Everyone has a darkness inside them

There is a darkness in the human soul. All throughout history, a similar pattern frequently reemerges. People are living next to each other seemingly in peace, only for madness to strike. Tolerance turns to resentment, then maliciousness and venom. Formerly decent folk are calling for the extermination of the enemy, hatred growing in the hearts of all. In a flashing instant, neighbor is slaughtering neighbor, and all hell is breaking loose.

Unimaginable evil can take over suddenly, consuming everything in its path. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Russian writer and persistent explorer of the darkness of the human soul, noted that no animal can ever be as cruel as a man. We talk of the savageness of a tiger, but no tiger is even capable of doing the things people have done.

“People talk sometimes of a bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky

How does this cruelty, this evil, this darkness in the human soul arise? Sometimes people are born with traits that predispose them for certain things. Psychopaths are those individuals who feel very little remorse or empathy, their ego driving them towards a dark path.

Yet, what is striking is that often evil is committed or supported by people who do not have these traits. Former accountants, or athletes, people from all walks of life can perform these acts. Journalist and philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the term “the banality of evil” to describe how something like the Holocaust can arise out of seemingly ordinary circumstances.

When covering the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the man who organized the transport of millions of people to Nazi concentration camps, Arendt became struck by how ordinary he seemed.

“I was struck by the manifest shallowness in the doer which made it impossible to trace the uncontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer — at least the very effective one now on trial — was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous.” — Hannah Arendt

What is even more mind-blowing is that sometimes these people even believe they are doing a good deed. The road to hell is often paved with good intentions. There is a debate on the inner workings of human nature, and the role darkness plays in it. How come previously decent people can commit such terrible acts?

Perhaps it is as Dostoyevsky believed and the devil doesn’t exist, but people have created him in their own image.

“I think the devil doesn’t exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Or maybe the answer is much more mundane. However, it is important to study these questions and to shed light on the process of how this happens. For our own sake, for humanity’s sake.

5 experiments that show the dark side of human nature

While in the past, philosophers only pondered upon the inner workings of human nature, in recent years some psychologists have set up experiments to test it. Paralleling processes in history, researchers have examined the dark side of people. Some of the results have been quite disturbing.

Zimbardo prison experiment

In 1971, Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo randomly divided a group of student volunteers into two parts. One of them would play the role of guards, and the other would be their prisoners. The results were shocking.

Apparently, just after a short amount of time, many of the guards embraced their roles. Treating the prisoners poorly, they dished out punishments left and right. On the side of the prisoners a sort of dejection and acceptance of the abuse set in.

As Zimbardo put it, he wanted to demonstrate “the ease with which ordinary people could be led to engage in anti-social acts by putting them in situations where they felt anonymous, or they could perceive of others in ways that made them less than human, as enemies or objects.” The experiment went so off the rails that it had to be abandoned just 6 days in.

For the researcher leading the experiment, the behavior of the volunteers showed they internalized their roles. His conclusion was that the prison conditions caused the participants to act the way they did. According to Zimbardo, it was a demonstration of “how systemic and situational forces can operate to influence individual behavior in negative or positive directions, often without our personal awareness.”

Milgram public authority experiment

Ten years before Zimbardo’s experiment, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram held one of his own. This now legendary test had a simple set-up. The participants would be seated in a chair and administer electric shocks to people they could only hear. They were led to believe that giving out these shots was a way to help them learn better.

Of course in reality the voices were just tapes, but the volunteers pushing the buttons didn’t know that. Whenever the alleged learner answered a question wrong, the researcher would prod the participant to administer a shock, which would get stronger and stronger each time.

In reality, if the highest level of electricity had zapped the learner, they would be dead. Surprisingly, around 65% of the participants actually administered the final 450-volt bolts. Not to say that 100% of them went up to at least 300 volts!

In an article, Milgram noted that “the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding an explanation. Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.”

Trying to show how such an evil thing as the Holocaust can happen, Milgram’s experiment has incredible explanatory power. Even if ordinary citizens are not hateful, just the simple fact of compliance and following authority can create the conditions necessary for great atrocities to take place.

Robbers cave experiment

In 1954, even before the two previous experiments took place, psychologist Muzafer Sherif created his own study. Meant to test how conflicts arise, he set up two groups composed of boys who had never met each other before. Believing they were there for a summer camp, each group started out by doing normal activities.

However, over time they discovered that another group of boys was sharing the same park with them. First off, the two groups were put into normal competitions against each other. Quickly, in-group versus out-group dynamics developed. Violent clashes between the two groups were the result.

Interestingly, in times of group conflict altruism comes into play, but in a weird way. According to Sherif, “the zeal with which members of one group pursue intergroup hostility is proportional to the degree of solidarity and cooperativeness within the in-group, and these tend to increase.” While the hostility towards the out-group increases, the solidarity within the in-group tends to increase too.

Sherif’s work is the basis of realistic conflict theory. Strife between groups can arise when people perceive that resources are limited and the need to fight over them. This zero-sum view of the world where the other side must lose if your side is to win, is the source of much bad blood.

Third Wave experiment

How could so many German people have so willingly participated in the Nazi movement? This is a question that boggles the mind of many. In 1967, struggling to explain this to his students, high school history teacher Ron Jones decided to demonstrate it instead.

Over a span of 5 days, Jones indoctrinated his students into a fictitious movement he set up, “The Third Wave”. Starting off with simple drills on discipline and a few slogans, he instilled in the students a sense of community based on groupthink.

