A Point of View: Why people give in to temptation when no-one's watching

Apple bite

Why are apparently good people tempted to commit evil acts, asks novelist AL Kennedy.

I spend a lot of time in hotels. They offer many temptations and although, like most people, I believe I'm more than averagely honest, nevertheless temptation does prove, on occasion, tempting. Well, it would.

These days, mini-bars are often left both warm and aggressively empty to circumvent thefts, but since I have no interest in any mini-bar's contents I feel this bespeaks a hurtful lack of trust. And I wouldn't - unlike some acquaintances - steal a towel, no matter how snowy, or unscrew a light fitting and take it home. But in a hotel corridor, if someone has happened to leave a room service trolley unattended and the biscuits in my room are horrible and there are all these packs of Bourbon creams just lying there and they are for guests and I am a guest and I would even bring the bloody fruit Shrewsburys that were in my room back (and I'd point out they're not fruit Shrewsbury, they've got some currants, they're mummified and sparse fruit corpse Shrewsburys) and I would possibly swap the Shrewsburys for the Bourbon creams which would be fair, but I know that, yes, my biscuit appropriation is still technically stealing… And I have helped myself to Bourbon creams, which is to say, stolen them. Once or twice.

I did wrong. Because I was unobserved. No one was watching me.

About the author

AL Kennedy
  • AL Kennedy is a writer and performer
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays, 08:50 BST

And I'm not alone in behaving badly when I know I'm unobserved. When psychologists test how people behave with and without oversight, it becomes depressingly clear that if we think nobody's looking, we don't even remotely always let our conscience be our guide. And this means we do bad things, sometimes extremely bad things. And our doing of bad things and how preventable this is has fascinated me all my life.

We inhabit an age when the complaint, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" is often voiced. It's a question I find slightly pointless, because perceived goodness is no defence against physics. How could it be? And because sometimes other apparently good people are making the bad things happen.

After World War II showed our species just how many hells on earth it could create, a whole generation of researchers devoted themselves to what I find a much more vital question. "Why do apparently good and normal people do abnormal and appalling things ?" Interestingly, those post-war researchers - psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists - found answers to that question. They found reliable, repeatable results which offer a map we could follow to better places, a guide we could offer to children everywhere, as necessary as instructions on how to cross roads safely - how to be human safely, how not to behave like a sociopath.

Trial of Adolf Eichmann 1961 The trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann spotlighted how "normal people" might carry out horrendous acts

But in fact, much of the research has been forgotten or misunderstood and we continue to put human beings into desperately toxic situations which can make them go astray. If, for example, we remember Stanley Milgram's name at all, we associate it with an experiment that apparently proved one person can be persuaded to electrocute another with horrifying ease, sometimes even beyond the level at which shocks would be fatal. Of course, the allegedly instructional shocks Milgram had volunteers administer were fake and their recipients only pretended to be in pain. He was testing how obedient volunteer "teachers" would be to an authority figure's instructions, even when being told to carry out apparently immoral acts.

Controversially, he and his team found that even very normal, pleasant people can delegate their morality to other people who appear to be in charge, even of bizarre and disturbing scenarios, in fact especially then. When we're in unfamiliar and stressful circumstances, we very often turn to authority figures. This human tendency wouldn't set us up for all manner of dark falls if all of our authority figures were saints. But they're not. And unfortunately no one is putting Milgram on the national curriculum any time soon.

Milgram also experimented to see how affected we were by other people's pain and found - comfortingly - that someone screaming through an intercom would upset us less than someone writhing in agony next to us. So, in a way, he proved we're moral, but easily misled - compassionate, but easily dissociated. And you might think governments and institutions in every sane country would take these two factors into account in order to help us treat each other well. But they don't. We distance ourselves from each other and take important decisions about people we don't know, can't identify with, or treat fairly. We defer to all manner of authorities, no matter how unhinged, and we do not prosper as a result.

