Comprehensive Thoughts on Why do Good People Do Bad Things

The big meow question today are What leads people to do bad things? Why do good people do bad things? Why do bad people can’t stand doing good things? Can anyone commit atrocities?

Evil is, for all of us to be clear about, the willingness to harm others, one way or another. Evil is something a bit relative, I recognize it. Moreover, anyone who thinks that evil is something that one has or not, absolutely, can already leave here. We don’t want more villains to do evil for evil in the literature, thanks. We appreciate a little more depth.

Before we start do you know how bad are you? If you want to find out, you can take this quiz

Evil is subjective.

It is in the eyes of the beholder. Hernán Cortés would be seen by the Spaniards of the time as a conqueror, a good man who seeks to expand the glory of his kingdom, while the poor Americans he slaughtered will see him as a monster that has come to kill them all. Similarly, a few years ago hitting children when they misbehaved was something that was not frowned upon, it was even advisable, and now it seems a savage. This is an easy example, but let’s look at another: For the Mon ethnic group (I don’t know if it is well written) of Laos, if you touch someone’s head you are preventing their spirit from transcending … or something like that. I don’t remember exactly, but for them to touch another person’s head is a horrible thing. Imagine the typical rolled uncle who affectionately rubs children’s hair. In summary,

See Gran Torino. It is a jewel. 

Now that we have seen that evil can be done unintentionally …

Why do people do things that they know are bad?

As blasphemous as it may seem to you, it is all about putting the circumstances on the plates of a balance. It’s simple: Before any action, the decision will be taken whose plate weighs more. People do bad things when they have more reasons to do it (or these reasons are stronger) than not. 

And what about the good people? Aren’t they supposed to have more reasons not to do bad things than the rest? Why do good people do bad things?

Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is one of the things that can most influence people’s behavior, and is, neither more nor less, than the difference between our actions and our identity. If I consider myself a good person and do not help a person, I will experience cognitive dissonance, and try to reduce it in some way. There are three basic ways to reduce cognitive dissonance, from less expensive (cognitively) to more expensive:

  1. Shaping our actions to fit our identity : In this example, helping that person.
  2. Justify our actions so that they do not contradict our identity: I am a good person, but this person is vague and does not deserve help because… This is one of the things that the human being does most. We are all good at making excuses (although not all are good).
  3. Modify our identity to explain our actions: If I have passed before that person, and I have not helped her even though I needed help, I may not be as good a person as I thought.

The reduction of cognitive dissonance is a weight to consider for the balance. What varies in which direction that weight goes is the identity of the person. A person who considers himself good will have the reduction of dissonance in the balance of not doing the bad thing, while a person who considers himself bad will suffer cognitive dissonance when doing good things.

Yes, there are people who consider themselves bad. Identity is something so important to the individual that if he does bad things that he cannot justify or stop doing, he will have to turn that evil part of his identity to reduce cognitive dissonance. Because this dissonance produces a lot of tension. Usually, we all consider ourselves good, because otherwise it has consequences for our psyche.

Of course! Oh, what is more evil and apachurrable! 

Good people do bad things when the reasons for doing so outweigh the cognitive dissonance that those bad things produce . “Total, I’ll reduce it later,” our brain thinks. Also, when more factors come into play, it may be the case that this action does not produce any disharmony, even when the person knows exactly what he is doing is wrong. Let’s see what those factors are:

What leads a good person to do something that does not doubt that it is bad?


Dehumanization is the process by which one or more people lose or are deprived of their human characteristics. There are several ways to do it, but the essence is to turn the person into a non-person, such as taking away the name, assigning a role or identity (prisoner, enemy, etc.), and many more, until the person stops feeling a person , and becomes a prisoner number, a role, etc. Dehumanization can cause a lot of harm to the victim (so much so that dehumanization is considered torture), but it also has effects on people who deal with it.

Good people wouldn’t hurt other people, right. But the enemies? Soldiers do not feel cognitive dissonance because they teach them that their enemies are not people, they are just that, enemies, sometimes even monsters (demonization). That makes it a little easier, relieves the weight of the balance. What if the enemy are red dots on the screen of a fighter? Shooting a red dot in a viewfinder is easier to process than shooting a person who has his life and probably hasn’t done anything wrong. It is a point that disappears, not a person who dies.

