Book Review: The Lucifer Effect – How Good People Turn Evil

Philip Zimbardo

(Published by Random House Group ISBN 978-1-84-413577-6)

This is a ‘must read’ for anybody who works with people, groups, training programmes or within systems. For therapists the subject of power and its potential abuses should be of concern and interest to us. This book, a page-turner, is shocking, compelling, educational and sobering.

The author puts himself honestly on the line, as it was he, whilst working as a social psychologist over thirty-five years ago, who conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment using volunteer students to simulate a prison situation to observe human interaction in an intense situation. Some were assigned the role of guards and others the role of prisoners, the parents of the participants were also involved and the psychology department was the designated authority system overseeing the experiment.

One of the reasons this book was so long in the making was that Zimbardo found it difficult and shamefully painful to go over the data and tapes of his short-lived experiment. The experiment never ran its two-week course because one of the psychology students, who joined the programme as an observer and with whom Zimbardo was romantically involved, felt two-days into the experiment, that it had got out of hand, was unethical and blew the whistle on it. This student later became his wife and the book is dedicated to her. All the data and tapes of the experiment are covered in full, even though it lasted only a few days, and it makes for riveting reading.

This is a hefty book (around 500 pages) and as well as exploring the psychology of evil Zimbardo also describes other experiments (such as Milgram’s studies in obedience) to back his thesis concluding with his personal involvement in the investigations surrounding the abuses in Abu Ghraib which bear a similar and chilling resemblance to his Stanford Prison Experiment.

Zimbardo starts by defining evil as ‘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.’ He goes on to say we have focussed too much on the personality traits of an individual, what he calls ‘inner determinants’. The notion that only bad people do violent and nasty things and that good people are more altruistic is a narrow and dualistic psychological approach to interpreting behaviour patterns. He claims that ‘psychologists have been insensitive to the deeper sources of power that inhere in the political, economic, religious, historic, and cultural matrix that defines situations and gives them legitimate or illegitimate existence.’ His experiment, backed by not only the recent events in Iraq, but through many other examples in history (Nazi Germany, Brazil, Rwanda, China to name but a few) show that most of us are far more likely to become the despised collaborator than we would like to admit. The ‘external determinants’ or ‘situational power’ supported by components such as blind obedience to authority, fear of rejection combined with the need to belong or feel special, and an over identification with a role leads to deindividuation and dehumanization and rapidly transforms ordinary decent men and women into sadists and  bullies or passive victims.

Contrary to popular opinion it is not the disaffected angry poor who are the suicide bombers but the rational, educated middle classes. Obedience to systems of perceived authority has caused far more evil in the world than rebellion. There is also an interesting section on  mental health and the dehumanization aspect of health systems.

Zimbardo warns of a naivety in believing that we ‘know ourselves’ and in thinking that ‘we would never be capable of committing atrocities.’ Given an unfamiliar situation backed by authority we might easily find our moral judgment overwhelmed and sliding down an abusive road and he provides us with many such examples. One small criticism is that towards the end Zimbardo launches into looking at heroism and defining heroes which, (apart from an important piece on whistle blowing) detracts from a serious piece of research and belongs in another book.

Sarah Kay is a gestalt therapist.