Philip Zimbardo and the ever-changing dynamics of sexual politics

A friend sent me a link to Philip Zimbardo’s talk, “The demise of guys?“, which recapitulates and shortens Hanna Rosen’s long Atlantic article, “The End of Men.” Based on the video and reading lots of material on similar subjects recently (like: Baumeister, Is There Anything Good About Men?, although I do not find all of it compelling), I replied to my (female) friend:

1) There is still a very strong preference for males in much of the developing world, including India and China.

2) Barring unpredictable improvements in reproductive technology that bring us closer to Brave New World, I do not see substantial numbers of women wanting to live without men. There are some, have always been some, and will always be some, but they’re in the minority and probably will be for a long time.

3) I wouldn’t be surprised if what’s actually happening is that we’re seeing an increasing bifurcation in male behavior, as we’re seeing in many aspects of society, where the winners win more and the losers lose more than they once did. I suspect you can see more guys getting a larger number of women—a la Strauss in The Game, guys in frats, and guys who want to play the field in major cities—but also more guys who substitute video games and porn for real women, or who are incarcerated, or otherwise unable to enter / compete in mating markets. This makes women unhappy because they have to compete for a smaller number of “eligible” guys, the word “eligible” being one women love to use without wanting to define it. Women on average aren’t punishing men as much as one might expect for playing the field—see, e.g., this Slate article. Notice how Baumeister is cited there too.

4) Guys are more likely to drop out of high school, but they’re also more likely to be in the top 1% of the income distribution. They’re overrepresented in software, engineering, novel writing, and lots of other high-octane fields. They’re also overrepresented in prisons, special ed classes, and so forth. If you concentrate on the far reaches of either end of the bell curve, you’ll find guys disproportionately represented. Feminists like to focus on the right side, Zimbardo is focusing on the left. Both might be right, and we’re just seeing or noticing more extreme variation than we used to.

5) I’m not convinced the conclusions drawn by Zimbardo follow from the research, although it’s hard to tell without citations.

6) If guys are playing 10,000 hours of video games before age 21, no wonder they’re not great at attracting women and women are on average less attracted to them. This may reinforce the dynamic in number 3, in which those guys who are “eligible” can more easily find available women.

7) Most women under the age of 30 will not answer phone calls any more and will only communicate with men via text. If I were on the market, I would find this profoundly annoying, but it’s true. Many women, at least in college, make themselves chiefly available for sex after drinking heavily at parties; this contributes to perceived problems noted by Zimbardo, instead of alleviating them. If women will mostly sleep with guys after drinking and at parties, that’s what guys will do, and guys who follow alternate strategies will not succeed as well. Despite this behavior, many women also say they want more than just a “hookup,” but their stated and revealed preferences diverge (in many instances, but not all). In other words, I’m not sure males are uniquely more anti-social, at least from my perspective. When stated and revealed preferences diverge, I tend to accept evidence of revealed preferences.

EDIT: At the gym, I was telling a friend about this post, and our conversation reminded me of a student who was a sorority girl. The student and I were talking and she mentioned how her sorority was holding an early morning event with a frat, but a lot of the girls didn’t want to go if there wasn’t going to be alcohol because they didn’t know how to talk to boys without it. Point is, atrophied social skills are not limited to one sex.

8) For more on number 7, see Bogle, Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus; I read the interviews and thought, “A lot of these people, especially the women, must experience extreme cognitive dissonance.” But people on average do not appear to care much about consistency and hypocrisy, at least in themselves.

9) In “Marry Him!“, Lori Gottlieb argues that women are too picky about long-term partners and can drive themselves out of the reproductive market altogether by waiting too long. This conflicts somewhat with Zimbardo’s claims; maybe we’re all too picky and not picky enough at the same time? She’s also mostly addressing women in their 30s and 40s, while Zimbardo appears to be dealing with people in their teens and 20s.

10) If Zimbardo wrote an entire book the subject, I would read it, although very skeptically.

Thinking and doing: Procrastination and the life of the mind

I finally got around to reading James Surowiecki’s “What does procrastination tell us about ourselves?” (answer: maybe nothing; maybe a lot), which has been going around the Internet like herpes for a very good reason: almost all of us procrastinate, almost all of us hate ourselves for procrastinating, and almost all of us go back to procrastinating without really asking ourselves what it means to procrastinate.