A small note: In the second season of Psychopass they treat this issue very well, when they put the control of military robots in command of people who believe they are playing a video game, and their goal is to kill chickens. Those chickens are really people. When the deception is revealed, they cannot continue playing (and it has serious consequences for the psyche of these people), although the only thing that has changed is the interpretation of their actions: They have gone from killing polygon hens to killing people from truth. Although it is an unjustifiable example since nobody knew what was happening in the real game. 

There is a very famous experiment, that of the Stanford prison (carried out by Phillip Zimbardo, one of the most famous social psychologists) that defends that it is not that people are bad or good, but that there are contexts and situations that can lead them To do bad things. A rotten apple does not spoil a healthy basket, but it is the rotten basket that corrupts the healthy apples it touches. In this experiment, Zimbardo separated a series of students (whom he had selected and examined for completely normal people without disorders of any kind) at random between Jailers and Prisoners, and put them in a dehumanizing context.

EDITED: Or that is what he wanted us to believe. Zimbardo’s experiment is the most criticized of psychology at all levels, especially ethical and methodological, and is one of the biggest lies of psychology.

To read all the horrible things about this experiment, how Zimbardo and his henchman manipulated the jailers to get those results and lied to the prisoners about their ability to leave the experiment, please read this: The Lifespan of a Lie.

Through the indications of Zimbardo’s henchman (who instructed them in methods of psychological torture and dehumanizing treatment)  The guards committed true barbarities with those who until then had been their companions (isolation cell, preventing them from relieving physiological needs, forcing them to obey stupid orders and humiliating, etc.) The experiment was stopped six days after the start, when it was scheduled to last two weeks (one or two weeks above).This experiment is an example of unethical experimentation, and was severely criticized for it. Although everything was legal at the time of the experiment, it is now impossible to replicate these types of experiments. (Edit: Actually it can be replicated. Haslam SA, Reicher SD (2012) Contesting the “Nature” Of Conformity: What Milgram and Zimbardo’s Studies Really Show. PLoS Biol 10 (11): e1001426. Https: // doi. org / 10.1371 / journal.pbio.1001426 )

When they finally left the experiment, the guard students confessed that they would never have believed themselves capable of the atrocities they had done to their classmates. A phrase struck me from one of the former prisoners talking to a former jailer: “I know you are a good uncle, because I know what you are capable of doing.”

They did everything for a greater reason, for science, for the experiment. And they were instructed to play hard guards, taught them to dehumanize their peers. Not everyone did, some guards struggled to do favors for fellow prisoners.

In short, don’t believe the Zimbardo experiment. I did too. It is a lie that we want to believe because it frees us from guilt. “It is the fault of the environment, not ours.” Zimbardo himself victimized himself as having fallen too much in the role of sheriff when he committed the atrocities.

Returning to dehumanization: There is a film that speaks very well of how easy this is: The box. In it, a marriage is given the option of pressing a button. If they do, a person will die randomly, and they will earn a million dollars. They have not met the person who is going to die, and no one will know what they have done. Although the million dollars seem appetizing, if we changed that button for a knife with which to pass through a random passer-by, the marriage would never have accepted. But it’s just a push of a button, and they won’t see the consequences of their actions. Then strange things happen, but that is not the case.

The point is that if you make a person a thing, a good person will have no qualms about doing bad things. In ancient Rome, for example, the nobles had slaves. There were good people who had slaves, and they never thought of releasing them. Moreover, they could be whipped, or killed, and would still be considered good, because for them slaves are not people. They are dehumanized things. The farther the slaves seemed to the masters, the easier it was to ignore that they were also people.

Understanding this is easier to see why the church banned the slavery of colonized Americans and instead enslaved the Africans. Because some looked more like them and others were black.


