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?

Eichmann as Cautionary Tale

To understand what these three stories have in common, it’s best to start with the storytellers. Arendt, Milgram, and Gansberg were Jews (as was Abe Rosenthal, the Times editor who assigned Gansberg the front-page story of Kitty Genovese’s murder and later wrote a book on the case) at a time when the Holocaust was only a generation past. Arendt had escaped from a detention camp. As a teenager, Milgram met uncles and cousins who had survived concentration camps. He later wrote, “I should have been born into a German-speaking Jewish community of Prague in 1922 and died in a gas chamber some 20 years later. How I came to be born in the Bronx Hospital, I’ll never quite understand.”22xThomas Blass, The Man Who Shocked America: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram (Philadelphia, PA: Basic Books, 2004), 42. Milgram’s question was not “Why was I born here and not there?” so much as “Why did the Holocaust happen there but not here?” It was the same question a great many other Jewish intellectuals were then asking themselves. Quite often, their answer was that America’s Holocaust hadn’t happened yet—but wherever there was industrial, instrumentalized society, the possibility lurked.

This wasn’t strictly a Jewish position, of course. You could find it everywhere in postwar discourse, from Herbert Marcuse’s analysis of “incipient fascism” to Dwight Eisenhower’s halfway-out-the-door warning of an encroaching military industrial complex.33xHerbert Marcuse, The New Left and the 1960s, vol. 3, ed. Douglas Kellner (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005), 138. Not for nothing were the forties and fifties a golden age of dystopian fiction; in a way, science-fiction authors were spelling out the possibilities that Ike, Marcuse, et al. had only hinted at. Still, the danger of pretending it couldn’t happen here—and the need to stop “it” from happening—had a special urgency for Jews whose family trees had been ravaged by Nazis. Keeping Hitler out of America was an idea at once noble and oddly naive in its willingness to take the enemy at its word. In order to argue that America was on the brink of fascism, you first had to accept that fascism had not been there for centuries, that America had not subjected its own black and red people to genocide, that Hitler had not based his Final Solution on the example of the extermination of Native Americans.

There’s a similar mix of incisiveness and naivete in Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil is a brilliantly perceptive study of human nature that proceeds from the premise that Adolf Eichmann—the man who managed the logistics of the Final Solution—was telling the truth about not being an anti-Semite. Instead, he was “terrifyingly normal,” a symbol of the depravity nestled in nice, respectable bourgeois society.44xHannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York, NY: Penguin Random House, 2001), 17. First published 1963.

No worthwhile book can be summed up in a single phrase, and in describing “the banality of evil,” Arendt didn’t make all the points people think they remember her making. She never said Eichmann was just a bureaucratic cog; in fact, she took pains to argue against that alibi and concluded that he deserved to die. She never offered Eichmann as proof that the Nazis were remorseless, dronelike killers—what was horrifying about the Nazis, on the contrary, was that they did feel remorse, but learned to swaddle the feeling in a self-aggrandizing sense of duty. “The law of Hitler’s land,” Arendt wrote, “demanded that the voice of conscience tell everybody: ‘Thou shalt kill,’ although the organizers of the massacres knew full well that murder is against the normal desires and inclinations of most people. Evil in the Third Reich had lost the quality by which most people recognize it—the quality of temptation. Many Germans and many Nazis, probably an overwhelming majority of them, must have been tempted not to murder.… But, God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation.”55xIbid., 91.

Any passage as powerful as this one deserves to go on being studied—yet, as you make your way through Eichmann in Jerusalem, it’s hard to shake the sense that Arendt is straining to confirm an idea she is afraid to deny. She wants Eichmann’s life to serve as a cautionary tale for readers. To this end, Eichmann must be something more than a Nazi; he must speak to some collective heart of darkness. Why did so many Nazis go against their natural aversion to killing? In Arendt’s account, they killed because they had been seduced by the fantasy of power. They were hungry for a strongman, a sense of purpose, a strong society, and so on. There are parts of Arendt’s book in which the Nazis seem to have murdered millions of Jews for every reason but anti-Semitism.