According to Surowiecki, time preferences help explain procrastination. For a good introduction on the topic, see Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd’s The Time Paradox. The short, non-technical version: Some people tend to value present consumption more than future consumption, while others are the inverse. And it’s not just time preferences that change who we are; as Dan Ariely documents in Predictably Irrational, we also change our stated behaviors based on whether, for example, we’re aroused. We also sometimes prefer to bind ourselves through commitments to deadlines or to external structures that will “force” us to behave a certain way. How many dissertations would be completed without the social stigma that comes from working on a project for years and failing to complete it, coupled with the threat of funding removal?

The basic issue is that we have more than one “self,” and the self closest to the specious present (which lasts about three seconds) might be the “truest.” This comes out in the form of procrastination. To quote at length from Surowiecki, who is nominally reviewing The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination:

Most of the contributors to the new book agree that this peculiar irrationality stems from our relationship to time—in particular, from a tendency that economists call “hyperbolic discounting.” A two-stage experiment provides a classic illustration: In the first stage, people are offered the choice between a hundred dollars today or a hundred and ten dollars tomorrow; in the second stage, they choose between a hundred dollars a month from now or a hundred and ten dollars a month and a day from now. In substance, the two choices are identical: wait an extra day, get an extra ten bucks. Yet, in the first stage many people choose to take the smaller sum immediately, whereas in the second they prefer to wait one more day and get the extra ten bucks.

In other words, hyperbolic discounters are able to make the rational choice when they’re thinking about the future, but, as the present gets closer, short-term considerations overwhelm their long-term goals. A similar phenomenon is at work in an experiment run by a group including the economist George Loewenstein, in which people were asked to pick one movie to watch that night and one to watch at a later date. Not surprisingly, for the movie they wanted to watch immediately, people tended to pick lowbrow comedies and blockbusters, but when asked what movie they wanted to watch later they were more likely to pick serious, important films. The problem, of course, is that when the time comes to watch the serious movie, another frothy one will often seem more appealing. This is why Netflix queues are filled with movies that never get watched: our responsible selves put “Hotel Rwanda” and “The Seventh Seal” in our queue, but when the time comes we end up in front of a rerun of “The Hangover.”

The lesson of these experiments is not that people are shortsighted or shallow but that their preferences aren’t consistent over time. We want to watch the Bergman masterpiece, to give ourselves enough time to write the report properly, to set aside money for retirement. But our desires shift as the long run becomes the short run.

This probably explains why you have to like the daily process of whatever you’re becoming skilled at (writing, researching, law, programming) in order to get good at it: if you have a very long term goal (“Write a great novel” or “Write an entire operating system”), you’ll probably never get there because it’s very easy to defer that until tomorrow. But if you break the task down (I’m going to write 500 words today; I’m going to work on memory management) and fundamentally like the task, you might actually do it. If your short-term desires roughly align with your long-term desires, you’re doing something right. If they don’t, and if you can’t find a way to harmonize them, you’re going to be the kind of person who looks back in 20 years and says, “Where did the time go?”

The answer is obvious: minute by minute and second by second, into activities that don’t pass what Paul Graham calls “The obituary test” in “Good and Bad Procrastination” (like many topics others pass over, he’s already thought about the issue). Are you doing something that will be mentioned in your obituary? If so, then you’re doing something right. Most of us aren’t: we’re watching TV, hanging out on Facebook, thinking that we really should clean the house, waiting for 5:00 to roll around when we get off work, thinking we should go shopping for that essential household item. As Graham says, “The most impressive people I know are all terrible procrastinators. So could it be that procrastination isn’t always bad?” It isn’t, as long as we’re deferring something unimportant for something important, and as long as we have appropriate values for “important.”

So how do we work against bad procrastination and towards doing something useful? The question has been on my mind lately, because a friend who’s an undergrad recently wrote:

A lot of my motivation comes from a fantasy of myself-as-_____, where the role that fills the blank tends to change erratically. Past examples include: writer, poet, monk, philosopher, womanizer. How long will the physicist/professor fantasy last?

