What Makes Good People Do Bad Things CommonLit Answers

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  • 11th Grade
  • Lexile: 1360

Source: What makes good people do bad things? by Melissa Dittmann

QuestionAnswer
Why does the author introduce the article with a reference to “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”?to make a comparison between Jekyll’s transformation and real life.
Which statement best summarizes Zimbardo’s perspective on the average person’s ability for evil?A person’s capacity for good or evil can change based on their social environment.
Which statement best supports Zimbardo’s belief that people are not born “good” or “evil”?“‘Any of us can move across it … I argue that we all have the capacity for love and evil – to be Mother Theresa, to be Hitler or Saddam Hussein.'” (Paragraph 3)
How do the results of Albert Bandura’s experiment support Zimbardo’s theories about immoral behavior? (Paragraphs 6-8)They illustrate the idea that people are more likely to hurt those they see as less than human.
Which piece of evidence best supports the idea that dehumanization increases immoral behavior?“Bandura found students were more apt to deliver what they believed were increased levels of electrical shock to the other students if they had heard them called ‘animals.'” (Paragraph 8)
In paragraphs 10-11, how does John Watson’s experiment support Zimbardo’s finding that “relabeling” people can affect their behavior?The masked warriors felt separated from their humanity, so they felt free to treat others inhumanely.
How does the placement of the section “Prison Abuses” support the author’s argument?It reveals a real-world example of what was observed in experiments.

How does the structure of the article make the author’s argument more effective?

The structure of the article in “What makes good people do bad things?” enhances the author’s argument in several ways:

1. Building the foundation:

  • The text starts with the familiar reference to “Jekyll and Hyde,” immediately piquing reader interest and introducing the central theme of good and evil within individuals.
  • Following this, the author presents Zimbardo’s core beliefs and findings from controlled experiments like the Stanford Prison Experiment and Bandura’s shock study. This establishes a solid foundation of evidence for the argument that situational factors can influence behavior.

2. Connecting theory to reality:

  • The “Prison Abuses” section seamlessly follows the presentation of the experiments, demonstrating how Zimbardo’s theories resonate with a real-world event. This juxtaposition strengthens the argument by showing practical relevance beyond controlled settings.

3. Addressing objections:

  • The author anticipates potential challenges to Zimbardo’s claims by mentioning the “bad apples” perspective and acknowledging the influence of individual character. However, by highlighting the situational forces and mental state of the Abu Ghraib soldiers, the argument emphasizes the complex interplay between individual and external factors.

4. Emphasizing takeaways:

  • Concluding with Zimbardo’s quote about the power of situations reinforces the central message and leaves the reader with a thought-provoking takeaway.

Overall, the structure effectively guides the reader through a logical progression:

  • Introducing the concept and relevant evidence
  • Demonstrating its application in a real-world context
  • Addressing potential counterpoints and emphasizing key conclusions

This clear and structured approach makes the author’s argument about the influence of situations on human behavior more compelling and memorable for the reader.

Additional points:

  • The use of subheadings and clear transitions keeps the flow smooth and facilitates focused reading.
  • Including specific examples and concrete details throughout the text enhances the argument’s persuasiveness and relatability.

Discussion Answers

Make an argument for or against this statement: “That line between good and evil is permeable,” Zimbardo said. “Any of us can move across it … I argue that we all have the capacity for love and evil – to be Mother Theresa, to be Hitler or Saddam Hussein. It’s the situation that brings that out.”

Okay, so Zimbardo’s dropping a major philosophical bomb here: the “good and evil line” is basically a bouncy castle for our morals. I kinda dig it, but it also messes with your head, right? Let’s unpack this.

Argument for:

  • Real-life experiments: The Stanford Prison Experiment, where nice college dudes turned into brutal guards just because they wore uniforms, kinda proves Zimbardo’s point. Situations can seriously twist our inner compass.
  • History is full of “good” people gone bad: From soldiers committing atrocities to CEOs cooking the books, the line blurs when pressure, power, or peer pressure kick in. We’re all capable of some dark stuff under the right circumstances.
  • Think about yourself: Be honest, haven’t you ever lied to get out of trouble, said something mean in the heat of the moment, or felt the urge to take revenge after being wronged? We all have “evil” lurking in the shadows, waiting for the right trigger.

