More on evil

I think that perhaps one of the things that makes us believe that the problem is "bad apples" rather than the situation is that problematic situations don't always produce problematic behaviors. Vernon Smith's team is doing fascinating experiments on the emergence of cooperative behavior and property rights in anarchic systems. It turns out that in most of these systems, there are two possible equilibria: cooperative systems in which everyone gets richer, and systems that stay autarkic, where people stay poor. There's not any particular way of predicting in advance which groups will succeed, no particular awesome people who will obviously make things work. Instead, the outcomes emerge from the interactions between people in the various groups. But even though some groups do develop cooperation, the initial lack of cooperative rules is a "bad" situation--many groups fail to develop cooperative systems.

The fact that some groups succeed and some fail, though, focuses us on the characteristics of the people in the group, rather than the context in which the group operates. Yet in Zimbardo's famous prison experiment, the students were selected for their apparent healthiness on psychological tests, and the researchers decided which would be prisoners, and which guards, by flipping a coin.