Emphatic state

The emphatic state is a state of consciousness that people can enter, and that is based on obedience. The person ceases to be someone who makes decisions to someone who executes the decisions of others (becomes an agent). In this state, the person is easily influenced and cognitive dissonance does not occur, because the person does not feel that what he is doing is his decision. There is no moral burden. The emphatic state is the adoption of authority.

A very controversial experiment was that of Milgram, with electric shocks. I had two people, one would be chosen as a teacher and another as a student in a “memory experiment.” He was rigging so that the subject was always a teacher, and the student was part of the experiment staff. The experimenter ordered the teacher to “help the student learn” (beware of euphemization, it is an important part of producing the aghentic state), this help consisted of giving electric shocks that gradually increased in intensity when the student was wrong, from 25 volts to 450 volts, something that could be deadly. The objective was to see how much the subjects would endure before giving up doing more harm to the “student”, who was an actor who faked the downloads.

Intensity of discharge in which the subjects abandoned the experiment. 450 was the maximum. 

Many doubted, but over 65% of the subjects reached the maximum. They applied deadly shocks knowingly, despite the screams of pain and the actor’s pleas for him to stop. Why did they get so far? Because they had entered an aghentic state.

In an aghentic state one is not morally responsible for the actions he does. That rests with the authority (in this case, the experimenter, who in the case of the subjects’ doubts asked them to continue the experiment, and told them that he would take care of the consequences), so that the moral of the action is relegated to A background in our brain. Breaking the emphatic state is difficult, because it requires confronting authority, something that our brain considers undesirable. But in addition many other variables come into play: The subject gave his help to the experimenter freely and withdrawing it is cognitively expensive, stopping at that moment means admitting that what they have been doing for a long time has been wrong and that they could have avoided it, they think they should continue for a cause greater than the orders of the experimenter (science, or experiment, important this because it gives a compelling reason to do what he does)…

In addition, the subjects released the tension produced in other ways (tension that if they had accumulated could have allowed them to stop because it is unbearable), which allowed them to go further unintentionally: Pressing the buttons for as little time as possible, complaining to the interviewer, stating that was against, trying to help the student in some way (chiviendo answers, for example). There were other more sinister ways to reduce tension, such as insulting the other for stupid (an easy task failed) and making the victim guilty (Blaming the victim, something that is done a lot for rapists or for people who have trouble face that the world is unfair so “something bad will have done, surely you deserve it”). Resisting authority released tension for the subject, which only served to silence his conscience. “I opposed.”

Variations of the study: Percentage of the sample that reached the maximum voltage. In order: Initial study (65%), The environment was of lower quality, less authentic (48%), The student and the teacher were together (40%), The teacher had to physically touch the student (30%), The experimenter was not in the room (22%), the subject was not assigned a teacher role (20%), and two experimenters who discuss (10%, when there is conflict between the authority itself is when it is easier to leave the state authentic). 

When you enter an aghentic state, your main priority is to obey. This changes our objective and our vision: We do not worry about whether what we do is good or bad (that is the task of the authority), if the action we do is well done or not. What worries us is the performance of the action, not the action itself. If your commander orders you to shoot an innocent girl, your concern will be to aim well. In the aghentic state our goal becomes to perform well the tasks entrusted to us.

If the authority says Jump! you answer: How tall?

The aphentic state is amplified even more when one is not the final executor, if not an intermediate step (that is, the subject was the one who ordered another to give the downloads, but he did not give them directly). Thus, the subject delegates the fault of giving the downloads to the one who presses the buttons, because he did not object (while the one who gives the downloads blames the one who orders it).

Blaming other people is a defense mechanism, our brain is determined that we are perfect and discovering that we were wrong hurts a lot. Moron. With what you can learn from mistakes when you accept your fault. 

What happens if we combine dehumanization with the emphatic state and add a solid structure?Sep. By the way, one day I have to see myself “The producers”. Even if it’s just for this scene.