So her theory struts on, swatting facts out of its way. Eichmann bragged about slaughtering millions of Jews and did everything in his power to continue the slaughter even after Himmler ordered him to stop—surely this is more than enough to prove a boundless, irrational anti-Semitism? No, Arendt argues: Eichmann was just a showoff, and loyal to his führer.66xIbid., 182. This is what the philosopher Karl Popper had in mind when he wrote of unfalsifiability: Eichmann is the cold, hard fact at the center of Arendt’s theory, except when he isn’t. When the evidence agrees with her, she hammers it home, and when it does not, she loses it in the erudite tangle of her prose. Maybe the best reply to so much nuance is a riff on an old joke: Eichmann looked like a Jew hater, talked like a Jew hater, even walked like a Jew hater, but don’t be fooled—he was, for all that, a Jew hater.

Shock Value

Eichmann in Jerusalem was an intuitively counterintuitive book. Even as it drew disturbing conclusions about human nature, it was more or less in step with the intellectual fashions of the era. It presented itself as correcting a dominant narrative, even as its own narrative was becoming ubiquitous. If you doubted that Eichmann represented Modern Man—or that anybody, properly roused and commanded, was capable of committing evil—you believed in a fairy tale.

The Milgram shock experiment was supposed to end the fairy tale forever. Moved by news of the Eichmann trial, Milgram sought to generalize Arendt’s findings by studying whether cheery young Americans, not just one German, were capable of murder. The psychology would have to be cruder—the subject of his experiment was obedience to authority, not Arendt’s subtle mixture of alienation, banality, and will to power—but the conclusion wasn’t so very different. Evil was hiding in plain sight, waiting for a man in uniform. It could happen here.

Volunteers, and lab workers pretending to be volunteers, were summoned to the Yale campus and told they would be participating in an experiment that measured the relationship between pain and learning. A coin flip decided who would be the learner and who would be the teacher—though actually the flip was faked, so that the real volunteer would be the teacher every time. The teacher read lists of words to the learner and then quizzed the learner. When the learner got a question wrong, the teacher punished the learner with a shock—or so the teacher was led to think. Each shock was supposed to be more severe than the last. The strongest was 450 volts—lethal, and labeled so. In the initial version of the experiment, 65 percent of volunteers administered what they believed was lethal shock. Most of the others went as far as 300 volts. The reason they did, according to Milgram, was that there was a third person in the room: an “experimenter,” dressed in a gray lab coat, who directed the volunteers to continue and, if they didn’t, gave them a series of scripted nudges like “Please continue” and “It is absolutely essential that you continue.”77xStanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (New York, NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009), 38. First published 1974.

There were probably some other reasons, none of which pop psychology has cared to remember. The participants were all male. There were only forty of them—a puny sample for such earth-shattering conclusions. They exemplified the classic “volunteer personality” (the kind that leads people to spend hours working with scientists they’ve never met, for chicken feed), so their obedience wasn’t exactly surprising, let alone reflective of the general population. Some of them—possibly most—doubted that the experiment was real and were just playing along.88xCari Romm, “Rethinking One of Psychology’s Most Infamous Experiments,” The Atlantic, January 28, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/01/rethinking-one-of-psychologys-most-infamous-experiments/384913/.

These were major flaws, some of which Milgram corrected in later versions of the experiment and some of which he didn’t, or couldn’t. (It’s impossible to be certain, but it seems that most of the original teachers who fully believed in the reality of the experiment refused to comply.) But none of these flaws are as well-known as they should be, not in pop psychology and not in real psychology. In 2015, a survey of the field’s leading textbooks found only two that discussed the methodological problems with Milgram’s experiment.99xRichard A. Griggs and George I. Whitehead, “Coverage of Milgram’s Obedience Experiments in Social Psychology Textbooks,” Teaching of Psychology 42, no. 4 (September 2, 2015): 315–22, https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628315603065.

One reason these problems were not widely reported was that Milgram had confirmed what a sizable portion of the intelligentsia had already decided: Human nature, if not a complete illusion, was at least an embarrassment—mute, pathetic, quick to join this gang or obey that bully. Experiment after experiment first seemed to confirm this idea, then was questioned or flatly refuted, and finally limped on in the popular imagination. On the basis of twenty years studying rats and pigeons, B.F. Skinner felt qualified to conclude that human beings lacked free will; Noam Chomsky ripped Skinner’s theory apart but couldn’t keep him off the cover of Time. The headline was “B.F. Skinner Says: We Can’t Afford Freedom.”1010xThe article itself, by Don Punchatz, was titled “Behavior: Skinner’s Utopia: Panacea, or Path to Hell?,” Time, September 21, 1971, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,909994,00.html.

