Zach Rawlings, MA, LPC

Licensed Professional Counselor

The Problem of Evil and 5 Ways You Can Build Resilience to It (Images NSFW)

As Halloween approaches, the decorations and products come out, encouraging us to celebrate all things frightening and ghoulish. It’s a time to contemplate the demonic and scary. We flock to the movie theaters to watch tales of serial killers, demonic possessions, and other eerie tales of things haunted and possessed. We dress up as witches and monsters, and trek our kids door to door in horrifying costumes so they can hit up strangers for candy. It’s really a weird holiday when you think about it.

This Halloween season has sparked some thoughts in me about our fascination with evil. Even when I tune in to the news, I’m confronted with all kinds of evil acts that are happening around the world—particularly the recent murders and attacks by the ISIS terrorist group. How can some people treat other humans so brutally and savagely, and sometimes even seem to relish it?

Such evil should not surprise someone like myself. After all, I specialize in working with trauma survivors. My clients have experienced some of the darkest atrocities we can imagine—sexual and physical abuse, rape, school shootings, and neglect—just to name a few. But I am still not accustomed to evil. It upsets me, and if I’m being honest, it even scares me.

Evil is a complex idea, and for many of us it can be difficult to understand. In studying evil, we can learn much about the human experience and the depth of human capacity for both evil and kindness. An innovative psychologist from the 1970’s, Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, revealed facets of evil in a famous experiment that he conducted—these findings are still applicable and often referenced today. Zimbardo also discovered something worth remembering: evil is not as black and white as it may appear to be. Let’s first look at the bad news about evil and what psychology can teach us about it.

The Bad News About Evil: It Lives in All of Us

In 1971, Stanford professor and psychologist, Dr. Phillip Zimbardo (2008), conducted one of the most famous experiments on the subject of evil (although he didn’t know he was studying evil at the time). Zimbardo wanted to understand the power of inherent personality traits on abusive tendencies in the prison system. He set up a simulated prison where he randomly assigned young men to either be prisoners or prison guards. Those selected to be prisoners underwent fake arrests at their homes and were forced to wear prison jumpsuits. The guards wore badges, prison guard uniforms, and sunglasses.

During the simulation, Zimbardo witnessed the guards exhibit increasingly abusive behavior toward the prisoners. Each day the abuse got worse—from calling the prisoners dehumanizing names to stripping them down and humiliating them sexually. These guards were regular men from the community that simply volunteered to be a part of this experiment. They had no prior criminal behavior and were considered regular men who worked regular jobs.

In total, five of the prisoners had complete emotional breakdowns as a result of the abuse. The experiment was supposed to last two weeks, but the guards’ behavior became so abusive that Zimbardo shut down the experiment after only six days.

Zimbardo unraveled something very dark and unsettling about human nature when he completed his evaluation of his experiment: humans have an infinite capacity to behave evilly (Zimbardo, 2008).

This finding has been discovered in other experiments and real-life situations. In 2004, it was discovered that American soldiers were abusing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. The abuse was horrific and in some of the pictures you can see below, you find American soldiers laughing and grinning while Iraqi detainees suffer and undergo sadistic torture at the American soldiers’ hands.

When these crimes were discovered, American intelligence turned to psychology and Zimbardo’s famous prison experiment to understand how good soldiers with no prior abusive history could be guilty of such atrocious acts. When Zimbardo served as an expert witness in the trial, he reported that it was not “bad apples” that committed these crimes. Instead it was a “bad barrel.” That is, people are typically good, but when they are put in a bad situation, evil can take over and often prevail. In short, everyone has the capacity to commit evil acts when the situation encourages it.

The Good News About Evil: You Can Choose Not to Listen

It’s a heavy reality to understand that we are all capable of evil. And, yes, it is true that we all are—every single person. However, Zimbardo (2008) also discovered something a bit more hopeful: the same situation that can encourage someone to behave cruelly can also inspire kindness and heroism.

When the crimes were taking place at Abu Ghraib, one young private, Joe Darby, witnessed the abuse and chose heroism. He blew the whistle, which launched an investigation and put a stop to the torture. He made an intentional decision to act against the evil instead of with it. The good news is that we each have the capacity to make such a decision.

When Zimbardo conducted his Stanford Prison Experiment, he himself became desensitized to the wicked behavior of the guards on the prisoners. He watched with utter fascination as the behavior escalated and became more abusive with each passing day. It wasn’t until his girlfriend, Christina Maslach, came to visit him and saw some of the behavior that Zimbardo changed his perspective. Maslach was horrified at what she saw and demanded he stop the experiment. Zimbardo ultimately succumbed to her wishes and called off the study.

In both cases, notice that the same situation inspired two different actions: evil or heroism. Although evil can be a powerful force in our lives, it is possible to choose heroism. But in order to do that, we must regularly make small, intentional choices to build our resilience to evil and our sensitivity to goodness. To do that, consider these five things:

·      Practice seeing human faces. We are busy people and can often see others as a means to an end—the checkout grocer, the bank teller, or the server in your favorite restaurant. Practice engaging those that help you each day. Make eye contact. Smile. Use their first name while interacting. They are people with feelings, hopes, and dreams. Even when they are unpleasant people themselves, you have the capacity and choice to recognize and respect their humanity.

·      Practice gratitude. Research shows that practicing gratitude has been linked with better health, sounder sleep, and treating others more kindly. A new study has also found that practicing gratitude decreases the likelihood that a person will act out aggressively when provoked (Tierney, 2011). Find time throughout your day to mentally tell yourself what you are grateful for, and then tell others about it.

·      Be aware of the situation. Learn what kinds of situations make you act more selfishly. My first job out of graduate school was working for a nonprofit that helped victims of crime. The work the nonprofit did was excellent for the community. However, the work environment was very hostile and encouraged people to treat each other unkindly. I recognized this dynamic and the toll it was taking on my compassion and soon resigned. Know those situations in your life and avoid them when possible.

·      Look for the helpers. It is easy to become disheartened when faced with a tragedy on the news. Events like school shootings, terrorist attacks, and atrocious crimes against others can sometimes take up our entire newsfeed. However, those same crimes also inspire others to act kindly. Look for those people. When watching coverage of a school shooting, point out to yourself and your children all those that are coming out to help by donating blood, giving financially, or offering shoulders to cry on to those impacted. There are always helpers in times of tragedy. Look for those people and focus on their actions.

·      Reframe your definition of a hero. We need to promote heroism. But before we do, we need to reframe what makes someone a hero. We’ve been trained to believe that heroes have something inherently heroic about them—a superpower, incredible strength, or high intelligence. Most heroes (like Darby and Maslach) are everyday people. They are people who see something wrong and act to fix it. They are teachers who work to protect kids from bullies. They are businessmen who strive to treat and pay their employees fairly and honestly in a struggling economy. They are nonprofit workers who help humanity by writing grants or offering services at low fees. These are heroes. Learn to reframe your definition of a hero and educate your children.

Remember what Zimbardo taught us through his famous experiment: we have an infinite capacity to either act with extreme evil or extreme heroism depending on the situation. Work to be a compassionate person by practicing these steps to make yourself more resilient. Let history be a teacher to us as we struggle with the impact of world events that make us heavy-hearted and afraid. Or just consider the words of one of my favorite mentors and teachers in the field of psychology, Carl Rogers: “When I look at the world, I am pessimistic, but when I look at people, I am optimistic.”

You, my friend, are capable of so much good. Now go do something with it.


Tierney, J. (2011). A serving of gratitude may save the day. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Zimbardo, P. (2008). The Lucifer effect. New York, NY: Random House Publishing.