The Lucifer effect

In American Scientist, Robert V. Levine tells the story of the Stanford prison experiments:

In the summer of 1971, a young social psychologist named Philip Zimbardo set up a mock prison in the basement of Stanford University’s psychology building. The 24 subjects he had selected for the two-week experiment he was planning were mostly middle-class, educated, college-age men who happened to be in Palo Alto for the summer. At the outset all were deemed to be “normal” on the basis of personality tests and their conduct in clinical interviews. They were to be paid $15 a day for their participation.

Zimbardo assigned each subject to be a prisoner or guard by flipping a coin. There were no measurable personality differences between the two groups when the experiment began. Zimbardo played the role of warden himself. The researchers were initially concerned that subjects wouldn’t take the experiment seriously enough.

They needn’t have been. To everyone’s astonishment, the two groups quickly came to act like their real-life counterparts. The prisoners became despondent; some broke down. In less than 36 hours, one had to be released because of extreme depression, disorganized thinking, uncontrollable crying and fits of rage. Over the next three days, three more prisoners were let go because they exhibited similar symptoms of anxiety. A fifth prisoner was discharged when he developed a psychosomatic rash over his entire body, an apparent reaction to the rejection of his parole appeal by the mock parole board.

The guards’ behavior was even more disturbing. All flexed their power to one degree or another. They made the prisoners obey trivial, often inconsistent rules and forced them to perform tedious, pointless work, such as moving cartons from one closet to another or continuously picking thorns out of blankets (an unpleasant task the guards created by dragging the blankets through thorny bushes). The inmates were made to sing songs or laugh or stop smiling on command; to curse and malign one another publicly; to clean out toilets with their bare hands. They were required to sound off their numbers repeatedly and to do endless push-ups, occasionally with a guard’s foot or that of another prisoner on their backs.

He continues:

Zimbardo’s remarkable experiment is at the center of his equally remarkable book, The Lucifer Effect. Why a new book about a 35-year-old study? Zimbardo presents the research in greater detail and texture than ever before. He provides a wealth of new interpretations and new material—anecdotes, entries from the diaries of prisoners and guards, updates on the lives of the participants, and documentation of the consequences his findings have had for real-world prison policy.

Perhaps more important, the passage of time offers him a larger canvas—disturbingly large—on which to apply the lessons of the experiment. In the second half of the book, he delves into a profusion of contemporary small- and large-scale evils. He investigates, for example, the fraudulence of executives at Enron and WorldCom, the sexual abuse of parishioners by Catholic priests, the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, systematic programs of police and military torture in a number of countries, the mass suicides at Jonestown, and the genocides in Rwanda and elsewhere. Zimbardo convincingly explains how each of these evils mirrors the lessons of the Stanford Prison Experiment and might to some extent have been avoided had those lessons been learned more successfully.


Most notably, Zimbardo analyzes the infamous sadistic acts carried out by U.S. military personnel in Abu Ghraib prison. This section alone is worth the price of the book. Not only is it extraordinarily detailed, both psychologically and otherwise, it also offers the chilling perspective of an insider, Staff Sergeant Chip Frederick, a supervisor on the night shift at Abu Ghraib and one of the primary villains in the abuse scandal. Zimbardo was an expert witness at Frederick’s court-martial and came to know the defendant and his family well. By the time Zimbardo has finished describing Frederick’s transformation from idealistic soldier to abuser, Abu Ghraib feels eerily indistinguishable from the Stanford Prison Experiment. It is as if the Iraqi prison had been designed by twisted social psychologists who wanted to replicate Zimbardo’s experiment using real guards and prisoners.

The book, however, is not simply a catalog of horrors:

What, Zimbardo asks, leads ordinary people to do bad things, things they never would have imagined doing? Most evildoing, it becomes depressingly clear, is driven by rather ordinary social-psychological reactions. Zimbardo offers an extensive list and discussion of the toxic situational forces and normal psychological reactions to them that tend to activate the Lucifer effect. He provides a detailed, intelligent and workable program for resisting unwanted social influence, highlighting dangers and offering tangible prescriptions for neutralizing negative effects. There are, for example, mini-tutorials on how to distinguish between just and unjust authorities, on being careful not to sacrifice one’s freedom for the illusion of security, and on learning to recognize when, where and how to stand up to unjust systems.

The final chapter is a gem. Here Zimbardo seamlessly demonstrates how the same social psychology that may exploit our worst instincts can be reconstrued to cultivate the best in ourselves. Altruism, like evil, is readily responsive to situational forces, and Zimbardo suggests strategies for tapping into these potentialities. He also presents a provocative, multidimensional taxonomy of heroism that I hope will stimulate long-overdue research and education in this area.

Read it all. And have a look at this excerpt as well.

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