Throughout the course of the experiment, the movement proved quite popular with the students. Hundreds of teens who were not even in the class joined in. Setting strict rules, Jones had a way to check whether these were being followed. He selected a few of the kids to report on the others.

To his surprise, many more snitched out of their own free will. Those deemed insufficiently loyal to the cause were put on trial and punished. The entire thing got so out of hand, that the teacher had to end it early. Proving how easy it is to fall for causes through group dynamics, The Third Wave experiment shows how dangerously carried away people can get.

Tajfel social groups experiment

Henri Tajfel, himself a Holocaust survivor, conducted experiments trying to show how ordinary thinking processes can lead to prejudice. He posited that it was categorization that was behind this. This results in people minimizing the differences between the individuals in their in-group, while maximizing the differences from their out-group, painting the “other” with a similar negative brush.

In one of his experiments, Tajfel created two groups of boys. Telling them that the choice was made on their preferences for paintings by a particular painter (in reality just random pics), the boys were then asked to allocate resources to each other. Despite not knowing the other boys in their group, most individuals divided up the resources in a way as to maximize the profits for their own group. This was despite there being a strategy that would maximize profits for everyone.

This showed how favoritism, prejudice, and discrimination can come into being. Even though the groups were created randomly, a sense of in-group versus out-group developed. Once this dynamic is set in motion, it can be hard to stop. According to Tajfel, “once the process is set in motion they reinforce each other in a relentless spiral in which the weight of predominant causes tends to shift continuously.”

Honorable mention:

While experiments with humans are the most pertinent for uncovering human nature, ones done with animals can be quite telling too.

Rat paradise experiment

In the 1960s, behavioral researcher John B. Calhoun set up a series of experiments with mice and rats. In his experiments, he created what he termed “rat utopias”. These were interconnected habitats that provided everything needed for a rat to live a successful life, food, shelter, and mates.

In the beginning, a small number of rats of both sexes were released into the habitats. Due to the favorable conditions, the population grew rapidly. It kept doubling quite fast, but then at one moment, the rate started to slow down. Then something weird happened. The rats stopped reproducing completely.

Despite the fact that the conditions in the habitats were favorable for a lot more rats, society broke down. A small number of individual male rats monopolized all the females, while the rest of the males started to congregate in specific areas. Incessant fighting erupted, as did an increase in homosexual behavior.

Things went downhill from there. The constant warfare caused many of the males to withdraw completely, instead now spending the time between sleeping and grooming themselves. The rat utopia collapsed and the society went extinct thereafter.

Calhoun saw this as a warning for human society. Growing overcrowding and a breakdown in social relations could lead to what he termed a “behavioral sink”. In rats, this led to total collapse and eventual extinction.

The power of the dark side

Throughout history, we have seen what types of evil things people are capable of. Often, these monsters arise from seemingly innocent beginnings. Adolf Hitler was a failed artist who started his political career preaching in beer halls. Pol Pot and his gang were students and activists sitting around in the cafes of Paris. The rise of these demagogues, however, was also facilitated by ordinary people jumping in on their bandwagon.

As the Dark Jedi in the “Star Wars” movies demonstrated, the pull of the dark side is strong. The debate of whether humans are basically good or bad might be missing the point. All people have a light side and a dark side. It’s often circumstances that dictate which one gets awakened.

For some individuals, the tendency towards one side or the other can be stronger. The psychological experiments of Zimbardo or Sherif have their critics. Both the methodology and the set-up have been challenged. However, even within these critiques, we can see kernels of human nature.

One challenge to Zimbardo’s experiment was based on the argument that the participants were self-selected. Seeing an ad in a newspaper calling for participants in a prison simulation likely drew out individuals whose personality traits had higher levels of aggression and authoritarianism.

Yet, even with this argument, you can see how the environment plays a huge role. A favorable environment and circumstances can make it easier for certain types of individuals to rise to the top. Certain conditions are more opportune towards people with darker traits.

History can be a guide to how circumstances shape events. It can show us how darkness wins over light. We are living in a period that is increasingly showing flashing danger signs from the past. Things can move fast, or as in the case of the fall of the Roman Republic, things can move slow. However, we need to be aware. The darkness of humanity is always there, lurking.


PS: And of course there are always issues with the set-up and interpretation of these experiments. Many of them are valid critiques. Some of these researchers did set up their experiments in certain ways which could have swayed the results in certain directions. However, even if you take these into account, the insights into human nature are still staggering.

An earlier version of this article was originally published on “Medium” here.
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2 thoughts on “5 Psychological Experiments That Show The Dark Side Of Human Nature”

  1. Thank you for this blog, i like your perspective. This is an interesting article, i appreciate this collection of examples. I”m sure you know, however, that the Zimbardo prison experiment has come under lots of critique due to the methods used (encouraging/pushing the guards ot be aggressive, self-selection bias of the students, discouraging the participants from quitting). see some detail here: https://www.livescience.com/62832-stanford-prison-experiment-flawed.html. Still a great read!

    1. Yes, I do know that. I did address that a bit in one section of the article. However, even with these critiques being valid, you can still see human nature at play. For example, often the worst aspects of group dynamics come out when they are manipulated from the outside (as was done with some of the different experiments I mentioned). For example, you can see that with the rise of demagogues like Trump, who can create conditions that can make things worse. Here things like self-selection (most people won’t fall for the BS, but certain will), aggressiveness…etc. all play a role.

      Glad you liked my article 🙂 Thanks for reading, I appreciate it!

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