I replied:

This is true of a lot of people. One question worth asking: Do you enjoy the day-to-day activities involved with whatever the fantasy is? For me, the “myself-as-novelist” fantasy continues to be closer to fantasy than reality, although “myself-as-writer” is definitely here. But I basically like the work of being a novelist: I like writing, I like inventing stories, I like coming up with characters, plot, etc. Do I like it every single day? No. Are there some days when it’s a chore to drag myself to the keyboard? Absolutely. And I hate query letters, dealing with agents, close calls, etc. But I like most of the stuff and think that’s what you need if you’re going to sustain something over the long term. Most people who are famous or successful for something aren’t good at the something because they want to be famous or successful; they like the something, which eventually leads to fame or success or whatever.

If you essentially like the day-to-day time in the lab, in running experiments, in fixing the equipment, etc., then being a prof might be for you.

One other note: writer, poet, and philosopher have some aspect of money involved in it. So does physicist / professor. Unless you’re Neil Strauss or Tucker Max, “womanizer” is probably a hobby more than a profession. And think of Richard Feynman as an example: he sounds like he got a lot of play, but that wasn’t his main focus; it’s just something he did on the side, so to speak. (“You mean, you just ask them?!”). The more you have some other skill (being a writer, a rock star, whatever), the easier it seems to be to find members of your preferred sex to be interested in you. In Assholes Finish First, Max notes that women started coming to him after his website became successful (note that I have not had the same experience writing about books and lit).

As for the physicist/prof fantasy, I have no idea how long it will last. You sound like you’re staying upwind, per Paul Graham’s essay “What You’ll Wish You’d Known“, which is important because that will let you re-deploy as time goes on. To my mind, read/writing and math are upwind of almost everything else; if you work on those two – three subjects, you’ll probably be okay.

One nice thing about grad school in physics is that you can apparently leverage that to do a lot of other things: programming; becoming a Wall Street quant; doing various kinds of business analysis; etc. It’s probably a better fantasy than monk, poet, or philosopher for that reason. The “philosopher” thing is also (relatively) easy to do on the side, and I would guess it’s probably more fun writing a philosophy blog than writing peer-reviewed philosophy papers, which sounds eminently tedious, at least to me.

Oh: and I have a pile of unposted, half-written blog posts in my Textmate project drawer:

You can see a pile of them on the left. Most will eventually get written. Some will eventually be deleted. All were started with good intentions. Some have been sitting there for a depressingly long period of time. In fact, this post might have found its way among them, if not for the fact that I decided to write it in a single blaze of activity, and if not for the fact that I’m writing about procrastination, this post might have gone the way of many others: half-finished and eventually abandoned.

One reason I’ve had staying power with this blog, while so many of my friends have written a blog for a few months and then quit, is because I basically like blogging for its own sake. Blogging hasn’t brought me fame, power, money, groupies, or other markers of conventional success (so far, anyway!), and it appears unlikely to do so in the short- to medium-term (the long term is anyone’s guess). Sometimes I worry that blogging keeps me from more important work, like writing fiction, but I keep doing it because I like it and because blogging teaches me a lot about the subject I’m writing about and is an excellent forum for small ideas that might one day grow into much larger ones. This is basically the issue that “Signaling, status, blogging, academia, and ideas” discusses.

If the small projects lead to the big projects, you’re doing something right. If the small projects supplant, instead of supplementing, the big projects, you’re doing something wrong. But if you don’t like the small increments of whatever you’re working on, you’re not likely to get to the big project. You’re likely to procrastinate. You’re likely to skip from fantasy to fantasy instead of finding your place. You’re not likely to do the right kind of procrastinating. I wish I’d realized all this when I was younger. Of course, I wish I’d learned a lot of things when I was younger, but I didn’t have Surowiecki, Graham, Zimbardo, Max, and Feynman. Now I do, which enables me to say, “this blog post itself is a form of procrastination, but a productive one, and it’s therefore one I’m going to finish because I like writing it.” That sure beats improbable resolutions.

