The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneMay 2008: Comfort Zone ONLINE
What HSPs Need to Know About Why Good People Turn Evil


Sometimes I have compared HSPs to those who in the past were the priestly advisors to the warrior kings. These thinkers consulted with the doers, and taught, healed, kept the histories, reported on their observations of nature, expressed the group's emotions through art, and interpreted the law. We are still needed in these sorts of roles, but to be truly wise, we must understand evil--the potential for it in others, of course, but also in ourselves. We must overcome any notions that we, sensitive souls that we are, could never do anything intentionally cruel to others. This is true wisdom.

Reading Phil Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect: Understanding Why Good People Turn Evil (Random House, 2007) has stirred me to write about this, and you may want to read it, too. Phil Zimbardo is a social psychologist at Stanford University, a past president of the American Psychological Association, an author of many books and articles, and also a friend of mine. I particularly admire this book of his and I think it will have a lasting good effect on the world. (It has already sold 40,000 copies, not bad for a non-fiction, non-self-help book.)

The Stanford Prison Study and Abu Ghraib

Zimbardo wrote his book partly because of his own "Stanford prison study" back in 1971. Its purpose was to create a mock prison in the basement of the psychology building in order to learn more about why prisons are such violent places. But in the end, the prison mocked them, in that this study devised by humane persons for humanitarian reasons became almost as inhumane as any prison. I will describe it more momentarily.

Because of his research, Zimbardo was asked to testify on behalf of one of the U.S. soldiers found torturing Iraqis in Abu Ghraib (ironically, the same prison where Saddam Hussein also tortured Iraqis). These soldiers were called "a few bad apples" by those who created the conditions that would in fact have turned almost any young man into a torturer, as Zimbardo knew all too well. This particular soldier was especially "normal," including in his need for approval and his eagerness to follow directions. While Zimbardo never excuses the soldier, or any of us, for doing something very wrong, he does describe why we do wrong so surprisingly often.

Evil People or Evil Situations?

If we define evil as one person intentionally hurting other, with no concern for them at all, then why would anyone do that? The usual answer is that there is something mentally wrong with torturers, due to their own history of abuse or perhaps their genetics. But actually, most evil, past and present, has been done by ordinary people in extraordinary situations.

In fact, evil is usually done because of the shadow side of best human virtues. We are innately highly cooperative and altruistic. We are eager to join in any effort to support and protect those dear to us. We are willing to cooperate by doing what we are asked or told to do by leaders we trust. We do not want to be bad group members or excluded from a group as non-cooperative, unsupportive, cowardly, and the like. So our evil is not necessarily due to some walled-off part of ourselves, but our best part going bad due to the situation.

History and Evil

Looking back over the times when good people have willingly hurt others, Zimbardo saw that it most often occurs when people are part of or made to feel part of a system that asks to them to carry out orders from "higher-up." The system could be political, military, corporate, religious, a family, or any other human organization. It could "be for the good of" science, medicine, or even the environment. The problem arises when the system has goals that are to be accomplished at whatever cost to individuals.

Certainly there are times when it is right to accept an individual's sacrifice in order to prevent the loss of even more lives. But in the evil-promoting systems that Zimbardo describes, the people at the top are deciding to sacrifice lives, not those carrying out the orders and seeing the effects. In fact, usually these "people in the trenches" resist. So those who make the evil decision have to create situations, probably more intuitively from long human experience rather than intentionally, that cause others to cooperate with the system's inhumane goals. One way to do that of course is to have a military trained to carry out any order, but there are other ways as well.

Historical examples of inhumane systems that gained the cooperation of ordinary soldiers or civilians include the Romans; the leaders of the Inquisition; the Nazis; the Japanese in Nanking, China; and of course the U.S. military on numerous occasions, from Wounded Knee to Mai Lai. There are the examples of Rwanda, where friends killed friends, and Jonestown, where parents killed their own children.

Hitler comes to most people's minds because Germany was European and highly civilized, yet succumbed to Hitler's pressure to eradicate the Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, and any one else deemed impure. Zimbardo explains that in March of 1942 about 80% of the eventual victims of the Holocaust were still alive, but 11 months later 80% were dead, due to murder squads that went out to Polish villages or deported people to the death camps. It required enormous man power to do this job.

Most of this killing was done by one reserve battalion of 500 men--elderly family men who were raw recruits with no military police experience. They were told that the battalion had no choice but to carry out this order, but individuals could refuse, and at first half of them--of our fellow humans--did resist. Good for us. But by the end, 90% were obeying. Not such good news about us all. They were seeing others do it, they worried about how the others saw them, and those others were making them feel guilty for refusing. There we go again. There are even photos of these nice family men posing proudly beside the bodies of their victims, just as we saw from Abu Ghraib.

We could list many more situations in which seemingly ordinary, generally nice people have done evil, such as owning slaves and all that went with that. This sort of evil is very close to home, in many prisons and wards of the mentally ill, in work places where people are abused by their employers, and even on the local school yard, among unsupervised children. Still, we wonder if it is that easy, that common, to get you and I to obey evil orders.

