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I'm reading Zimbardo's The lucifer effect: understanding how good people turn to evil in which he describes the famous Stanford prison experiment that investigated the psychological effects of perceived power, focusing on the struggle between prisoners and prison guards. The experiment's results favor situational attribution of behavior over dispositional attribution. It seemed that the situation, rather than their individual personalities, caused the participants' evil behavior.

Zimbardo concluded that a set of psychological processes - among them deindividuation and obedience to authority - can induce good people to do evil.

Specifiying Zimbardo's definition of evil: - "Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others - or using one's authority and systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf" - my question is:

Does a cerebral circuit of evil induced by situational circumstances exist ?

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When you put it that way...

"...a cerebral circuit of evil..."

...no, that is absolutely ridiculous (no offense).

In the human body (and generally in nature) there are only physical and biochemical mechanisms.

All behaviours that are described by the behavioural sciences (e.g. psychology) can be interpreted by biochemical mechanisms. For example, if you suddenly feel threatened then your heart rate will increase and you will feel the urge to either run away or get very aggressive and stay put. That's because a chemical reaction in your brain triggered the fight-or-flight response and cortisol is having a party with adrenaline and all your internal organs are invited.

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You won't be a coward if you run away and not evil if you decide to fight... it doesn't matter how you were raised or what you believe in because even if you are a pacifist, you will try to protect yourself if you have to and chemistry is on your side. The same principle applies to everything else, including aggression which can be influenced by numerous hormones that themselves are influenced by numerous situations and of course genetics.


Biochemical mechanisms and pathways are very complex and they even overlap and interact with each other.

Here's a map of all the metabolic pathways to get an idea.

Now, when it comes to the complex human behaviour, you can imagine how difficult it is to put the pieces together.

Thought is not arbitrary or philosophical, it is pure chemistry! It's just... not easy to understand, measure, describe, experiment with...

What Are Thoughts Made Of?

So in order to scientifically explain "evil" one has to take all knowledge we have on biochemistry and genetics and apply it to human behaviour. That's a very daunting task and concept to grasp, which if you want to do then you should walk in the path of neuropsychology and organic psychiatry while taking up physiology, biochemistry and genetics.

Finally, other keywords you're looking for are obedience and compliance. The problem with those terms though is that they're a bit abstract when it comes to science. We haven't established any satisfying connection between them and the human brain.

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  • I really appreciate your answer... I imagine that good, ordinary people described in the experiment i posted and i think: how is it possible? Why do you think my question is ridiculous? What happens in their brain? Maybe i should change my question asking: Does a Biochemical mechanisms exist? – Fil Jul 4 '17 at 22:18
  • If you read that experiment, you cannot think - at least - "that's strange"... why that normal people turn so quickly in bad people doing horrible thing with no excuses linked to their survival – Fil Jul 4 '17 at 22:21
  • I don't think your question is ridiculous. I was simply trying to point out that "evil" is not an actual physiological state, parameter etc. So even if you change the question to "mechanisms" there is still no answer. On the other hand, aggression and obedience are some of the keywords you are looking for and those are terms you should do research on. What you're asking is too broad and doesn't have an actual answer. I believe though, in my answer, I provided you with all the right tools for you to proceed. – Antony Jul 4 '17 at 22:34
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    The question is so broad I think I would have voted to close except your answer is so good that it saved the question. – Carey Gregory Jul 4 '17 at 22:45
  • Thank you! Yes I believe it is quite educating and that I had too much free time during the two hours I devoted to it. Shame if it is to be closed :P @Fil I added 2 more links that might interest you. – Antony Jul 4 '17 at 22:52

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