The Time Paradox — Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd

As with many great works of nonfiction, Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd’s The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life has that paradoxical quality of being incredibly profound and yet, in retrospect, blindingly obvious. It encompasses philosophical debates that occur at all levels of art; fiction often represents our feelings about time, while The Time Paradox lists a few dozen pop songs that contain messages about forms of time orientation. Last weekend I saw Woody Allen’s new movie, Vicky Christina Barcelona, in which one character, Vicky, lives oriented toward the stable future: a nice house, a boring but wealthy husband, and a life that is unlikely to end in a crater but also unlikely to offer stimulating adventures. Christina, played by the luscious and perfectly cast Scarlett Johansson, is a sensual hedonist who pursues novelty and risk-taking. Their contrasting ways of life begin the story, with the two balanced against Juan Antonio’s foil.

The movie is more sophisticated than this, as any art that can be accurately captured in summary is not worth experiencing. Nonetheless, just as The Hero With A Thousand Faces explicitly analyzes the scaffolding of many adventure stories, The Time Paradox implicitly discusses the dominant time views of many works of art. Some, like The Great Gatsby, show opposing characters who see time, and hence one another, in different ways; in such a reading, Nick Carraway is a present-oriented fatalist with little personality of his own, while Jay Gatsby combines a past-positive perspective of Daisy with a future-oriented work ethic that he thinks will win her back. Gatsby on a larger level criticizes both views: in bending all his time orientations toward a particular person, Gatsby’s obsession ultimately leads to a ruinous car crash, destroying himself in crime, like the crime that his wealth is built on, while Nick, without the focus of his attention, seems to drift without learning. The novel’s last line, one of my favorites in all literature, soothes or terrifies the reader by reminding us of how life will continue for others even when it does not for us:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Whether we are terrified by this receding light depends on our reaction to it and how we handle that past.

Zimbardo also wrote The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, which together with Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, pokes holes in traditional economic thinking concerning man as as a rational actor. All three argue that things are not as simple. In Zimbardo and Boyd’s case, the problem is that we don’t consciously realize how we tend to think about past, present, and future, or if we do, we aren’t able to step outside ourselves to realize how we’re thinking. What is “rational?” in the context of past, present, and future? To enjoy the moment, or to work toward a future moment? Zimbardo and Boyd implicitly argue neither, and they point to the poorly understood trade-offs we make regarding how we orient ourselves chronologically. That I use the language of economics to present this parallels Zimbardo and Boyd, who discuss “The Economics of Time” along with the nature of opportunity costs—another well-known issue too little referenced in everyday discourse.

Learning about opportunity costs, including those of being oriented toward present, past, or future, gives one more information and hopefully leads to better decision making. This meta-critical force is powerful, if poorly understood, and what I like so much about Zimbardo’s books is their ability to take on this meta-critical function and put it to paper—like a good therapist or friend—pointing to the blind spots we don’t realize exist. Self-help books should do this but often don’t, or if they do—like Marti Olsen Laney’s The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World*—they’re filled with clichés or otherwise poorly written. The Introvert Advantage is especially painful because it conveys a useful message to both introverts and extroverts, but is marred by stylistic problems. The Time Paradox’s promises as a self-help book are slightly deceiving: it is more like a book discussing research that happens to dress in self-help clothing. And aren’t all books, or all art, on some level designed to provide “self-help?” But no matter: the genre, if any, is transcended by the content, as happens here.

The Time Paradox is also clever in its examples of traps each kind of person creates for themselves, whether those focused on the past to the detriment of their daily lives, those focused on the present to the detriment of their belief in their own ability to change the future, or those focused on the future who lose their sense of joy. Regarding the latter, for example, the authors write that “[…] future-oriented workaholics who do not cultivate sensuality and sexuality have little interest in making friends or “wasting” time in playful activities—a recipe for sexual deprivation. In contrast, the present-oriented might be too focused on such aspects, resulting in pregnancy, disease, or awkward pictures on the Internet.

