Phillip Zimbardo: The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

Dec 31, 2015

I’ve read The Lucifer Effect in two runs with quite a lot of time in between. The reasons are simple: The Lucifer Effect is long and hard to read. Phillip Zimbardo is a social psychologist known to the world as the author of the Stanford Prison experiment conducted in 1971. The Lucifer Effect is to a large extent a description of that experiment and an attempt to generalize from it.

Roughly speaking, the first third of the book is dedicated to (painfully and boringly) detailed account of the experiment as it unfolded. The following chapters look at the experiment as a whole and analyze its implications. While the minute by minute description is very tedious, the analysis is interesting and more valuable (plus the key moments from the experiment are reiterated). About half the way through the book, Zimbardo switches to the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and draws multiple parallels to the Stanford Prison Experiment. The very last chapter is dedicated to celebration of heroism and it strives to counterbalance 500 pages of cruelty and other terrible behaviour which make you ashamed and disgusted of being a human person.

The core idea of The Lucifer Effect is that situational and institutional forces shape a lot of our behaviour and while we are all unique individuals who think of themselves as essentially good people, few pushes (dehumanization, deindividualization, deference to symbols of authority etc.) can make us do terrible things. In a way, it is the other side of Nudge — Thaler tries to improve our lives and environment by shaping the default behaviour and giving us gentle nudges while the same mechanisms can result in very inhumane acts by normal people. The normalcy of people committing those acts is the most disturbing part — anyone can do bad things, not just a few inherently “bad apples”, if the situation is set up in a certain way (“a bad barrel”).

There are many critics of the Stanford Prison Experiment, published studies question the selection of participants, the sample size; the fact that The Lucifer Effect was written by Zimbardo himself makes it less persuasive, but even if the experiment was just a fluke it makes you think about the situational forces which shape our behaviour every day and that is the key to identifying evil.

The last chapter focusing on heroism shows that there are many forms of heroism and only a small fraction of it is fit for the silver screen (bravery in face of physical danger); much larger portion of heroism takes humbler form of questioning authorities, resisting peer pressure and taking responsibility. While reading the whole book might be useful for students of sociology and psychology, reading through the Lucifer Effect website will be beneficial to anyone. The section I recommend is about how to realize the forces around us and how to take action which would prevent us from being dragged by them and hopefully preventing something bad happening.