Embrace Possibility Why Good People Do Bad Things
/Why Good People Do Bad Things

Why Good People Do Bad Things

Protest in the StreetsGenerally, people are good.

At least that’s what I believe and it has served me well.

So why is it that some of them do bad things?

Unthinkable things?

From genocides to bullying

From terrorism to financial fraud

From smoking to working way too much

People, who are generally good, end up doing a spectrum of bad things to others and to themselves.

I used to believe that it was the weakness of these people and their characters that caused them to act poorly. Bad people are just bad people and those who are influenced by their environment or by others are just weak-willed. From my personal experiences, observations and research, I now realize how mistaken I was.

In Philip Zimbardo’s book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, he recounts in detail his famous Stanford Prison Experiment where college students, randomly assigned to be guards and inmates, were transformed in such a shocking way that they had to end the experiment early. Without being told how to behave, the guards naturally became brutal and sadistic while the inmates became resigned and emotionally broken (I recommend reading the book if you’re interested to see how things got to that point and the psychological analysis of why that happened.)

The roles were assigned randomly. The students who played the guards were not bad people. Those who played inmates were not weak-willed. They were both simply changed by the situation they were put in.

The lesson: Good apples in bad barrels become bad apples.

The environment that we are in has a profound effect on our thinking and actions. Most people (I was one of them) believe they can act independently of their environment not realizing how much of their action reflects the values of those around them and the situation they are in.

Why this happens: We all want to belong and gain acceptance from those around us. It’s natural and it happens without our conscious awareness. The clothes that we wear, the way we speak, the car that we buy, these decisions are all made to gain social approval. Even those who fight against the status quo and conformity want to gain acceptance from others fighting against conformity.

Take some time now to think about your own situation and your environment. If you want some guidance follow along with the steps below:

  1. Is there something you do that you don’t want to do but seem helpless to stop it? (choose a few of these)
  2. Think about your environment (the people around you, the books your read, the culture of your company, the physical objects that surround you, etc.) and find the connection between your undesired behavior and your environment (there is a connection so keep looking until you find it).

Some examples:

People who work late usually do so because everyone else works late. When I was working in Asia, one of the key concepts I learned was “face time” (this was before Apple redefined the word). People would literally stay in the office because everyone else was in the office and if you left early, you would be judged as being lazy or not being a team player regardless if you’ve finished your work or not.

People who consistently fail at their diets usually live in a household filled with junk food or have close friends who have poor diet and exercise habits.

People who put themselves in debt buying luxury goods are usually in an environment where status symbols are necessary to fit in. Those who don't buy the best are ostracized by the group.

When the character of a man is not clear to you, look at his friends.

- Japanese Proverb

Once you make the connection between your behavior and your environment, recognize that as the main cause for your negative behavior and stop blaming your lack of willpower and discipline.

This doesn’t mean you should blame the environment or your external circumstances and relieve yourself of all responsibility. No matter what you may think or feel, you CHOSE the environment you are in so you are completely responsible for your actions. When you take total responsibility for your life, you give yourself the power you need to move forward.

So what now?

Well we’ve seen how our negative behaviors are linked to our environment. Let’s start putting this tendency to conform to our environment to work for us.

The best way for us to take advantage of this phenomenon is to:

Choose or Create a Better Environment

You've identified something in your environment that is causing your undesired behavior. My question to you is how will you change your environment to get the behaviors that you want?

Common environmental aspects that people can change:

  • who you spend your time with
  • what you read or watch
  • where you live
  • where you work
  • how you organize your home or office
  • the food in your fridge and pantry
This may be easy for some people but for others, it's not so easy. Here are some common objections from my coaching clients:

I didn't choose my family. 

What a waste to throw away food.

I can't afford to leave my job.

I can't abandon my friends. We've been together since we were young. 

These are legitimate concerns.

So what if you can’t escape your environment?

First, there is no such thing as can’t. You probably don’t want to or don’t know how to.

