Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil will probably have the misfortune of being an extremely important book that does not find the larger audience it deserves. Its author is most famous for conducting the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) in the 1970s, in which he divided two groups of normal Stanford students in “prisoners” and “guards” and observed the students assuming their respective roles with frightening quickness and, on the part of the guards, alacrity. The Lucifer Effect is the first time Zimbardo has detailed exactly what happened in the SPE, and he links it to the recent scandal in Abu Ghraib. To judge from recent events, it will not be the last time scandals like Abu Ghraib happen.
If I could sum up The Lucifer Effect, I’d change a quote I recently posted from Robert Heinlein, “secrecy begets tyranny,” to “bad systems beget bad results.” Zimbardo’s argument, made in meticulous detail on the SPE and then paralleled with Abu Ghraib, holds that in some situations normally healthy people can quickly take roles leading them toward brutality and that our personalities may play less of a role in the extent to which we fight injustice than many of us would like to think. These claims are extraordinary, and The Lucifer Effect must be read in full to understand them and the situations, which usually involve lax oversight by supposed authorities and arbitrary rules, that allow abuse to occur.
Some details from The Lucifer Effect haunt, as when Zimbardo says that when prisoners in the SPE were “released” early, other prisoners or guards often said nothing and made no mention of those who had come or gone, as though they were the trapped rabbits in the bizarre warren from Watership Down. The world the prison creates seems almost independent of the world prior to the prison, bringing to mind Kafka or Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon The latter’s portrayal of psychological torture is political in nature, but the parallels between the SPE and it are there: the uncertainty, the apparent lack of thought on the part of guards, the sense of timelessness and the extent to which people become the role rather than vice-versa.
Despite these issues, Zimbardo’s last and too short section deals with how to combat bad systems. He writes: “Heroism often requires social support. We typically celebrate heroic deeds of courageous individuals, but we do not do so if their actions have tangible immediate cost to the rest of us and we can’t understand their motives.” Such was the case of rabble-rousing prisoners, and such is often the case with political reformers. Passages like this remind us of the larger ideas implicit in the particular actions, and Zimbardo skillfully generalizes from specific incidents and then brings the generalizations back to concrete examples, zooming in and out with the precision of a philosopher and the writing talent of a novelist. In the last and perhaps most important section Zimbardo discusses further research concerning how people disengage their moral senses and conform to communal norms and the like, and, in particular, dehumanization as it affects those in positions of power compared to those who are not.
Only occasionally does Zimbardo go too far afield with his theories, as happened with the long description of burnout inventories and the Abu Ghraib scandal. His puns sometimes elicit groans even when they’re appropriate, as when he has a headline asking, “A Bad Apple or a Chip off the Best Block?” concerning a guard named Chip. Yet the section’s content is so solemn that letting in the joke, even a bad one, prevents reader fatigue—a fascinating strategy in a section concerning how people suffer burnout as a result of stress. While the stress of the reader is nothing like the stress of a prison guard in Iraq, Zimbardo’s reminder of how principles remain the same even as the orders of magnitude of importance changes is reinforced by him using the techniques he describes in writing. That and his tendency to drift into academic language (I will argue x, and then I will argue y…) are the only weaknesses in what is otherwise an excellent book and one that contributes greatly to understanding how social and bureaucratic systems work and can dehumanize both those involved and those controlled.
EDIT: Zimbardo’s next book, The Time Paradox, is probably also of great interest to readers of The Lucifer Effect.