The Bystander Effect

You could agree or disagree with the postwar, minor-key view of human nature. What you couldn’t deny was that it made for terrific copy. The front-page story of the March 27, 1964, New York Times began with one of the most gripping ledes in the paper’s history: “For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law‐abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.”1111xMartin Gansberg, “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police; Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector,” New York Times, March 27, 1964, https://www.nytimes.com/1964/03/27/archives/37-who-saw-murder-didnt-call-the-police-apathy-at-stabbing-of.html. That sentence contains novels worth of terror and tragedy, and is, like a novel, a work of fiction.

First, the numbers: not thirty-eight, and not three.1212xKevin Cook, Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2015), 39–40. In 2016, when Genovese’s killer died in prison, the Times acknowledged that the number of bystanders had been “grossly exaggerated,” and that there had not been three separate attacks.1313xDavid W. Dunlap, “How Many Witnessed the Murder of Kitty Genovese?,” New York Times, April 6, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/06/insider/1964-how-many-witnessed-the-murder-of-kitty-genovese.html. Gansberg’s original story left out another crucial number: two, the number of Kew Gardens residents who had, after all, called the police. There were other fictions of omission. Genovese died at 3:30 a.m. on a cold, windy night when most of her neighbors were fast asleep and few of them would have been roused by a shout. Gansberg mentions an elderly neighbor who was waiting for the police at the scene of the crime, but doesn’t stress that this neighbor had risked her own life by going downstairs and investigating the noise.1414xCook, Kitty Genovese, 92. A few weeks after the story broke, a WNBC reporter called Gansberg to ask why he had failed to include so many details of this kind. “It would have ruined the story,” Gansberg told him.1515xJames Solomon (director/producer), The Witness [documentary film] (New York, NY: FilmRise, 2015). Color, digital.

The immortal image Gansberg created—an entire neighborhood peeking through the blinds, silently watching a woman’s murder—had no basis in fact. Most of the neighborhood was fast asleep. Most of the neighbors who were awake couldn’t see what was happening, assumed they were hearing a quarrel between two law-abiding adults, and went back to bed. Even at the time it was possible to deduce this from Gansberg’s story, and within a few decades almost every one of its major points had been disputed or refuted.

As it turned out, none of this made much of a difference—the story of Kitty Genovese’s murder outlived its corrections. Every few years, someone writes an article about why the story is a myth, the article makes its rounds and is forgotten, and the myth resumes its funereal march. Genovese is still mentioned in every psychology textbook when it comes time to explain the bystander effect. Bill Clinton brought up the case in a 1994 speech on the need for strong communities.1616xWilliam J. Clinton, “Public Safety Forum,” C-SPAN, March 10, 1994, https://www.c-span.org/video/?55150-1/public-safety-forum. Clinton begins talking about Kitty Genovese at 15:43. In 2000, it officially entered the pop psychology canon, by which I mean, of course, that it was mentioned in a Malcolm Gladwell book.1717xMalcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (London, England: Abacus, 2015), 116–20.

Shielding Ideas from Facts

That the theories of Arendt, Gansberg, and Milgram have survived more than half a century of refutation without so much as a chip is remarkable. What’s more remarkable is that your confidence in their theories probably hasn’t wavered as you’ve made your way through this article. It may have increased.

This is the strange thing about (or maybe the definition of) conventional wisdom: It is nourished, not weakened, by the evidence against it. Eichmann may not have been the pliable bureaucrat Arendt imagined, but somehow this makes the banality of evil loom larger than ever. Gansberg may have been a liar, but somehow his lies seem closer to the truth than truth itself. Milgram may have made some mistakes, but somehow this makes obedience to authority seem more sinister, not more implausible.

