‘The Lucifer Effect’: Professor Philip Zimbardo

What happens when you put good people in a bad place?

Does the inherent goodness of people win out or the badness of the place?

These questions are explored in a new book called The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (Random House, 2007), by Professor Philip Zimbardo. Zimbardo summarizes recent research on the essential factors that lead good people to engage in evil actions. What he calls a perfect storm of factors. He calls this transformation of human character the ‘Lucifer Effect’, named after God’s favorite angel, Lucifer, who fell from grace.

Zimbardo conducted the infamous study, the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971. Stanford University turned the basement of the psychology department into a prison. 75 students from all over America were chosen and put through psychological tests. Two dozen of the most normal healthy men were chosen. These people were ordinary good people. They were told they would be participating in a study of prison life. Some were give the role of guards. Others were told to wait in their dormitories and then the city police were used to do very realistic arrests. The prison guards were then left to run the prison. At the end of the first day everything was fine, but by the second day dehumanization had begun. Half way through the experiment homophobia reared its head. By the fifth day, the guards were ordering the prisoners to simulate sodomy and the experiment was abandoned.

The study is not philosophical or religious but psychological. Zimbardo offers a psychological reason for why ordinary people sometimes turn evil and commit acts of unspeakable evil. He is now a key witness for one of the guards at Abu Ghraib accused of atrocities done against the prisoners in Iraq. He argues that when this sort of thing comes up the system tends to blame bad apples. In reality ordinary people put into a bad system will do atrocious things quite predictably. This reflects the power of the situation to dominate individuals. Zimbardo is not excusing good people for doing bad things, moral responsibility remains with the individual. He is much more interested in trying to understand how to change things. If you want to change things you need to know how to avoid situations which create evil circumstances.

In his book Zimbardo also explores the occasional heroic characters. There is always a minority who resist, but heroes go further by challenging the system. Heroes are ordinary people who do extraordinary deeds. You can be perpetrator of evil, you can do nothing, or you can act but on behalf of others rather than yourself. He goes on to ask the question, how do we instil a heroic imagination in everyone to reduce the likelihood of future situations where basically good people end up doing horrific things?

Zimbardo has produced a ‘Program to Build Resistance and Resilience’ (The Lucifer Effect, Chapter 16) against some of the social and psychological pressures that foster evil. He writes, “The key to resistance lies in development of the three S’s – Self-Awareness, Situational Sensitivity, and Street Smarts#. Here are five of them:

1) “I made a mistake!” Being able to admit an error and accept it is part of being human and he suggests six magic words: “I’m sorry”; “I apologize”; “Forgive me”. Beyond that it is crucial to learn from your mistakes.
2) “I am responsible.” If I am allowed to avoid my own responsibility then I do not need to worry so much when things start going badly wrong. I am not a back seat driver.
3) “I am Me, the best I can be.” Anonymity is dangerous. If I put myself into a category – part of a collective or group, rather than an individual, then I begin to hide my individuality behind a corporate facade. Perhaps I feel unable to let the side down, or step out of line. This ‘deindividuates’ me. It is essential to restate the human connection and individual dignity of all people.
4) “I respect Just Authority, but Rebel against Unjust Authority.” It is important to critically differentiate between the two. Authority on its own is not enough. It must be just and justified. No mindless obedience. This is challenging especially in organisations such as the military or church, where obedience is a virtue.
5) “I want group acceptance, but value my independence.” Remember that the pressure to be a ‘team player’ can lead to an abandonment of personal morality. Sometimes the norm must be rejected.

Zimbardo provides a psychological investigation for the concern thinker Hannah Arendt raised a generation ago, and his observations about the distancing and dehumanization that allows human beings to do horrible things to each other reflects Jonathan Glover’s work Humanity: The Moral History of the Twentieth Century.  Philosophers and moral historians have come to these sorts of conclusions from their own disciplinary standpoints and psychologists do as well. Zimbardo’s work is a reminder of the role of psychology in analyzing moral  situations. His observations are a challenge to the ability of moral philosophy to provide a complete analysis of ethics. Moral decisions may not come down to Platonic ideas of the good, or Kantian beliefs about the dignity of the individual person, but rather an analysis of human behaviours and the impact institutions and organisations have on that behaviour. The late Pope John Paul II used to talk about something called structural sin an idea which seems at odds with traditions of personal individual moral responsibility. Zimbrado’s analysis seems to provide good evidence for the existence of structural sin, and perhaps does indeed show the face of Satan himself in twenty first century understanding.

You can watch, hear and read more about the book at the following website – www.lucifereffect.com

Download the entire essay here

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