Elsewhere, regarding those who are oriented toward the future, Zimbardo and Boyd say “[…] they do not spend time ruminating on negative past experiences. They focus on tomorrow, not yesterday.” This has advantages, especially in societies that reward delayed gratification, but also problems, as such “futures” can appear callous, or uninterested in the past, or less capable of building friendships based on experiences—perhaps leading them to feel emotionally isolated, or even held back in work. Futures might succeed through plotting and the aforementioned delayed gratification, but they might also miss some aspects of creativity. For example, Zimbardo and Boyd describe a maze game in which futures tended to outperform presents in navigating a mouse through a maze. But, as the authors write:

Many of the presents who failed got frustrated at not finding the right path and ended up making a straight line to the gaol, bursting through the cul-de-sac barriers.

Perhaps some measure of conventional success is thanks not due to following rules and accepting constraints, but through redefining problems and solutions. As one character says to another in The Matrix, some rules can be bent; others, broken. Technological and artistic progress** often stem from such unconventionality. That isn’t to make a logic error and say that unconventionality automatically equates with progress, but channeled in the right area, it might be necessary if not sufficient.

The Sept. 1 issue of The New Yorker shows a cartoon in which a man says, “I’m not losing my memory. I’m living in the now,” implying a past orientation moved into the present caused by age. Mental faculty creates time impressions, and physical changes, including drugs, can alter them—and not necessarily for the worse. In a section regarding how to become more present-oriented, for example, Zimbardo and Boyd offer the recommendation “drink alcohol in moderation,” which is the sort of self-help I’m only too happy to indulge. Perhaps so many writers and artists are alcoholics because they need to get out of the past (Faulkner) or future.

In suggesting this, however, I’m succumbing to the book’s major potential weakness: presenting time disorders or problems as an overly major source of anxiety and in turn diagnosing time as a source of maladies, rather than perhaps an effect. For example, Zimbardo and Boyd come perilously close to implying that correlation is causation when they discuss the outcomes of the time scales they developed to measure one’s attitude; in an early section, they attribute a focus on immediate gratification, self-stimulation, and short-term payoffs to perhaps too great a degree.

Other sections should be qualified, as when Zimbardo and Boyd write that “Our scarcest resource, time is actually much more valuable than money.” That depends on, for example, how much money we have; if I had no food, I would very readily trade some time for money, and almost every day I engage in some transaction designed to turn time into money. For, say, billionaires, time is more scarce than money or virtually any other resource, and it’s worth noting here what economists call the backward bending shape of the labor curve—that is to say, as a person’s earnings increase, they tend to work more hours, but at a certain point, they tend to cut back in order to enjoy the results of those earnings. An extreme example of that tendency can open between generations: the hard-working parents provide so plentifully for their offspring that the offspring tend to adopt a hedonistic, present-oriented lifestyle that ultimately destroys the future-oriented values of work and thrift that led to creation of the fortune in the first place. Today, it’s Paris Hilton or the ceaseless articles about how we damn kids lack the work ethic of the old days; yesterday it was Vanderbilts and Astors whose descendants are now mostly middle-class, and tomorrow it will be the tech titans’ legacy.

Yet even if I don’t entirely agree with sections or nit-pick, merely raising the issues leads us to consider them, our own behavior, and most importantly, how to best lead our lives and allocate a resource Zimbardo and Boyd imply many barely consider. At the end of the last paragraph, I analogized time perspectives to family and social dynamics—an idea I wouldn’t have considered prior to reading The Time Paradox.

Zimbardo and Boyd rightly caution readers not to assume that a person is entirely one orientation, since all people have some level of all orientations within them. Instead, the reader should try applying their own (past, presumably) behavior to the models in order to evaluate them within the framework both offer. Perhaps their most powerful recommendation is one that echoes Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and Stoic philosophers: that although we can’t always control events, we can control our reactions and try to influence them. Zimbardo and Boyd write:

[…] psychological principles are elastic: They bend and change according to the situation and frame of reference […] We have no control over the laws of physics, but we do have some control over the frames of reference in which we view time. Recognizing how and when these frames of reference are advantageous may allow you to get more out of life and help you recognize those occasions when time perspectives hinder and impede you.

The most valuable sections of the book can get buried: they don’t come later in that quote, but earlier, when Zimbardo and Boyd discuss how much our perceptions count and can change how we feel. Their biggest purpose is first to increase our sense of agency and our ability to believe in our own influence, limited as it might be. Call this the difference between science and The Secret, a book I won’t dignify with a link: one sees self-empowerment as a first step of many to come, while the latter is an excuse for the first step and then stopping in a myopic haze of wishful thinking.