Stanford prison experiment

The Experiment - a 2002 documentary
  • Study of psychological effects of being prisoner or guard, carried out at California's Stanford University in 1971, funded by US Office of Naval Research
  • Philip Zimbardo selected 24 random students to assume role of prisoner or guard; participants adapted too well to roles, and "guards" began to abuse their power
  • Experiment abruptly stopped after six days (it was originally planned for two weeks)
  • Zimbardo's findings still subject of debate; experiment inspired several films, plays, works of fiction
  • BBC documentary The Experiment (2002) attempted to replicate conditions of study (pictured)

Philip Zimbardo, who designed the Stanford Prison Experiment, is also often misunderstood. His experiment arbitrarily gave volunteers positions either as guards, or prisoners in a clearly fake prison and then watched how they behaved. Very quickly, the guards behaved like guards and the prisoners like prisoners, the fake set became a real and dangerous world of escalating cruelties. Experimenters watched their prison come to increasingly ugly life, but their assigned task was not to intervene. In the prison, stress was high and guidelines unclear.

Any sense of a moral world outside slipped away. Abuse of power, humiliation and small tortures began to blossom - not within months, but within days. Both scientists and volunteers became locked in a dark spiral, descending. Only an outsider intervening - a sensible lady whom Zimbardo later married - prevented perhaps serious wrongdoing by reminding the researchers they could abort the experiment. But Zimbardo and the others were doing what many of us tend to - fitting in, behaving like cleverly social animals, repeating and reinforcing the behaviour we see around us. We tend to assume that what's being done must be what should be done. We'll embrace fashions, or fashionably deny them, put grills on our teeth, we'll even ignore a real live fire if we're in a crowd, just because everyone else is, so that must be okay.

In short, we know the recipe for harmful behaviour - stress, poor or absent guidelines, a strict hierarchy with dissociation from others and from the consequences of our actions, established group culture and lack of oversight. These factors create sick workplaces, rogue military units, feral banks, abusive care homes, abusive marriages, countries apparently consumed by madness. Surveys now show bankers and doctors amongst the least trusted professions. They used to be touchstones of reliability - what happened? Highly influential bad situations happened.

The Magazine on evil

And when we consider the UK's politicians - stressed by intense competition and workloads in an environment that makes Gormenghast look like Butlins, led to believe they're a class apart, working in a gilded palace where they operate, in some senses, literally above the law… It's a testament to their moral fibre that they don't eat constituents in the lobbies.

But, naturally, if there's a recipe for wrongdoing, there's a recipe to encourage its opposite. Reverse all the above. Really. Remove stress and moral uncertainty, promote leadership ahead of dictatorship, introduce collaboration, guidelines, support, keep humanity's humanity and action's consequences in view. And introduce appropriate oversight. Ever wondered why sending a postcard to someone unjustly imprisoned can improve their conditions? Partly because it lets their guards know someone's watching. Why do you think our idea of God has that omnipotent reputation? Partly because God watches everything.

Are we likely to actually learn from what we know about ourselves, the scared, over-dressed monkeys we can be? Probably not. But if you have a go at it, I promise I'll try, too. No more pilfered Bourbon creams for me. And I'll tell my godchildren about Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo and all the rest, because they deserve a kind future where good people like them can do good things.

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Here is a selection of your comments.

I remember being a junior doctor, where our equivalent of 'bourbon creams' can be more serious. I think that the medical profession could learn a lot from Zimbardo and Milgrim, and in fact there is good evidence of the powers of hierarchy and their influence on behaviour within our profession. "Remove stress and moral uncertainty, promote leadership ahead of dictatorship, introduce collaboration, guidelines, support, keep humanity's humanity and action's consequences in view." Clearly this will never be perfect and in our profession removing stress and moral uncertainty is inherently difficult. However, I believe we are on the path to improvement and hope that some trust from the public can be regained.

