03/10/2013 02:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Resisting Evil, Creating Goodness

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We could raise children, and educate ourselves and each other, in ways that greatly reduce violence in the world and create more caring and benevolence. Certain circumstances tend to give rise to violence. For example, economic decline, political confusion, and persistent conflict between groups within a society are starting points for violence, which at times evolves into genocide. But some people resist the negative influence of potentially violence-generating conditions, or act heroically -- greatly endangering themselves -- to protect others.

In Stanley Milgram's obedience experiments, many participants in the role of teacher who were told to give increasing electric shocks to a "learner" when he made mistakes on a task did so. But people whose moral reasoning focused on their responsibility were less likely to continue to administer shocks. Students who were assigned the role of guards in the Stanford prison study abused those who had the role of inmates. But based on a hypothesis in my book, The Roots of Evil, a study by Carnahan and McFarland explored whether people who volunteer for a study of prison life have characteristics that may incline them to violence. They found that people who responded to a newspaper ad for a psychological study of prison life were more hostile and manipulative and less empathic than people who responded to an ad for a psychological study. We also know that only a tiny percentage of Muslims are terrorists. Only a small percentage of a population usually becomes perpetrators of genocide. However, many remain passive bystanders who, by their passivity, encourage perpetrators.

On the positive side, in a number of our studies, people who had a positive view of human beings and a belief in their responsibility to help others were more likely to help someone in physical or psychological distress. Rescuers, the very small number of people who often emerge when a genocide begins, endangering themselves to hide or in other ways protect the intended victims, were found to be motivated by feelings of responsibility, empathy, or a belief in justice.

How do the values, the moral and when necessary physical courage develop to resist evil, to act in others' behalf, to work on building a peaceful and harmonious society or world? Socialization in childhood, life experiences, and education can all contribute. Research, the study of the socialization of rescuers, and interventions after violence in places like Rwanda provide building blocks of knowledge.

Childhood experiences are important; creating them requires knowledge, skills, and even transformation in adults. Not treating children badly, which makes them see the world as hostile and dangerous, is crucial. Raising them with warmth and nurturance, guiding them with caring values, making them aware of the consequences of their actions, acting as helpful models are all building blocks of a caring and helpful orientation. Many rescuers described at least one of their parents as a humanitarian. Both violence and helping evolve; individuals (and societies) learn by doing, change as a result of their own actions. In a series of studies, I provided children with opportunities to help other children -- by making toys for poor hospitalized children, or teaching younger children. They were later more helpful than children who engaged in non-helpful activities.

Even when children learn to care about others' welfare, they are often taught to restrict caring to their own group. For caring to become inclusive, to expand beyond members of one's group, significant contact with members of other groups is of great value. Engagement in joint projects, in the course of which children and adults can experience the humanity of the "other," is of special value.

We don't yet know much about how people become morally courageous. Giving children a voice through participation in decision-making in the school or in the family, encouraging them to act on their values even in the face of opposition as long as the consequences are not likely to be drastic, and to be active bystanders when their fellow students are bullied can all build moral courage.

For a caring world, adults also need opportunities to learn, change, transform. In Rwanda, my associates and I have conducted trainings for groups ranging from facilitators who worked with groups in the community to national leaders. We also developed educational radio programs, including a radio drama that began broadcasting in 2004 and is still ongoing. The focus has been on helping people learn about and notice the influences that lead to violence and avenues to trauma recovery, prevention, and reconciliation. Evaluations have shown many positive effects, including more positive attitudes by Hutus and Tutsis toward each other, more empathy, more willingness to say what one believes, and more participation in reconciliation activities.

Through socialization, public education through media, and other ways, we can create a world in which people become active bystanders who resist evil, help others, and work on creating peaceful societies.

Ervin Staub's latest book, Overcoming Evil: Genocide, violent conflict and terrorism, won a 2012 award as the year's best book in political psychology, and a 2013 award for fundamental contributions to psychology as a global discipline.

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