Argument against:

  • Aren’t some people just plain bad? Serial killers, psychopaths – they seem wired differently, right? It’s not just the situation, they have something dark hardwired in their brains.
  • Doesn’t this excuse bad behavior? If anyone can be Hitler, then shouldn’t we just give up on morality? Is there even a point to trying to be good if it’s all just situational?
  • Ignoring individual responsibility: It’s easy to blame situations, but we still have choices. Even in tough circumstances, some people stand up for what’s right. Shouldn’t we focus on celebrating those choices instead of giving everyone a free pass?

Ultimately, Zimbardo’s statement is like a philosophical slap in the face. It forces us to confront the darkness within ourselves and the power of situations to bring it out. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but maybe that’s the point.

Maybe understanding this “permeable line” can help us make better choices, resist bad situations, and build a world where the “evil” stays dormant, locked away in the bouncy castle of our potential.


Consider the characters from “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Spunk.” Based on Zimbardo’s claim in “What makes good people do bad things?”, how did the characters’ different situations influence their behavior? Do you think the characters in these stories have the capacity for both good and evil? Why?

Analyzing the characters of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Spunk” through the lens of Zimbardo’s claim offers fascinating insights into how situations can indeed influence behavior and reveal complexities within individuals.

In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the Missourian family’s encounter with the Misfit triggers a cascade of actions driven by desperation and fear.

  • The grandmother’s initial self-righteousness and prejudice towards the Misfit are amplified by the threat he poses. Her manipulative attempts to claim kinship backfire and ultimately contribute to the family’s tragic demise.
  • Bailey’s desperate pleading for his family’s life reflects a shift from outward bravado to fear-driven compliance. Even the children, confronted with violence, act impulsively, highlighting the profound impact of the situation on their usual behavior.

Similarly, in “Spunk,” the characters’ actions are heavily influenced by their circumstances and desires.

  • Spunk’s initial cowardice stems from his lack of self-worth and the domineering presence of his boss. When confronted with Lulu’s affection and the promise of escape, he undergoes a temporary transformation, exhibiting bravery he wasn’t previously known for.
  • Lulu’s manipulative behavior is driven by desperation for a better life, leading her to exploit Spunk’s newfound confidence. However, it ultimately results in tragedy, showcasing the dark consequences of situational pressure.

Both stories demonstrate the capacity for good and evil within individuals, often triggered by external factors.

  • The grandmother’s initial attempts to deceive the Misfit could be seen as a desperate act of maternal protection, while her later actions exhibit cruelty and prejudice.
  • Spunk’s transformation from timid worker to bold thief highlights the potential for hidden strengths and desires within him. Lulu’s cunning, while motivated by a desire for a better life, manifests in morally questionable actions.

These characters’ complex motivations support Zimbardo’s claim. Situations create immense pressure, potentially pushing individuals beyond their perceived boundaries and exposing the duality within them. The stories raise questions about free will and responsibility, forcing us to consider the intricate interplay between individual personality, situational forces, and the potential for both good and evil within each of us.


Both “Of Revenge” and “The Cask of Amontillado” focus on the idea of revenge. How does revenge fit into Zimbardo’s argument about why people do evil things? How might these two texts contribute to or change Zimbardo’s research?

Both “Of Revenge” and “The Cask of Amontillado” indeed delve into the murky depths of revenge, showcasing its destructive nature and exploring its motivations. This connection offers insightful avenues to both support and complicate Zimbardo’s argument about the origins of evil, making these texts potentially valuable contributions to his research.

Supporting Zimbardo’s Argument:

  • Revenge as a product of situational factors: Both texts depict revenge arising from perceived injustices and grievances inflicted by external forces. In “Of Revenge,” Montresor’s elaborate and chilling plot against Fortunato is fueled by a lifetime of perceived slights and humiliations. Similarly, the unnamed narrator in “The Cask of Amontillado” justifies his gruesome vengeance against Montresor as retribution for past insults and perceived wrongs. This aligns with Zimbardo’s emphasis on how external circumstances can create dehumanizing conditions and push individuals towards harmful actions.
  • The dehumanizing nature of revenge: Both stories portray revenge as a process that strips away humanity, transforming individuals into instruments of vengeance. Montresor’s meticulous planning and cold execution of Fortunato showcase a loss of empathy and compassion. The narrator in “The Cask of Amontillado” revels in his victim’s suffering, demonstrating a detachment from basic human morality. This aligns with Zimbardo’s observation that deindividuation and situational pressures can erode moral constraints and lead to cruelty.