Conventional wisdom is hard to measure. But if it can be found in any one place, that place would have to be the comments section. If, by the same token, I had to stake my argument on a single piece of writing, I doubt I could do better than the comments section for Johannes Lichtman’s short article on the Milgram shock experiment, published in the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2013. Lichtman, a professor at the University of North Carolina–Wilmington, provides a thorough summary of the objections to Milgram’s work, including the possibilities that Milgram let his experimenters deviate from the script or buried versions of the experiment that complicated his theory. To which one commenter replied, a few months ago: “This article is dumb. The fact that he pushed some people who didn’t obey more than others doesn’t invalidate his claims that people acting under authority are capable of evil—it further proves them.”1818xJohannes Lichtman, “Psych, Lies, and Audiotape: The Tarnished Legacy of the Milgram Shock Experiments,” Los Angeles Review of Books, October 30, 2013, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/psych-lies-and-audiotape-the-tarnished-legacy-of-the-milgram-shock-experiments/. Quoted comment posted April 2020. Why, yes, of course—the fact that we know Milgram lied about some of his results proves that the other results were true!

I bring this up not to pick on a random Internet troll (which would be very, very dumb of me) but to draw attention to the kind of rationalizing that rests like bulletproof glass over the portrait of Homo sapiens painted by Milgram, Arendt, and Gansberg. There is nothing intrinsically foolish about shielding ideas from facts; doing so is as old as Paul’s distinction between the spirit and the letter of the laws, as eloquent as the “quality of mercy” monologue from The Merchant of Venice, and as erudite as Wittgenstein’s claim that logical propositions were like a riverbed. But it’s also as bombastic as Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness,” as slippery as ex-Trump enabler Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts,” and as terrifying as doublethink.

In each of the examples I’ve just listed, empirical truth is not enough. The more it pecks away at Christian faith or Big Brother, the stronger it leaves them. Whether you agree, or find this absurd, merely reflects your feelings about the thing itself—if you voted for Trump, the case for impeachment probably made you wish you could vote for him all over again, and if you didn’t, it probably made you wish you didn’t live in the United States. Fact-proof theories don’t convert anyone, but their ability to shore up the base is unmatched.

What is odd about the work of Arendt, Milgram, and Gansberg, compared with other fact-proof theories, is that it presents itself as factually correct even as it glides over the facts. It wants to have its cake and eat it, too—wants all the authority of empiricism but none of the risks. That it has been largely successful has a lot to do with a second odd thing about it: It’s the rare fact-proof theory that is unabashedly pessimistic about people and society. (Even Conway pretended to be positive while she race-baited.) We tend to save most of our skepticism for the happy stuff; if skepticism and pessimism are not the same, they at least strike us as close cousins. And so the case of schoolchildren who are shipwrecked on an island and destroy each other seems real, true, factual, while the case of schoolchildren who are shipwrecked on an island and live together in harmony for fifteen months before being rescued seems absurd, even though the first case comes from a William Golding novel and the second actually happened.1919xRutger Bregman, “The Real Lord of the Flies: What Happened When Six Boys Were Shipwrecked for 15 Months,” The Guardian, May 9, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/may/09/the-real-lord-of-the-flies-what-happened-when-six-boys-were-shipwrecked-for-15-months.

Arendt, Milgram, and Gansberg did not develop a scientific theory of evil. Each of them developed a story, which, like all stories, could be glossed, twisted, exaggerated, and—not despite but because of its pessimism—milked for entertainment. As long as people hate rules, rule breaking will excite them, even when the rule is “Thou shalt not kill.” There is something intoxicating about the possibility that morality is a paper-thin lie and barbarism is the truth of the human condition. That this possibility might be correct is disturbing; that so many people seem to wish it were correct, far more so.

But perhaps there’s more innocent reason why we go on believing we’re Nazis in waiting. Maybe it’s as simple as Pascal’s wager. We might be murderers, and we might not, but isn’t it safer to assume we are and be proven wrong than to assume we are not and hope to be proven right? As with cancer, so with evil: A false positive is safer than a false negative.

That, at least, is the consensus we seem to have come to after World War II, and dutifully reaffirm with each new disgrace. And there have been plenty: My Lai, the Stanford Prison Experiment, Abu Ghraib. But I wonder which poses the bigger threat: violence or climate change; war or COVID-19. When I do, the false negative starts to seem more dangerous than the false positive. Solving the major crises of the twenty-first century requires more than action. It requires the belief that cooperation, trust, friendship, imagination, and compassion are as fundamental to human nature as the banality of evil or obedience to authority. A question, then, as the virus spreads and the trees choke: Can we afford to go on thinking the worst of ourselves?