How to Become a Good Person: 3 Tips to Avoid Evil

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Lucifer Effect" by Philip Zimbardo. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to know how to become a good person? How can you avoid being evil?

In The Lucifer Effect, psychologist Philip Zimbardo says that certain circumstances and institutions contribute to human evil. He argues that anybody could commit the worst evil imaginable if they found themselves in the wrong situation.

Learn how to become a good person with Zimbardo’s helpful tips.

How to Become a Good Person

Zimbardo notes that not only does everyone have the potential to do something unspeakably evil, everyone has the potential to do something remarkably noble, too.

(Shortform note: Some point out a contradiction in Zimbardo’s argument here: If circumstances are largely responsible for whether or not you do something evil, they should also be responsible for whether or not you do something heroic. By this logic, whether or not you behave heroically is out of your control, and these “tips” won’t help.)

Follow these three tips to know how to become a good person.

Tip #1: Overcompensate When Tightening Your Morals

Zimbardo explains that most people have a self-serving bias—we understand how circumstances impact human behavior, but we assume that we’re too clever and self-aware to make the same mistakes. Overconfidence leaves us vulnerable to circumstantial influence—instead, tighten your morals more than you feel is necessary to prevent yourself from unwittingly doing evil.

One way Zimbardo suggests doing this is by taking full responsibility for your actions. Never blame someone else for making you do something—for example, if a friend were to convince you to help them rob a convenience store, or if your boss told you to hide the evidence of their embezzlement, you should view these misdeeds as if you did them alone. This habit will help you think twice before social pressures influence you to become complicit in someone else’s evil.

Tip #2: Be Critical of Your Group

Zimbardo advises that to become a good person, you need to turn a critical eye to whatever groups you belong to. You should always be ready to take a firm moral stance against them. Recall that social pressures are one of the main circumstantial factors that can corrupt your sense of morality. There’s no need to deny your need to be liked and accepted, but you won’t be happy if you sacrifice your moral values to avoid being rejected. Instead, seek acceptance from groups that share your morals and accept rejection from those who don’t.

We’re biased to disrespect and even dehumanize people outside of our groups, writes Zimbardo. Try to celebrate your group’s good qualities without disparaging the different qualities of other groups. If you can, look past groups entirely—instead of defining yourself and others by the groups they belong to, work to see everyone as a unique individual.

Tip #3: Oppose Unjust Institutions

The last step to becoming a good person is to oppose unjust institutions. To overcome our bias to obey authority, Zimbardo suggests being skeptical of all institutions in power. Obey authorities when they act in alignment with your values, but resist any authority that tries to coerce you into doing something immoral, no matter how large or powerful they are. When we encounter immoral groups and institutions, we often assume that we’re powerless to change them. However, all it takes is one person to start a movement, attract followers, and enact positive change.

According to Zimbardo, it’s vital to resist authority this way because doing nothing to avert evil is evil in itself. Scandals of abuse, unjust wars, and even genocides happen with the support of countless silent observers. Many people make half-hearted attempts to resist evil with empty words that accomplish nothing. Zimbardo makes it clear that such words don’t matter—only actions that push back against evil are truly virtuous.

How to Become a Good Person: 3 Tips to Avoid Evil

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Lucifer Effect summary :

  • How ordinary people can turn into heartless killers
  • Insights and criticisms of the Stanford Prison Experiment
  • Tips on how to resist circumstantial influences

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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