Finally, if the book has an overarching, abstract message, it is that we should, like a character from a Herman Hesse novel, ask what we want from life and how to find it. The Time Paradox provides guidance in finding the answer by, for example, discouraging “a kind of learning helplessness,” but the actual journey belongs to the reader, not the authors.


* For decent coverage of the same idea, see Jonathan Rauch’s “Caring for Your Introvert” in The Atlantic.

** Assuming these aren’t simply two sides of the same coin.

Dan Ariely in Seattle

In addition to being an excellent economist and writer, Dan Ariely has among the best syllable-to-letter ratios for any last name I’ve heard. I only learned how to pronounce AR-EE-el-EE on Feb. 27, when he visited Seattle to discuss Predictably Irrational. He warmed the crowd with a visual illusion I fell for; this YouTube clip is a variation. Carefully count the number of one- versus two-handed passes in the video.

If you haven’t watched the clip, don’t read on. If you have, the question isn’t about passes: did you notice the guy with the cell phone walk up to the door behind the girls with the ball? Ariely’s video was more obvious: men in black and white shirts passed two basketballs and a guy in a gorilla suit walked through. Like most of the rest of the crowd, I didn’t notice the gorilla because I was busy counting passes (18 in all, though it depends on whether one counts a pass at the very end). To judge from the self-conscious laughter when Ariely pointed this out to us and the few hands that went up when he asked how many of us saw the gorilla, many others were in my situation. And with that, we were primed with a metaphor for the brain’s ability to create mental illusions.

Ariely gave many examples of such illusions and preferences. For example, opt-in versus opt-out retirement systems have widely varying degrees of participation, as do countries with organ donations, depending on whether people are enrolled by default or must opt-in. It turns out that we seem to have difficulty with multiple, complex choices and a tendency to fall back on defaults in the face of these choices. I’m reminded of Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, which shows how otherwise normal people who receive arbitrary authority and limited oversight can do evil acts. That tendency might be an aspect of a default option: obeying perceived authority.

Both Zimbardo and, implicitly, Ariely, argue that by becoming aware of such tendencies we can better correct or fight them. The tendency towards defaults, initial choices, and authority might also explain why change in societal attitudes often happens slowly: it takes generations for tides to shift and first decisions to be made anew. Paul Graham says, “I suspect there is some speed limit to the evolution of an economy. Economies are made out of people, and attitudes can only change a certain amount per generation.” Ariely’s research supports that conclusion, but I can also see how and why change might be accelerating: as people become more accustomed to change as the norm and as the first choice, it becomes more natural for the individuals who make up societies to reorient themselves faster to new choices. This could also help explain some of the findings in Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms, which argues that the Industrial Revolution took off more because of attitudes and culture in England than other conditions. England’s culture during the Industrial Revolution had finally reached a place where change and innovation became the norm, and where society could support that change rather than relying on defaults like superstition or religion to explain worldly phenomena. It’s an intriguing hypothesis, though off the top of my head I can’t immediately think of a clever way to test whether change becoming a default norm might help change in the future, perhaps explaining why I’m not a behavioral economics professor.

Ariely also showed how we’re constantly using imperfect and imprecise knowledge to make decisions, allowing first decisions their power to frame how we think about something. In an experiment, Ariely read poetry to students and then asked how much groups of students would either pay or agreed to be paid to hear him recite poetry again shortly. The group asked how much they would pay offered to pay to hear Ariely read, and the group that he offered to pay demanded money. It would appear that the way he framed the question caused them to offer or demand money—and offer more or demand more the longer the reading went on. I would also note that, although Ariely gave an excellent econ talk, I’m not sure I would go for his rendition of “Leaves of Grass.” But students who asked how much they would pay did offer money for it because of the way Ariely framed the question.

Now that I know, I wouldn’t pay to hear him read poetry regardless of whether he asked. But if he’s in town for economics, I’d see him, and so should you. You’ll laugh and learn, and the former might be the optimal way to induce the latter.

The Lucifer Effect — Philip Zimbardo

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.

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