The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

Topics: Stanford prison experiment, Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse, Philip Zimbardo Pages: 5 (1797 words) Published: August 14, 2012
he Lucifer Effect raises a fundamental question about the nature of human nature: How is it possible for ordinary, average, even good people to become perpetrators of evil? In trying to understand unusual, or aberrant behavior, we often err in focusing exclusively on the inner determinants of genes, personality, and character, as we also tend to ignore what may be the critical catalyst for behavior change in the external Situation or in the System that creates and maintains such situations. I challenge readers to reflect on how well they really know themselves, and how much confidence they have in what they would or would not ever do when put into new behavioral settings.

This book is unique in many ways. It provides for the first time a detailed chronology of the transformations in human character that took place during the experiment I created that randomly assigned healthy, normal intelligent college students to play the roles of prison or guard in a projected 2 week-long study. I was forced to terminate the study after only 6 days because it went out of control, pacifists were becoming sadistic guards, and normal kids were breaking down emotionally. By telling that story in a new way, as my personal, first-person observation in the present tense, it is presented almost as a screen play filled with ever more amazing twists and turns as the situational forces are pitted against individual will to resist and the collective will to rebel against oppressive authority. In a sense, this study and how I am reporting its narrative, is a forerunner of reality TV, as we see ordinary people up close and personal day in and night out, becoming transformed into something truly disturbing.

The book develops this tale of agony and transformation in a crucible of human nature, doing so slowly and richly (based on typescripts of my archival videos). This extended narrative follows the opening chapter that explains the Lucifer Effect in terms of the cosmic transformation of God's favorite angel, Lucifer, into Satan as he challenges God's authority. We shall here be considering less dramatic transformations on a human scale that potentially can engage any of us. I lay the groundwork for the rest of the book by vivid descriptions of torture in the Inquisition, in the massacre in Rwanda, the rape of Nanking, and other venues where human nature has run amok. I also provide the initial scaffolding for how the Stanford Prison Experiment may help us make sense of corporate malfeasance, of “administrative evil,” and most particularly, the abuse and torture of prisoners by American Military Police in Iraq's infamous Abu Ghraib prison.

After telling the story of my experiment, done with minimal psychologizing, I outline the lessons and messages from our Stanford study, along with considering its ethics and extensions. Next, we consider the conceptual contributions and research findings from many domains that validate the assertion that situational power is stronger than we appreciate, and may come to dominate individual dispositions. I review classic and current research on: conformity, obedience to authority, role-playing, dehumanization, deindividuation and moral disengagement. I also introduce the “evil of inaction” as a new form of evil that supports those who are the perpetrators of evil, by knowing but not acting to challenge them.

Two chapters are inserted between my telling the tale of 'the little shop of horrors' that I created in the basement of Stanford's psychology department and these twin chapters (12 & 13) on the social science foundations for understanding how powerful but subtle situational forces can seduce people into evil. In chapters 10 and 11, we want to know more about the broader meaning of the Stanford Prison Experiment, (SPE): What evidence was collected besides the observations the reader has looked in on? What does it mean, what are the take-home messages from this research?

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