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Why Would Those Considered ‘Good People’ Act in Anti-Social Ways?

Imagine going to work every day with the ‘marching orders’ issued by superiors to imprison, commit acts of violence, humiliation and dehumanization. After your shift is over, you return home to your family, literally and figuratively wash your hands of the residual from the day and embrace your children. If you are adept at practicing cognitive dissonance, you remind yourself that you were merely following directives and your job is how you support your loved ones. You tell yourself that you are a moral and ethical person who may attend religious services and volunteer in your community. You are certain that you are a good soul. Everyone says so.

Why would otherwise ‘good people’ act in anti-social ways toward others? Think about those who were complicit during the Holocaust, slavery in the United States, the murder of Native Americans, the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during WWII, or currently being an ICE agent or a border guard. The neighbors of these people might not have a clue what they do/did professionally or socially.

I was listening to the episode The Influence You Have: Why We Fail To See Our Power Over Others on NPR’s podcast Hidden Brain. The focus was on the ways people are more uncomfortable with refusing to follow harmful orders than they are actually doing what is asked of them. Peer pressure, societal expectation and fear of repercussion for saying no, were reasons given when people were asked to do what otherwise would conflict with their values and conscience.

The word “conscience” is translated from the Latin word “conscientia,” which comes from the Greek “syneidesis.” It is defined as:

  • the sense or consciousness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one’s own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good.
  • a faculty, power, or principle enjoining good acts the part of the superego in psychoanalysis that transmits commands and admonitions to the ego.

An article published in Greater Good Magazine states, “a recent Gallop Poll indicates that nearly 80 percent of Americans rated the overall state of morality in the United States as fair or poor. Even more troubling is the widely held opinion that people are becoming more selfish and dishonest. According to that same Gallup Poll, 77 percent of Americans believe that the state of moral values is getting worse.”

I am wondering what seeds were planted in the hearts and minds of those who lie, harm, destroy and kill for a living, like some who sit in positions of power in business, government, and religion. Was it simply expedience and the desire for a quick buck, thrill or being in an elevated position? People are expendable or viewed as less than, pawns in a game that is always set up to lose, but some keep playing. It is one reason why sexual assault is acceptable to some, covered up and explained away. It is one reason why governments justify kidnapping and killing those with dissenting opinions and why the environment is daily threatened with no thought of the future for the next generations. Is conscience expendable?

What really does it mean to be a good person? Social conscience and consciousness go hand in hand. Have you ever seen the show, “What Would You Do? It involves actors participating in a questionable act, and bystanders being set up. The point is to expose people’s values. Sometimes, what develops is both stunning and humorous. People’s best and worst tendencies are on display. 

A famous social experiment that echoes the television show was created by Yale professor Stanley Milgram in 1961 in which he gathered volunteers to determine how compliant they would be when asked to administer increasingly potent electric shocks. As a Jewish child growing up in New York in the 1930s, he wondered how people could vilify and murder their neighbors simply because they were told to do so. He was determined to discover if that same dynamic would hold true in a lab setting. 

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  • The “experimenter”, who was in charge of the session.
  • The “teacher”, a volunteer for a single session. The “teacher” was led to believe that they were merely assisting, whereas they were actually the subject of the experiment.
  • The “learner”, an actor and an ally of the experimenter, who pretended to be a volunteer.

The truth was that it was a well-conceived hoax that only the first and third were in on, and the second was asked to put aside his otherwise do-no-harm sensibilities. There was no actual physical harm perpetrated on the “learners”, however the “teachers” experienced signs of severe stress when they believed they were inflicting pain. Despite that knowledge, 65% continued to give what they thought were increasingly higher voltage shocks. (Milgram documented his findings in Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.)

What is particularly fascinating about the experiment, was that although the teacher was told that he needed to continue on, with these prompts offered:

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice you must go on.

No one was threatened if they didn’t follow instructions. Even so, more than half chose to continue. What was missing from the project at its completion was that the teachers were not informed that they had indeed not generated shocks to the learner. 

In the wake of WWII, The Nuremberg Trials yielded what was called “Superior Orders” by which those down the chain of command in the Nazi regime plead that they were simply following orders and were, therefore, blameless. The same could be said by those in the Milgram experiments, as well as those in present day positions of authority over others. It doesn’t make it true.

Why Would Those Considered ‘Good People’ Act in Anti-Social Ways?

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a journalist and interviewer, licensed social worker, interfaith minister, radio host and best-selling author.

APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2020). Why Would Those Considered ‘Good People’ Act in Anti-Social Ways?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 12, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 18 Mar 2020 (Originally: 21 Mar 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 18 Mar 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.