Who Do We Think We Are?   /   Spring 2021   /    Thematic Essays

Thinking the Worst of Ourselves

We might be murderers, and we might not, but isn’t it safer to assume we are and be proven wrong? Maybe not.

Jackson Arn

Adolf Eichmann on trial for Nazi war crimes (detail), 1961; The Print Collector/Alamy Stock Photo.

Curio · The Hedgehog Review | Thinking the Worst of Ourselves

Psychology is always in the midst of trading itself out. Seven years from now, a recent study estimated, about half of what psychologists believe will have been replaced with something new.11xG.J. Neimeyer, J.M. Taylor, and R.H. Rozensky, “The Diminishing Durability of Knowledge in Professional Psychology: A Delphi Poll of Specialties and Proficiencies,” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 43, no. 4 (March 15, 2012): 364–71, https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2012-16074-001. Pop psychology, on the other hand, is ageless. Its big ideas (six degrees of separation, mothers lifting pickups off their babies, you only use 10 percent of your brainpower) have survived every regime change. They cannot be disproven because they were never completely true in the first place.

In the early 1960s, three events occurred that had a sizable influence on psychology but a massive influence on pop psychology. Taken together, they seemed to suggest a frightening truth about human nature—so frightening that people were afraid to ignore it, even as more and more of the evidence was contradicted. The first event was the trial, beginning in May 1961, of the Nazi official Adolf Eichmann. The second was the “shock experiment” organized by the psychologist Stanley Milgram in July of the same year. The third was the murder of Kitty Genovese in March 1964.

Trying to solve the mysteries of Kitty Genovese, the Milgram shock experiment, and Eichmann in one article would be like trying to summarize the Encyclopaedia Britannica in thirty seconds. The first thing that needs to be said, then, is that I don’t know what these cases prove. What I do know is that all three have been profoundly misinterpreted, beginning with their original chroniclers. For Stanley Milgram and Hannah Arendt, the misinterpretations may have been unconscious, but it’s difficult to look at Martin Gansberg’s article on Kitty Genovese for the New York Times as anything other than a cynical distortion. Over the last fifty years, the conventional wisdom has drifted even farther from the evidence than these interpreters allowed.

Today, the conventional wisdom goes something like this: All human beings are Nazis in waiting. Under the right circumstances, they will cheerfully administer lethal shocks to strangers, or watch as their neighbors are murdered, or organize genocides. If they have not committed acts of depravity, it is because they live in a society that keeps their baser instincts under control, not because they lack the instincts themselves. This is not a scientific conclusion; it’s the moral to a fable. But it has the rudeness of fact—only the facts, you can’t help but think, could be this painful. Never mind that the facts are factually incorrect.

It could be that all people do have the capacity for unfathomable cruelty. But the Eichmann trial didn’t prove so, not by a long shot. Nor did Kitty Genovese’s murder, nor the Milgram experiment. The question is why, in the early 1960s, so many intelligent people were ready to believe that they did. Why, with the evidence inconclusive, were three versions of the same fable parroted for decades? And why, in the early 2020s, do people go on believing them?

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