September 28, 2007

Book Review: The Lucifer Effect


The Lucifer Effect
Understanding How Good People Turn Evil
Philip Zimbardo
Random House
New York, 2007

Philip Zimbardo, world-famous social psychologist, created the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) which gave the world a remarkable insight into human behavior. Dr. Zimbardo prematurely ended the experiment because he found himself dismayed at what he had created. Yet, what happened in that 1971 experiment became the catalyst that led him to explore what causes normally good people to do evil. And it made him realize how astonishing easy it was for any of us to harm others based on the type of circumstances we find ourselves.

Almost thirty-three years after the Stanford, another incident caused Dr. Zimbardo to vividly recall the Stanford Prison Experiment. What caught his attention were the Abu Ghraib photos and he was stunned to see how much the photos resembled the types of abuse that had been carried out by those college students turned guards in the Stanford prison. What he knew right away was that Abu Ghraib couldn’t be just some bad apples in a barrel, but was rather a sign that the barrel itself was rotten. And he resolved to learn all he could about what happened there and to help expose the truth about the situation to the world. He wrote this book because he wanted to give the general public information to understand what happened. And he believes that the situational influences that drive so much of the evil in our world can be overcome and that we can create a world that is less susceptible to evil if we are aware of exactly how we are susceptible.

But first you have to understand how humans are seduced into doing evil. Here’s how Dr. Zimbardo defines evil.

Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others – or using one’s authority and systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf.

To tell this story, Dr. Zimbardo begins with a thorough review of the famous experiment that he ran. The college students that he recruited were screened for any behavioral abnormalities and none of them had any history of anti-social or bullying behavior. Nevertheless, enacting the roles of prisoners and guards changed how they behaved in astonishing ways. Even Dr. Zimbardo, who assumed a role of Superintendent of the prison, found himself captured by his role. The experiment was supposed to last two weeks, but after only six days the prison had deteriorated into a little hell on the Stanford campus and so shocked one visitor that Zimbardo realized he had to suspend the experiment.

Dr. Zimbardo tells about the alchemy of character that occurred when the roles took over the people who participated. At first, their roles wore loosely on the young men, but soon, they found themselves playing their roles for real. The prison became so real that even visiting adults, including a priest and the parents of the prisoners, failed to question the rules imposed on the setting.

When Dr. Zimbardo created this experiment, he thought he would see the prisoners work together and find ways to hold on to their dignity. Yet, the intensity of the situation transformed the participants after just one day when the guards became angry for what they thought of as unjustified rebellion. The power and anger they felt then led some of them to become infinitely creative in designing ways to break the spirits of their prisoners. And the worst abuses were instigated on the nightshift when the guards were also bored.

After the experiment was suspended, the various participants were debriefed in several stages (which allowed them to come to terms with their own behaviors and how they were shaped by the experiment) and returned to their ordinary lives. All regained their original baseline emotional states with no lasting trauma. Dr. Zimbardo has kept in touch with many of them and where possible followed their lives. And he has devoted his life to understanding how human nature works under situational stresses.

Within certain powerful social settings, human nature can be transformed in ways as dramatic as the chemical transformation in Robert Louis Stevenson’s captivating fable of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The enduring interest in the SPE over many decades comes, I think, from the experiment’s startling revelation of “transformation of character” – of good people suddenly becoming perpetrators of evil as guards or pathologically passive victims as prisoners in response to situational forces acting on them.

…We want to believe in the essential, unchanging goodness of people, in their power to resist external pressures, in their rational appraisal and then rejection of situational temptations. We invest human nature with God-like qualities, with moral and rational faculties that make us both just and wise. We simplify the complexity of human experience by erecting a seemingly impermeable boundary between Good and Evil. On one side are Us, Our Kin, and Our Kind; on the other side of that line we cast Them, Their Different Kin, and Other Kind. Paradoxically, by creating this myth of our invulnerability to situational forces, we set ourselves up for a fall by not being sufficiently vigilant to situational forces.

The next section of the book reviews studies that have been done to investigate social dynamics around power, conformity and obedience.

First, most studies show that because we are social creatures, we strongly tend toward conformity within groups. People will even change their answer to a question to the wrong answer when within a group where the majority of people give the wrong answer. Many studies have shown how powerful groupthink is in shaping the answers (and thoughts) for individuals within a group.

Another area that deeply affects humans is how we relate to authority. What is particularly surprising to many who have studied this subject is how much more susceptible to authority we humans are than we think we are. The original study that explored this subject was conducted by Stanley Milgram. He found that the nice sensible middle-class volunteers would apply lethal shocks to their test subjects if they were told to do so within an experiment. Subsequent studies have shown that this behavior was not an anomaly, but consistent for many situations where an order comes from someone the individual thinks is in charge. In fact, one study showed that 100% of the nurses participating followed the orders of the doctor, even when the doctor gave an order that would harm the patient. What this shows is that when the authority figure is seen as particularly legitimate, the compulsion to follow orders can be overwhelming.

The combination of our susceptibility to authority and desire for belonging can lead humans to some deeply immoral behavior, particularly when the individuals are in unfamiliar situations. Add in factors such as understaffing, danger and no outside independent controls with a little encouragement to “take the gloves off,” and one can easily create an Abu Ghraib. Dr. Zimbardo was able to verify that this was so when he was asked to testify in the trial of Staff Sergeant Ivan “Chip” Frederick II who had been in charge of the night shift on Tiers 1A and 1B, where the infamous photos had been taken. In the third section of the book, Dr. Zimbardo explains what it was like in Abu Ghraib (and it was hellish) and how the situation created the pathology that was exhibited there. And he makes a powerful case that the people in charge who created the situation were far more culpable for the horrors than the individuals who were denounced as “bad apples.”

Dr. Zimbardo’s exploration of what can lead good humans to do evil concludes with some much-needed discussion about how we prevent being overtaken by the evil and help teach others how to resist the pressure of toxic systems. He provides a ten-step program to resist unwanted influences: admit your mistakes (avoid cognitive dissonance), be mindful (think before acting), take responsibility for your actions, value yourself for who you are (and don’t let others de-individuate you), validate that an authority is just, value your independence, understand the frame you are operating in and who is framing the issues, balance your time perspective (don’t forget your past commitments and future obligations to yourself and others in the heat of the moment), don’t sacrifice your personal or civic freedom for the illusion of security and finally, oppose unjust systems. As he explains, these steps can help us keep our heads grounded ethically and morally even when we are faced with toxic situations. Finally, he closes with some thoughts on how to instill and invoke civic heroism.

This is a powerful, insightful, and at times deeply disturbing book. If you have ever wondered how you might act when faced with being part of unthinkable evil, this book shows you how vulnerable we all are. Dr. Zimbardo wrote this book hoping that his studies and his conclusions can be help us gain the wisdom to prevent or resist this type of evil in the future.

[Ed: This was another of my articles written for the Vox Populi Nebraska eZine first published in the August 2007 issue.]

Posted by Mary at September 28, 2007 12:56 AM | Recommended Reading | Technorati links |

I think you will apreciate this (new art from me):
[Ed: Thanks, but no thanks.]

What do you think?

Posted by: MikeeUSA at September 28, 2007 10:55 AM

FIRST 16sep pics surfaced!

First sep16 pics surfaced

Posted by: ccoaler at September 29, 2007 05:55 AM

Must read:Boehner demands less abusive handling of youth matters.

Posted by: ccoaler at September 29, 2007 08:30 AM