Experiments that Pinpoint the Process

The best evidence that anyone could be rather easily made to do evil under the "right" conditions comes from experiments using ordinary people as subjects. One of the first was the famous study by Stanley Milgram, repeated many times in various ways, which found that 65% of very typical people will give electric shocks to someone in another room if they are told to do so by an experimenter in a lab coat, and they will increase these shocks to what they are informed are lethal levels if told they must do so. ("Experts" on human psychology at the time predicted only 1% would obey.) The subjects will continue, even when the person they are shocking is screaming in agony, and then stops responding.

The other outstanding experiment is of course Zimbardo's own Stanford Prison Study. Was it an accident that things went as they did? He had tested his student subjects ahead of time to be sure they were all normal. He paid them to be in the experiment so it was not because they looked forward to playing at being bad guys. They were randomly chosen to take on the roles of prisoners or guards. But then they were swept into evil.

To make things seem real, Zimbardo had the "prisoners" arrested by real police, stocking caps placed on their heads to mimic a shaved head, given prison uniforms, and assigned numbers that were to be their only identification. They were "deloused" with a harmless spray and locked up in cells. The "guards" were given fancy guard uniforms, reflective glasses to hide most of their faces, rules to enforce, encouragement to make life as difficult for the prisoners as it would be in a real prison, and that was about it.

Soon the guards were being creatively abusive, night and day, in ways that went far beyond their instructions, such as leaving "prisoners" in solitary confinement for long periods and sadistically manipulating them psychologically with lies and shaming. The prisoners quickly became passive and demoralized. The odd part was that if any of them had insisted, they could have left. They all knew it was an experiment.

The parents also obeyed the authorities in charge. They visited their prisoner-sons, saw how distressed they were, and could have taken them home, but they did not. Or their guard-sons came home and described what they were doing, but they were not questioned.

The intended two-week study had to be stopped after only five days because of the brutality of the guards and the mental deterioration of the prisoners, especially given that two had to be removed early due to severe mental breakdowns. What distressed Zimbardo more than any of this was that he himself did not stop the seriously deteriorating situation. He realized later that his dual role as experimenter and "prison superintendent" kept him from being objective. He had become completely involved in his prison role. It required an outsider to point out to him what he was doing and insist that he stop the experiment. (That outsider is now his wife, so I guess the partnership has worked well.)

Some Ingredients for an Evil-Creating Situation

Zimbardo has since studied torture and abuse all over the world, and rarely finds it is done by "bad apples" or rogues. It's done by ordinary people put under various pressures by the situation. Here are some of the features of an evil-creating situation:

  • The doers are made to feel anonymous, to literally forget who they are, or they are helped to understand they are in an unusual situation, so they can forget their ordinary personalities and moral values in this instance.
  • The done-to are dehumanized or made to seem to be "nothing but animals."
  • The doers have become an in-group, enjoying each other's support in their tasks, or at least afraid that if they do not conform they will be ashamed or totally banished.
  • The done-to are members of an out group. We humans are quick to form in groups, which we enjoy and support, and to see those not in that groups as out-group members, which we quickly view as inferior, so that we can be readily made to fight them. This seems to be somewhat innate in some primates (not all species or local groups), in that chimpanzees have been observed to form patrols to kill neighboring troops of chimps, not only the males but the females and young. They have even been seen eating the infants.
  • People are told that they and their other in-group members are in danger from an out group. Even if there is little or no actual danger, those who question this danger are put under intense social pressure--for example, labeled as traitors or cowards.
  • There is an ideology or authority that must be obeyed. If it is an ideology, there are simple catch phrases that seem logical and are not questioned due to the fear of being excluded or labeled as a traitor or heretic. (Examples are, "The enemy must be eliminated," "This is for their own good," "They are the work of the Devil," "If we don't stop them we will never be safe.")
  • If there is a visible authority, it takes responsibility and insists that certain actions must be done--perhaps for science, the welfare of all, and so forth.
  • People are first asked to agree contractually to do whatever they will be told to do, and then feel they cannot go back on their promise. People agree to obey the rules, even when the rules turn out to lead to actions that violate their own morals. It helps if there are high costs for disobeying.
  • People are placed in responsible sounding roles such as "guardian," "teacher," "defenders of the law," or "God's soldiers." They receive clothes or other symbols of power and of belonging to the system.
  • There is a way to pass the responsibility on to others--"the others were doing it," "I just did what I was told." "I just followed orders."
  • There is no moral leader present to role model resistance.

We ALL Can Do Evil, Easily

Gender has nothing to do with being turned evil by a situation. In one study, 100% of women (75% of men) tortured puppies in order to "teach" them, which they were told to do by an experimenter. They did it even as they cried and begged to be allowed to stop. (Others predicted 10% of women at most would follow these orders.) But overall, the genders do not differ.

