocaust,
which was famously said to have involved "one million
accomplices." What makes people comply?
Julia Shaw: Following orders is the default human tendency, so
if there's someone in authority, or someone who has authority
over you, then you are likely to follow their orders, unless you
are in danger.
That's for a host of social reasons, not the
least of which is that we are generally trusting of our fellow
humans and if we've placed them in a position of responsibility
- a political office, for example - then we trust the decisions
they are making are not going to break social norms or moral
It's also a lot of work to stand up against authority and think
for ourselves in a situation when we feel we don't have to, so
we quite readily outsource immorality as our brains are
effectively a bit lazy and are constantly trying to conserve
What does it take to avoid becoming an accomplice?
There are three things you can do.
The first is to learn about
things and prepare yourself when times are good for when times
are bad. We should be thinking about what our morality is and
how we would behave in the face of atrocity or difficult moral
situations, in case they occur. It's quite a fun activity and
you can only win from trying to understand your own morality
The second thing you can do is "foster heroic imagination,"
which is an idea of psychological scientist Philip Zimbardo. So
you can picture yourself swimming against the tide of "evil" and
going out of your way to do good things for other people -
playing the hero.
The third thing is to make sure that when you are in a situation
requiring morally challenging decisions, that you deliberately
fight the urge to give in and go with the flow. In other words,
you resist compliance and you make an active call, whether you
comply with orders or you're going to do something other than
passively accepting them.
This means you're activating higher
order thinking and fighting neuro laziness. If you don't, you
may live to regret it and others may just not live at all.
That's the really dark side of compliance.
the Internet make us lazier and more likely to be
Internet trolling is a good example and this behavior
goes far beyond echo chambers.
People have always surrounded
themselves with people who think the same way as they do, but
what's new is the size of the tribes online, which can spread
So if you have a very deviant view that's
racist, xenophobic, or extremely right wing, you are almost
guaranteed to be able to find someone online who shares that
view, which can amplify it.
Deviant views become more justified
online and it's more likely people will express those hateful
opinions if others are doing so as well.
This, in turn, makes it
more likely that some people will silently accept their
presence, with the difficult alternative being standing up
publicly against a group.
How has the Internet amplified hate speech?
You can be more unfiltered online when you're communicating with
people who think like you, you might actually let even more
deviant ideas shine than if you met them in person.
It's possible that the
Internet makes it more likely for people to
find each other and to realize they have the same horrible
There's no need to meet someone in person for social
influence to take place and for real harm to happen in the real
Infamous murderers and dictators are often said to be "inhuman"
because of the harm they inflicted. Do "evil" individuals start
as average people?
People have often called politicians "evil," which is a
catastrophic argument, because it elevates them beyond the realm
of humans, which almost deifies them in a weird way and shuts
down meaningful conversation.
So if we really think someone is
doing terrible things, or has the capacity to do them, to call
them evil is to shut down the conversation, and is the worst
thing we can do.
Average people could become like
Adolf Eichmann - one of the
organizers of the Final Solution who famously argued that he was
"just following orders" when he sent Jews to their deaths - but
it is unlikely.
We think of those who murder others, or help in
the murder of others, as nonhuman and that's simply not the
In fact, the people who end up being capable of doing
great harm are much, much more like you and I than you might
think. That's a large premise of the book.
We all have the fundamental tendencies in us to create harm, but
it's how those manifest in our daily behavior and how we control
them that's an individual thing.
Unlike in films, there's no
such thing as good versus evil in real human beings - and it's
important to remember that we're not less than human or more
than human either - that thinking can lead to harmful cults.
What have you learned from writing
I think the word "evil" is lazy, and dehumanizing.
writing knowing I had a problem with
the concept of evil and
calling people monsters. Now, I feel entirely confident that we
have so much in common and that all of us could be this thing
It's a positive thing for ourselves and humanity
that everyone has a dark side, as it can make us empathize with
people such as criminals, whom we often write off and