Breaking Bad and the Psychology of Evil: Part 2
Continuing from my previous post on the evolution of Walter White’s evil persona…
Two of the most prominent historical studies of good people committing bad things are Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment in 1971, and social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, Ph.D.’s 1963 experiment on obedience to authority figures.
Milgram’s experiment assessed the willingness of participants to obey an authority figure ordering them to administer an electric shock to another person who they believed to be in the next room. Unbeknownst to participants, the person in the other room was actually simulated by playing a tape of different pre-recorded sounds for each shock level. According to Zimbardo, Milgram’s experiment illustrates how certain situational factors can be used to promote evil acts from good people. For instance by:
- Providing people with an ideology to justify beliefs for actions.
- Making people take a small first step toward a harmful act with a minor, trivial action and then gradually increase those small actions.
- Making it difficult to exit the situation.
Comparatively, in Breaking Bad, Walter:
- Emphasizes–even up to the final episodes–that everything he has done has been for his family.
- Started with the intent to produce a limited amount of narcotics and remain otherwise separate from the rest of the drug trade, but eventually became set on leading a drug “empire,” committing numerous deceptions, crimes, and murders in the process.
- Due to the risk of being killed or getting caught, is continually limited from leaving his situation throughout the series.
In Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment, college students were randomly assigned roles of guards or prisoners within an on-going, life-like setting. The experiment was forced to end prematurely after 6 days due to “guards” becoming increasingly abusive towards “prisoners”. Zimbardo attributed these results to the social psychological processes of deindividualization, anonymity of place, dehumanization, role-playing and social modelling, moral disengagement, and group conformity.
The most obvious link between Zimbardo’s findings and the evil evolution of Walter can be seen in his criminal persona, Heisenberg, which enacts Walter to commit deeds otherwise unsuitable for himself. In the aforementioned WTF podcast episode, on his character’s use of role-playing, Bryan Cranston states,
…[there’s a] very important scene in the second season… where he sees the razor and sees the stubble starting to grow on his head and he shaves it off because now his life has changed, and he’s this other guy. He doesn’t want to look like the teacher Walter White. He wants to look like Heisenberg. In some way, it gives him permission. In some way, it gives him allowance to go there.
Alex Horton wrote a recent article using Breaking Bad to analogously describe what it was like for him to serve 15 months as an infantryman in Iraq. Consistent with Bryan Cranston’s view of Heisenberg, Horton notes, “Walter loses his humanity the more he becomes Heisenberg, his drug kingpin nom de guerre.” Comparing his own experiences to situations depicted on Breaking Bad, Horton attributes Walter’s increasingly malevolent behavior to moral injury, which he describes as:
… an existential disintegration of how the world should or is expected to work—a compromise of the conscience when one is butted against an action (or inaction) that violates an internalized moral code. It’s different from post-traumatic stress disorder, the symptoms of which occur as a result of traumatic events. When a soldier at a checkpoint shoots at a car that doesn’t stop and kills innocents, or when Walter White allows Jesse’s troublesome addict girlfriend to die of an overdose to win him back as a partner, longstanding moral beliefs are disrupted, and an injury on the conscience occurs.
It appears that there are numerous possible factors that can lead good people to “break bad.” What Zimbardo, Milgram, Horton, and Walter White have in common is that, rather than citing a fixed line between good and bad people, they allude to the significance of how situational factors affect individual choices. Whether it’s due to following authority, role-playing, or moral-injury, all of these psychological phenomena describe a gradual process in which one’s autonomy becomes obscured. However, this is not to suggest that the same situations will lead everyone to take the same course of action. Rather, Zimbardo concludes his TED Talk on the psychology of evil, stating,
The same situation that can inflame the hostile imagination in some of us that can make us perpetrators of evil, can inspire the heroic imagination in others. It’s the same situation, and you’re on one side or the other… the key to [being] a hero is 2 things, you’ve got to act when other people are passive [and] you have to act socio-centrically not ego-centrically.
photo credit: variety.com
Kong Psy.D., B. (2013). Breaking Bad and the Psychology of Evil: Part 2. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/psychology-culture/2013/09/breaking-bad-and-the-psychology-of-evil-part-2/