Ed Mellanby, Edinburgh, Scotland

To me, the most common temptations involve traffic lights. In my local area we have a lot of roadworks and a lot of these are short and also lighted. But when I can see the other side of them, and there is no queue of cars, and my light has gone to red as I approached it is tempting to just keep going...

Robn, Edinburgh, Scotland

I think you touch on what leads to harmful behaviour - stress, poor or absent guidelines, a strict hierarchy with dissociation from others and from the consequences of our actions, established group culture and lack of oversight. But did not develop the how can society create more human people. In my opinion, society lacks a culture of responsible people, where we are expected and taught how to make the correct decision, a society where we believe in ourselves, where we believe in our intuition. If a child is taught how to reason, to tap into intuition, is trusted to make the decision and take the responsibility of that decision, I believe that they will also make the morally correct decision. I do not believe that we are inherently bad, but rather we have been stripped of our inherent ability to sense within ourselves, what is right and what is wrong.

Diana Ritchie, Geneva, Switzerland

I am a director of a company owned by my family and some friends. They trust me 100%. This trust sometimes tempted me to abuse the trust, because I can easily steal without being detected. So, this temptations come and tickle me, from time to time,. Luckily in fact I do not need to steal anything to live well and that if I did steal, I stole it from my own family and my own friends, the people whom I love and love me so much. Luckily, I cherish their love much more than the money.

Saraswati Karno Barkah, Jakarta, Indonesia

People are ethically and intellectually unreliable. It's not that they're bad, or stupid; nor are they really very good or smart, in general. They're simply too whimsical to be classified as anything 'in general' - too given to passion, too given to reaction, too given to guesses, too given to certainty, too given loving, too given to hating. In short, we are our own worst enemy and best friend, a dualistic portrait of strength and weakness all in the same package. Mercy on any other intelligent life in this Universe we may ever contact.

John Heisler, Columbus, OH, US

This is precisely why we need working speed cameras and why they are so unpopular and why we are less likely to wash our hands if we think we are alone in a public toilet. I think our law and society are based around the idea that human nature defaults to good and people are basically good unless something happens to corrupt it. I think that is wrong. I think basically we are morally neutral and that rules are there for other people. We only follow rules because it is our interest for everyone else to follow the rules. If we believe other people are nor following the rules or that other people won't know if we break them then we are likely to break rules. Real life is full of conflict and competition and you can see the dilemma facing us in competitive sports. You are more likely to win if you can get an advantage. Aside for skill, strength, stamina, etc, you can also get a competitive advantage by: a) getting as close to what is allowable in the rules as you can. b) going beyond the rules without attracting a penalty. c) getting a penalty in your favour by encouraging the referee to believe that the opposition have gone beyond the rules. All of which is to be seen every minute of every game of football.

Gordon Lewis, Reading, UK

The real question lies in the reasons why we aren't routinely taught about human emotions, behaviour, boundaries etc. You would think that in order to have a socially responsible society, we would first be taught how got be human - how to interact with one another in a respectful manner. Instead we're taught how to count and sort shapes. Lazy thinkers say that emotional intelligence is responsibility of the parents but this response does not resolve the root cause of the current degeneration in society - the fact that parents are more likely to be overworked, unintentionally neglectful caretakers. The fact is that the government do not want to have individuals capable of thinking for themselves, hence the school uniform, adherence to arbitrary rules, classification by ability etc. What they want to produce are virtual automatons capable of taking orders and paying taxes without question.

Katie Winrow , Carlisle

This may seem way off target, however this article might be met with a different response from those who realise the importance of the hormone of connection, important at birth, but very often unintentionally suppressed. The hormone is oxytocin, and it seems to me, that if we look at this important area, as does Prof Kirsten Moberg (The Oxytocin Factor) and Dr Michel Odent (The Scientification of Love, etc), we might see that there are also factors at play which we may be totally unaware of. We may be moving further towards the times when similar studies will show an even greater disconnect from others.

Renee Buchanan, Stirling, Scotland

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