Nor does age. A high school teacher, whose class could not understand how the Holocaust could have happened, set up a small "students' movement" that soon became much like the Nazis. Even though the students had been warned an experiment was coming, they were soon shouting meaningless slogans ("Strength in Unity"), excluding the bright students as part of their movement's principles, and being abusive towards those who would not join them. Even students outside of the class wanted to join this movement, until they crowded into an auditorium for their first mass meeting and the teacher showed them a film on the rise of the Nazis.

But it goes younger. A third grade teacher told her pupils that blue-eyed children were superior to brown-eyed ones and immediately the superior group became extremely mean to the others. When she said the next day that she'd mistakenly reversed who were superior, the abuse went the other way. So age and gender is not a factor, and I doubt very much that being highly sensitive would prevent it either.

In fact, I fear there are special reasons why we would be especially vulnerable. Zimbardo is also famous for studying shyness and trying to help people overcome it. In his book he expresses the view that shyness as a trait is likely to lead to evil-doing through the desire to be accepted. That is, shy people are not likely to be heroes. Phil and I are friends, and I pointed out to him years ago that some people are not shy, just highly sensitive. Yet I can understand his viewpoint--while we would predict at first that HSPs would be the first to notice and resist what is wrong, there are many reasons, such as the fear of others' opinions, that could stop us.

Consider again the higher percentage of women willing to torture a puppy. It is much like the results from a study of nurses, mostly women, finding that most were willing to give a patient a treatment they knew to be very dangerous simply because a doctor had ordered. Like women and the young, HSPs are particularly vulnerable to the commands of authority because so often we have been relegated to an inferior role and are used to trying to please. We have learned to fit in, conform, and especially to cooperate. We're nice people. Having experienced enough shame already, we may fear standing out and being seen as weird yet again.

I also believe HSPs can become the best at resisting evil. Indeed, this is the type of heroism we specialize in--seeing and speaking up about the sometimes subtle truth in a situation. But clearly this resistance does not come automatically with our human genes.

Preventing Evil in Ourselves and Others

Zimbardo provides a list of ways for all of to maintain our personal values under extreme social pressures.

  • Learn to admit your mistakes so that you are able to end something when you realize you have been doing wrong. Help others to admit theirs by reducing their shame. "We all make mistakes, even horrible ones like this." "Good for you for speaking up."
  • Pay close attention to what's going on rather than functioning on automatic pilot. Think critically. Imagine the end results of what you are going to do or have been told to do. Easy for HSPs.
  • Learn to speak up rather than conform to what seems wrong, even if the others resist at first. "Do you realize what's going on here, what we're doing?" You need to do this carefully, so that you will ultimately win them over. You can't be either too defiant or too meek.
  • Take responsibility rather than allowing responsibility to be diffused into "Everyone's doing it" or "I was just doing what I was told." Do not let others do it either. "Everyone may be doing it, but is it right?" "Do we have to do what we were told to do?" "What about disobeying unjust laws--isn't that true heroism?"
  • Notice when someone is starting to dehumanize you. Force them to notice you as an individual. Emphasize your titles, degrees, or connections, or if it would help, your human needs and feelings. Make eye contact.
  • If others are dehumanizing someone, point out things unique about the person as well as the person's similarities to those who want to see that individual as nothing but a member of one group opposed to their own, or simply as a subhuman.
  • Respect just authority, but rebel against it when it is unjust. Those at the top should be serving those beneath, and if they do not, we should do as all humans have had to do since first living in groups--reject an unjust leader. HSPs are often the first to notice injustice so we can help to see when it is time to disobey.
  • Do not sacrifice your personal or civic freedom for the illusion of security. This is always how tyrants get their way. HSPs like to feel secure, but look ahead to the greater dangers and point them out to others.

Overall, Zimbardo says the rules boil down to self-awareness, situational sensitivity, and street smarts--the specialties of HSPs, provided we are psychologically savvy and feeling confident that we are as good as anyone. Although he places great emphasis on the situation and the universal tendency to conform, he also obviously believes people can do otherwise. At the end of his book he discusses at great length the heroism of not going along with the group, perhaps much more difficult to achieve than the heroism that is the by-product of following orders. Let's be sure that HSPs continue to be well represented on the lists of the greatest non-conforming heroes, or among those who are unknown but sometimes even greater.


May 2008 Articles:

A Letter from Elaine
For Highly Sensitive Teenagers, Part II:
Dealing with the Rest of Your Family
Reading: What HSPs Need to Know About Why Good People Turn Evil
Coping Corner: Sensitive Men and Testosterone


More Comfort Zone Email Newsletters

May 2008 Articles:

For Highly Sensitive Teenagers, Part II: Dealing with the Rest of Your Family

Reading: What HSPs Need to Know About Why Good People Turn Evil

Coping Corner: Sensitive Men and Testosterone

A Letter from Elaine



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