Questioning the banality of evil
Stephen D. Reicher Charaktery 2/2008
Us and them
And, after all, we’re only ordinary
Me and you
God only knows it’s not what we
would choose to do.
Pink Floyd, Us and Them
It is relatively rare that the ideas in psychology texts become so well known that they influence popular culture. However, as the above lyrics attest, one such idea maintains that if you put ordinary decent people in groups and create a division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ then they will descend mindlessly into brutality, to the extent that they might even be prepared to commit mass murder. And in a world where the brutality of groups is as apparent as ever, this idea continues to have widespread appeal.
A search for the roots of this position takes us on a well-worn trail through many of the most famous psychological studies ever conducted. It starts with the work of Solomon Asch, which has been understood to show that fellow group members can