Second, if you decide that you don’t want to leave your environment because it is doing something positive for you (i.e. a bad job still helps to pay the bills), then you may want to take these steps to plan your escape:

  1. Recognize that you’re getting something positive out of your current environment even though it is causing a negative behavior
  2. Find alternatives to meet that positive want or need
  3. Make a plan to get out of that environment
  4. Execute your plan and get out of that environment (you may find The Dreams to Reality Fieldbook helpful for the last 2 steps)

How do you use this method to escape toxic friends or family or both?

Here is an example:

1. What positives are you getting from your friends and family?

You enjoy being with other people and you feel good knowing there are people who look out for you. This is especially true for family members. You feel a sense of obligation to be loyal to your family and friends and you don't want to break that loyalty. Also, you just don't want to be alone. No matter what the reason, recognize and appreciate that you are benefiting from these relationships.

2. What are your options? How can you meet these positives in another way?

You can find new friends who possess the values you want to cultivate, spend less time with existing friends and family or learn to be more comfortable being alone by taking up new hobbies. You can also consider hanging out more with friends and family who are good influences on you.

3. Create a plan to get out of your current environment.

You decide that finding new friends and spending less time with toxic friends and family is a good option. Your plan may include:

  • declining group events with toxic friends and family
  • attending events or club meetings with people who you believe will have a positive influence on you
  • staying away from places where you would run into toxic friends and family
  • actively scheduling to meet with friends and family that you do want to see more of

4. Execute your plan

Take action immediately. Schedule to meet with friends next week. Research professional associations and clubs where you'll find like-minded people. Start declining group activities that you know will lead to negative behaviors (i.e. trip to the casino).

Despite knowing that you are heavily influenced by your environment, don’t make excuses for yourself.

Your life is what you make it.

"You're only a victim once. The next time you're an accomplice."

- Naomi Judd


 Photo by how will i ever

Robert Chen

Robert Chen is the founder of Embrace Possibility and author of The Dreams to Reality Fieldbook. He helps people who feel stuck move forward by guiding them to see other possibilities for their lives. He specializes in working with high performers get to the next level. If you're going through a tough time right now, check out Robert's article on How to Feel Better Right Away and if you're having trouble getting what you want out of life, check out How to Always Achieve Your Goals.

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  1. Stefan Parmark October 9, 2012 at 12:00 pm - Reply

    I just read the Stanford Prison Experiment, and I must say, I’m truly shocked! Can an environment really turn us into such monsters? In only six days? Are our minds that easy to manipulate?

    I have a follow-up question on this: Is there an environment that will promote GOOD behaviour? Has such an experiment been conducted? That would be interesting to read about.

    I see some parallells to what is happening in the world today. We believe the world to be scary and hostile (news is good at delivering this message), so we act upon it, and try to protect us. Which further escalates the effect.

    If news told as the world was a happy and safe place, would that change things in the world? I believe it would.

    We are affected by the people around us. So by choosing new friends, and new environment, we indirectly change our behaviour.

    But as you say, most people quickly find reasons to keep their old friends and environment. We are AFRAID of change. If you have never changed, you don’t know what will happen if you change. It is scary. You don’t want to lose your friends. They make you feel safe.

    I know it was scary for me in the beginning. But I didn’t like my life then, so I HAD to change. Then I got used to change, and noted the benefits. (There were drawbacks too, but they were less than expected.) Today I can’t wait for the next change in my life. I see it improving all the time.

    • Robert Chen October 11, 2012 at 12:44 am - Reply

      Thank you for your comment Stefan.

      I believe that the reverse is true – if you are in an environment that promotes good behavior, your actions will follow. I read somewhere that we mirror the emotional and social cues around us whether we choose to or not. That’s why it’s important to make sure that we are in an environment that promotes the behavior and thinking we want. Change is not easy but sometimes the consequences of not changing is much worse.

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