The Lucifer Effect

What a chilling, bizarre book.

The Lucifer Effect, by world-famous psychologist Philip Zimbardo, is at turns a sober psychological treatise, a harrowing confessional, a scathing indictment of injustice, a self-help guide, a meditation on the nature of heroism, and an ode to a special woman in Zimbardo’s life. It is all these things packed in one eclectic package, and manages to confound even as it horrifies us with a very personal account of the banality of evil.

Zimbardo’s thesis is relatively simple. Evil, he says, cannot merely be regarded as a dispositional phenomenon. By this, he means that when investigating why people do evil things, it does not suffice to say that they do so because of some defect in their psyches – their dispositions, in other words. Instead, in studying the psychology of evil it is necessary to look at the broader Situations that provide the environment and circumstances for such behavior, as well as the Systems that enable and sustain these Situations. Situational factors are capable of making normal people do evil things through a combination of social pressure, mechanisms of disindividuation and dehumanization, and appeals to authority. As such, evil cannot be tackled merely through the organs of justice. Rather, an epidemiological approach needs to be applied to root out the systemic and situational factors responsible for evil. In this formulation, villains are those who commit evil in excess of the situational factors that drive them, and heroes are those who can resist situational and systemic pressures to remain virtuous in the face of personal risk.

While a more detailed expostulation of the above thesis might be sufficient to fill a book, the Lucifer Effect goes a little further than that. It is in part a personal account of the proceedings of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), one which Zimbardo planned and executed. The SPE assigned “prisoner” and “guard” roles to a random assortment of psychologically normal young men from Palo Alto and made them act out those roles in a mock prison in the basement of Stanford’s Jordan Hall for two weeks. In only three days, the mock prison turned into a real one. The guards and prisoners became fully immersed into their respective roles, and soon enough the guards were physically mistreating and sexually humiliating the prisoners. It was only on the sixth day that Zimbardo, blind to the abuses that the prisoners were receiving, was finally convinced to call off the experiment by a ‘whistle-blower’, a failing he repeatedly regrets in the book. This portion of the book is both illustrative of the thesis, as well as a nakedly personal confessional tract. To Zimbardo, the SPE provided damning evidence of the banality of evil – the ability of normal people to commit evil when the right buttons are pressed – and set off Zimbardo’s long interest in the field. While the SPE today might lack a certain sense of ethical and methodological rigor, it has a demonstrative effect of the potential of human evil, even if its effect might not be generalizable from this single data point.

This book plumbs the depths of human evil. It can be chilling at times, as it chronicles the hyperbolic abuses of such places as Abu Grahib Prison and crazed cult leader Jim Jones’ so-called socialist utopia before he forced his followers to commit mass suicide. It pounds home the point that humans are dangerously vulnerable to the kinds of social pressures that bury one’s moral conscience under the comforting blankets of social acceptance or obedience to higher authority. It reminds us that to see the enemy as less than human is to legitimize the violence visited upon them, and that this exclusionary effect rears its ugly head everywhere there are inclusive and exclusive group social dynamics at play. It also provides explanations for why some of the most horrific incidents of the 20th century occured – the Nanjing Massacre, the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges, the Rwandan genocide. The precept that evildoers operate out some moral defect is an incomplete and unsatisfying one – and one that veers dangerously close to dehumanizing their perpetrators as racially or culturally susceptible to evil. While the legal system must always punish the crimes of the individual, the system that perpetuates the conditions that lead to evil must be indicted in turn, and their leaders held to account.

Zimbardo does this also, in an albeit strange and out-of-place fashion, by donning, in dramatic fashion, a prosecutorial hat and charging the Bush administration and the upper echelons of the military for deliberately perpetuating systems that enabled and even encouraged such abuses in Abu Grahib and other places. Lack of procedural oversight, the tacit authorization to do everything necessary to obtain ‘actionable intelligence’, the dehumanizing squalor of the prisons, the constant stress of being under attack, and the oppressive boredom created an atmosphere where soldiers felt empowered to, and took pleasure in, sadistic acts against their prisoners, many of whom were assuredly innocent. For from being a case of “a few rotten apples”, Zimbardo’s charge is that the rot went up to the highest levels of the command structure, and any indictment, if it falls, must also fall upon them.

The book ends off with a section where Zimbardo introduces the reader to a 10-step program that can help to resist the situational and systemic forces that might lead us to do evil, either by commission or omission, and ends with a meditation on the different types of heroes – ordinary men and women who had the peculiar gift of resistance, that stepped up to do what was necessary in times of need.

It’s an odd potpourri, and one that admittedly doesn’t mesh too well together, even if the individual portions, especially the accounts of the SPE and Abu Grahib, have visceral impact. Zimbardo sets out on a grand moral project but doesn’t quite muster quite the critical volume to make that self-help component a meaningful part of the book’s message – for that, you must go to the book’s website, Add Zimbardo’s numerous glowing and fulsome mentions of his wife, Christina Maslach, an accomplished psychologist in her own right, and the heroine who convinced Zimbardo to cease the SPE, and what we have is a wide-reaching, rambling book, a little overreaching in its scope, intensely personal while also chillingly scientific, and filled with an effusive sense of moral passion and self-help potential. It’s certainly an interesting read from one of the most well-known psychologists of the century, and while its many idiosyncrasies may reflect the alleged eccentricities of its writer, there can be little doubt of the well-intentioned nature of the work, as well as its reminder of the good and evil that reside within each of us.

I give this book: 3.5 out of 5 billy clubs


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