In Lord of the Flies, we witness the savage behavior that eventually overtakes the young British schoolboys at the center of the play. Stranded on an island without the guidance and supervision of adults, the boys must find a way to govern themselves. While the impulse to assign a chief and create rules to obey is present at first, the opportunity to be violent and evil soon prevails. We see this first in the character of Jack, as his desire to hunt and kill becomes his obsession, quickly shared by the other boys who join him as a faction of ‘hunters.’ The swift progression from civilized young men to barbaric savages has made this book a classic that has endured for almost 60 years. Witnessing this behavior from these young boys leads us to the question, “Why do good people do bad things?”
Initially the boys’ escapades on the island feel like a game, but their violent actions increase and eventually lead to murder. Dr. Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist and a professor emeritus at Stanford University, has spent much of his professional life studying human behavior and examining the question of why good people engage in evil actions. Dr. Zimbardo does not define evil as merely an act of wrongdoing, but instead as “the exercise of power in order to psychologically or physically harm another human being.” During his famous Stanford Prison Experiment, Dr. Zimbardo explored the behaviors of 70 young college males as they participated in a study assuming the role of either prisoner or prison guard. Although the study was intended to last for two weeks, it had to be shut down after only six days as ‘prison guards’ became too brutal to their ‘prisoners’ for the experiment to continue. In an effort to maintain a sense of power and control (or behave in an evil way, as defined by Dr. Zimbardo), without instruction from the leaders of the experiment, the ‘prison guards’ readily forced the ‘prisoners’ into humiliating situations that eventually led to multiple emotional breakdowns within the mock prison system.
Why did these seemingly well-behaved young men partake in evil behavior? And why do the boys in Lord of the Flies make the transition towards savagery? Dr. Zimbardo hypothesizes that any person, when placed under the right set of circumstances, is capable of evil behavior. In the Stanford Prison Experiment, it began the moment the young men were placed within the mock prison and a differentiation of power was established. In Lord of the Flies, it begins the moment the boys become stranded on the island.