Nazis They try to sell us to the Nazis as soulless monsters who wanted to kill Jews (and so on), especially the administrative charges, but the sad truth is that (the vast majority) were normal people who just tried to do their job well. A clerk had a paper to sign for a truck to go to Auschwitz. A man was responsible for putting people in that truck without knowing why, and the driver of the truck carried a load that he knew nothing about until his destination. The administrative and bureaucratic machine was the one that allowed the holocaust, the one that kept the gears greased.“I received orders from above. I had to sign some papers and send them. ” That was the kind of contribution made by many Nazis, victims of a system that we tried to make guilty.


Eye, I am not defending Nazism. Quite the opposite. However, we do not realize that behind there were people, whom we tried to become enemies and sadists because we cannot understand how they ordered the murder of millions of people when sometimes they were not even aware that that was what they were doing. The Nazi structural machinery was specifically orchestrated for that. So that they could not understand the implication of that signature, that trip.

In truth, the testimony of one of the most important administrative (“I am a pawn. I only followed orders from above”) was what inspired Milgram to create his experiment. The whole world believed that the man was a sadist (he had signed ordinances of mass murder of Jews), but Milgram showed that he was just a normal person. 

Milgram and Zimbardo’s experiments gave the world a bitter truth that he had been trying for a long time not to hear: “I could never do something so horrible” is a lie we tell ourselves. We need to believe that criminals are not normal people, they are heartless monsters that must be punished. But with few exceptions, they are just normal people, like us. And that scares us.

It is difficult to distinguish that thin line that separates them, sometimes. 

But let’s return to the topic that concerns us. Evil That scale. At the moment you already have the basics to understand how the scale works, and the most important weights that “allow” people (or characters, if I do not make more reference to fiction it is because I consider that you are intelligent enough to extrapolate all this information ) good to commit bad or deplorable acts. However that is not the whole picture. This is when the group enters the subject.


The power of the masses is something we should all fear. 

How does the group get a person to do something wrong?

1. Conformity

Human beings are designed to do what the group does. If most do it, we do it.  This reaches such absurd levels that if suddenly, when we go in an elevator, everyone inside turns and looks to the right, we will also do the same, even if we don’t understand why. Believe me. There are thousands of experiments on video . And it’s very funny, but at the same time a little scary.

Conformity is a defense mechanism against loneliness. We human beings like to be in a group (usually), and once we are inside one we will do our best not to be kicked out of it. If in a gang in which we are comfortable all our partners want to stick with others, even if we are against it, we will end up accompanying them. If the situation of “or you are with us or against us” arrives, we have more than enough reasons to conform to the group.

A good summary of the Asch group compliance experiment . The goal is to say which line is longer, or some simple task that even a child could do. The subject in black (the rest are conchabado), before the pressure of the majority, responds the same as the others, doubting their own perception. 

2. Disintegration and anonymity

Once we accept the group, something that I consider chilling can happen: Individuals cease to be individuals and become part of the group. This greatly changes the behavior of the individual, and stops thinking about himself to think about the group. The subject may lose control of himself and be dragged by the behaviors of others in the group . Stop thinking about whether others will judge you for what you do (something very important to suppress undesirable behaviors), and stop inhibiting impulsive behaviors.

Disintegration results in impulsive, emotional, self-reinforcing behaviors (doing the behavior with the group reinforces it), contagious and focused on the nearby group. This can range from shouting with the rest in a sporting event to kill in the middle of an enraged crowd (a town in Eastern Europe whose name I don’t remember was the one that killed all the local Jews, without intervention of the Nazis. ordinary men and women, neighbors swept away at the moment. They were not monsters, they were normal people in certain circumstances ).

Anonymity is even more terrifying. Our actions cease to have consequences for us. It is not us, we are one more. No one will ever know who we are, so why not do everything I’ve always wanted to do? When we are anonymous we don’t repress ourselves (the Internet as a universal example of this) and that can lead to very heinous things, because we don’t care what people think of us.

V de Vendetta shows us the good face of anonymity: Show what one is inside without fear of what others say. And that’s very good, as long as you’re not a monster inside. 

3. The diffusion of responsibility

Also called the viewer’s effect. I have had to add this a aposteriori, but it seems to me that omission of relief is also a form of evil, and deserves to be explained. Dissemination of responsibility is an effect by which a person is more likely to receive help the less people there are to help him. It may seem paradoxical, but it has a very simple explanation: And is that it cannot be done by another?