Complicating Zimbardo’s Argument:

  • The element of agency: While Zimbardo focuses on how situations influence behavior, both texts also highlight the role of individual choice and agency in pursuing revenge. Montresor and the narrator actively choose to enact elaborate and brutal plans, suggesting that personal motivations and desires can play a significant role in driving acts of evil. This raises questions about the balance between situational and individual factors in perpetrating harmful actions.
  • The moral complexities of revenge: While Zimbardo primarily addresses harm inflicted by powerful entities on powerless individuals, “Of Revenge” and “The Cask of Amontillado” present more nuanced scenarios. Both perpetrators justify their actions as payback for perceived wrongs, blurring the lines between victim and aggressor. This adds a layer of ethical ambiguity to the concept of revenge, challenging simplistic categorizations of good and evil.

Contributions to Zimbardo’s Research:

  • Enriching understanding of motivations: These texts offer detailed exploration of the complex emotions and psychological driving forces behind revenge, providing Zimbardo’s research with a richer understanding of why individuals might choose to pursue harmful actions.
  • Examining the role of agency: These stories raise important questions about the balance between situational pressures and individual choices in perpetrating evil. This could inspire further research into the interplay between external factors and personal responsibility in morally complex situations.
  • Adding ethical depth: By presenting morally ambiguous scenarios where revenge intertwines with personal grievances and perceived injustices, these texts encourage deeper reflection on the nature of good and evil. This could lead to a more nuanced understanding of how individuals engage in harmful acts and contribute to a more compassionate and critical approach to understanding human behavior.

In conclusion, while “Of Revenge” and “The Cask of Amontillado” primarily support Zimbardo’s argument by showcasing the influence of situational pressures on harmful actions, they also introduce valuable complexities.

By highlighting the role of agency, individual motivations, and the ethical ambiguities of revenge, these texts offer fertile ground for further research and a more nuanced understanding of the reasons behind human evil.

Integrating these insights into Zimbardo’s work could lead to a deeper exploration of the human psyche and pave the way for more effective strategies to prevent and address harmful behavior.


Do you think Zimbardo’s list of situations that seduce people into doing evil things is complete? Do you think there are other scenarios that might cause a good person to momentarily change their ways? Explain.

Whether Zimbardo’s list of situations that “seduce” people into evil is complete is a complex and fascinating question. While his insights remain valuable, considering additional scenarios can enrich our understanding of human behavior and its potential for both good and evil.

Arguments for Incompleteness:

  • Focus on authority and social roles: Zimbardo’s framework, drawing heavily from the Stanford Prison Experiment, emphasizes the influence of authority figures and prescribed social roles in fostering harmful behavior. While this is undoubtedly a powerful factor, it may overlook other relevant situations.
  • Limited scope of “evil”: Defining “evil” itself is subjective and culturally dependent. Zimbardo’s list might prioritize certain forms of evil related to obedience and oppression, potentially neglecting other dimensions like prejudice, greed, or self-preservation that lead people to act harmfully.
  • Individual differences: People vary in personality, moral compass, and coping mechanisms. What pushes one person towards harmful actions might not affect another. Zimbardo’s list, while generalizable, could benefit from incorporating the role of individual differences in susceptibility to situational pressures.

Possible Additional Scenarios:

  • Extreme social pressure: Intense peer pressure, mob mentality, or societal expectations can create significant pressure to conform, potentially leading individuals to engage in unethical or harmful acts even if they contradict their personal values.
  • Desperate situations: Extreme poverty, hunger, or fear for one’s life or loved ones can create desperate situations where individuals might choose harmful actions they wouldn’t consider under normal circumstances.
  • Moral dilemmas: Complex situations with no clear-cut right or wrong choice can force individuals to make difficult decisions that might involve harming others, even if they do so with good intentions.
  • Technological influences: The rise of online anonymity and misinformation can foster environments where individuals feel less inhibited and more prone to engage in harmful behavior they wouldn’t exhibit in real life.

Conclusion:

Zimbardo’s list provides a valuable framework for understanding how situations can influence people to act harmfully.

However, considering additional scenarios like those mentioned above can enrich our understanding of human behavior and the various ways in which good people can find themselves momentarily deviating from their usual moral compass.

This deeper understanding can then inform strategies to create more ethical environments, foster individual resilience, and combat the various forms of harm that arise from both situational pressures and the complexities of human nature.

Ultimately, the question of whether Zimbardo’s list is complete is less about reaching a definitive answer and more about recognizing the inherent complexities and potential for nuance in human behavior.

By constantly exploring and refining our understanding of the diverse situations that can influence choices and actions, we can move closer to a more compassionate and effective approach to navigating the vast spectrum of human good and evil.

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