PARIS

What prompts ordinary people to commit acts of evil?

The question has been debated by philosophers, moralists, historians and scientists for centuries.

One idea that carries much weight today is this: you, me - almost anyone - is capable of carrying out atrocities if ordered to do so.

Commanded by an authoritarian figure, and wishing to conform, we could bulldoze homes, burn books, separate parents from children or even slaughter them, and our much-prized conscience would not as much as flicker.

Called the “banality of evil,” the theory has been proffered as an explanation for why ordinary, educated Germans took part in the Jewish genocide of World War II. Now psychologists, having reviewed an opinion-shaping experiment carried out more than 50 years ago, are calling for a rethink.

“The more we read and the more data we collect, the less evidence we find to support the banality of evil idea, the notion that participants are simply ‘thoughtless’ or ‘mindless’ zombies.