The crowd diminishes their sense of responsibility, partly because they think that another person will take care of it, that it really isn’t that serious, that maybe it’s their fault (does it sound like something to you?), That is, they look for some way to justify the denial of help (reduction of cognitive dissonance), and the crowd is the perfect excuse.

There are more experiments on help and altruism that show more things, such as that people who dress well are almost automatically helped while poorly dressed, but the viewer’s effect seems especially juicy for fiction (In the White Bear chapter Black Mirror could not exemplify it better).

Just imagine a crowd passing by your side, ignoring you, looking at you but shrugging your shoulders, because someone will take care of you. But people come and go, and you never get help.

It’s creepy. 

The world is a dangerous place, not for those who do evil, but for those who look and do nothing. 

Albert Einstein

Now we have the full portrait.

Once we have already added all the necessary weights to understand the evil in the balance, there is only one thing left: Define the action, the circumstances, and the character, who will put his own weights on that balance. With this scale we can fill any story with gray, give realism to any diabolical act.

Although, of course, you can think … And what about the crazy people? How are we supposed to understand them, to know what they put in the balance? Well, right now I am going to give you the three most classic types of psychopathology so that you know a little what goes through their minds … So, for free. Because I am very generous.

  1. Psychopathy: These individuals are sick in the psychological sense of the word. A psychopath is incapable of understanding that human beings have emotions, or simply lacks the necessary empathy so that those emotions affect him, therefore, they cannot feel guilty for the damage they do.
  2. Sociopaths: Understand other people as tools to play with, not as people at the same level; You don’t feel bad about the tool you are using if it breaks, just the annoyance of having to replace it.
  3. Finally, schizophrenics and people with magical-phenomenon thinking : Sometimes these people can hear voices or have very real hallucinations. Voices that (since I do not want to accept that I am crazy to hear voices that only I can hear) are credible and convincing, and that they must obey a higher order, therefore they obey them. If these voices tell them to kill … AGENTICAL STATE, PUSSY.

I leave the misanthropy (ahem, for example, Joker) but the internet is a giant encyclopedia, so there you have the whole web if you are interested in the hate of the human race. But come on, it is mortal hatred of all people in general. Some hate rookie mistakes,  others hate all mankind. Matter of tastes.

And that’s it The psychology class is over for today.

I hope that with this you can make credible antagonists, even realistic villains, and especially protagonists with nuances. The important thing to create characters is to remember that they are people. And luckily or unfortunately, people are more complex than a simple villain archetype or bad tag.

Faithfully represent the evil of the world, because if Orwell taught us something, it is that reality can be more frightening than fiction. And don’t forget to share in your social networks, that tiny favor is what prevents this blog from dying. Or are you going to stay there watching and pass by? HAVE YOU NOT LEARNED ANYTHING?

1 thought on “Comprehensive Thoughts on Why do Good People Do Bad Things”

  1. Hi, over here.

    I comment a couple of things ^^

    more than the fact that a normal person can do (important) evils, I would say mediocre (and faint-hearted) person. For example, in Stanford, if they sent stupid things to make them suffer, it is precisely because of this: they did not know how to send, they were stupid, to send them great, and to prove that they knew, they sent absurd things. mediocrity can lead to evil (previous step through envy, the faint-hearted, etc). and also applicable to the Nazis. They were not evil, they were mediocre and cowardly. Obviously, you can’t be sent to jail either for being cowardly or mediocre. and from there to evil there is a step. and the same in terms of mass (conformity and anonymity, etc.), for example: “Human beings are designed to do what the group does. If most do it, we do it. ”, It is due to cowardice and mediocrity. The more personality and value you have, the harder it is to belong to the mass and fall into its vices.

    “The administrative and bureaucratic machine was the one that allowed the holocaust, the one that kept the gears greased. “.
    precisely for that there is the bureaucracy, so that the powerful denatured ones have us dominated at various levels. This is more serious. It happens a lot with corporations, which also have made them a person (yes, these monsters), legal persons say, the very bastards.

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