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The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good…
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The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (2007)

by Philip Zimbardo

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,494248,029 (4)27
What makes good people do bad things? Where is the line separating good from evil, and who is in danger of crossing it? Social psychologist Philip Zimbardo explains how--and the myriad reasons why--we are all susceptible to the lure of "the dark side." Drawing on examples from history as well as his own research, Zimbardo details how situational forces and group dynamics can work in concert to make monsters out of decent people. By illuminating the psychological causes behind such disturbing metamorphoses, Zimbardo enables us to better understand a variety of phenomena, from corporate malfeasance to organized genocide. He replaces the long-held notion of the "bad apple" with that of the "bad barrel"--the idea that the social setting and the system contaminate the individual, rather than the other way around. Yet we are capable of resisting evil, he argues, and can even teach ourselves to act heroically.--From publisher description.Includes information on Abu Ghraib Prison, Achilles as archetypal war hero, administrative evil, Afghanistan, anonymity, Army Reserve Military Police (MPs), Britain, Bush administration, bystander intervention, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Dick Cheney, conformity, corporations, U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), dehumanization, deindividuation, doctors, Lynndie England, evil, Ivan (Chip) Frederick, II, genocide, good, Charles Graner, Guantanamo Bay Prison, heroism, Adolf Hitler, Holocaust, human nature, Saddam Hussein, identity, inaction as force for evil, International Committee of the Red Cross, Iraq, Iraq War, Katrina hurricane disaster as crisis of inaction, persuasive uses of language, Lord of the Flies (Golding), lynchings, Military Intelligence (MI), moral disengagement, My Lai massacre, national security, U.S. Navy, Nazis, New York City, 1984 (Orwell), obedience to authority, otherness, Pentagon, Peopleʾs Temple cult, personal responsibility, power systems, prejudice, prisons, rape, role playing, rules, Donald Rumsfeld, situational forces, sleep deprivation, social approval, social influence, social psychology, Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) http://www.prisonexperiment.org, Taguba Report, torture, transformation of character, Vietnam War, violence, war, war on terror, whistle-blowers, women, World War II, etc.… (more)
  1. 20
    Obedience to Authority by Stanley Milgram (PickledOnion42)
    PickledOnion42: Two of the most famous experiments in social psychology – Milgram's Obedience Experiement and Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment – both cast light on the negative aspect of human behaviour from two different perspectives. Taken together these two works show how human atrocities can happen anywhere.… (more)
  2. 20
    War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges (bertilak)
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    Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman (peter_vandenbrande)
    peter_vandenbrande: Het onderzoek van Zimbardo blijkt zoveel jaren later niet helemaal eerlijk te zijn uitgevoerd en ook de conclusies blijken achterhaald. Dat heeft Rutger Bregman toch besloten op basis van zijn opzoekwerk.
  4. 00
    One of the Guys: Women as Aggressors and Torturers by Tara McKelvey (TheLittlePhrase)
  5. 00
    The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker (PickledOnion42)
  6. 00
    Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing by James Waller (bertilak)
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Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
The Lucifer Effect is an interesting but grossly overwrought and ponderous study of relative good and evil in the human psyche. Philip Zimbardo's thesis is that, regardless of background, belief structure or personal traits, everyone has within them the capacity for good and evil and that whichever of these is brought out is determined by the situation they find themselves in and the system by which they operate. Zimbardo was the psychologist in charge of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, when a group of ordinary people volunteering for a university study were split into two groups: prisoners and guards. The project was abandoned less than a week in, as 'guards' became increasingly abusive and 'prisoners' alarmingly pathological. Zimbardo's experiences in this infamous psychological experiment are recounted in (excruciating) detail in a narrative that forms the first part of this book. The second part deals with the lessons learned from this experiment, in which Zimbardo's thesis and conclusions are expanded on. The third part applies the lessons of Stanford to the abuses which occurred at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003-4, and a fourth, much shorter part deals with the 'banality' of everyday heroism and goodness (which seems like a fillip, after the previous 400 pages of examples of human cruelty and misery, of reminding us that we're not all bad all of the time).

The stuff Zimbardo is discussing can be quite arresting and despite the numerous flaws in The Lucifer Effect (which I shall come onto) this look into the human abyss did maintain my interest. The acknowledgement, backed up by empirical data and psychological analysis, that humans are capable of both good and evil is an important one. Even in our supposedly enlightened modern age, we too often rely on the crutch of absolute good and evil when explaining people's actions. Zimbardo not only provides conclusive (if exhaustive) proof that this is a fallacy, but also touches on why this is dangerous. Very early on, he notes how the traditional view lets 'good' people off the responsibility hook" when bad things happen (pp 6-7), discouraging reform and change as 'nothing could have been done to stop them – they're just evil'. It encourages ignorance, injustice and complicity. Nevertheless, he is keen to note that acknowledging the role of 'the System' in creating a situation that allows people to do bad things does not make him an apologist for evil, only that we should be realistic in acknowledging how unusual and stressful circumstances can change psychological behaviour and how lazy systemic operating practices can permit or even encourage abuses. As he says with regards to Abu Ghraib, had the American civil and military authorities invested even "a fraction of that attention, concern and resources" to oversight and administration of the Iraqi prison system that they did to the disciplining of the crude jailors after the horse had bolted, there would have been no need for any trials (pg. 370).

Nevertheless, despite the importance of the topic and the strength of Zimbardo's argument, there were significant flaws in the book. The writing style is quite dry and clinical – like an academic monograph – and there is little discrimination in the examples provided (i.e. rather than choose between two suitable case studies to illustrate his point, he just gives us both). To exacerbate this, the author repeats himself ad nauseam, drumming his arguments into the reader with the same phrases, examples and quotations over and over like a broken record player. I only read The Lucifer Effect once, but by the time I closed it I felt like I had read it five times. Part of me wonders whether Zimbardo was mischievously conducting his own psychological experiment into the effects of déjà vu.

I also found Zimbardo's discussion of heroism towards the end of the book rather weak. He is less intellectually rigorous in analysing this than he was in discussing evil and the section seems like an afterthought, as if it were a fillip after the previous 400 pages of examples of human cruelty and misery to remind us that we're not all bad all of the time. His 'heroes' are chosen with obvious and unscientific bias, and include the dogmatic puritan Mother Teresa and his own wife. Mother Teresa is here apparently only on reputation, which was built up by an uncritical Western media which ignored (and continues to ignore) the more unsavoury aspects of her life's work (I don't find it a coincidence that Zimbardo was raised a Catholic). His wife – the psychologist Christina Maslach – was the one who dissented when the Stanford Prison Experiment got out of control, which persuaded Zimbardo to belatedly pull the plug on the whole thing. This makes her a woman of integrity, to be sure, but hardly a hero. When Zimbardo dedicates the book at the start to his "serene heroine" wife I took it to be husbandly affection. Yet he uses this label whenever her name pops up throughout the book, so much so that part of me wonders whether Zimbardo was mischievously conducting his own psychological experiment into the effects of déjà vu...

A further flaw in The Lucifer Effect is that it becomes intensely political. Early on, Zimbardo is patting himself on the back for his involvement in left-wing, anti-war student activism in the Sixties and Seventies. I accepted this as an authorial affectation but later on, after discussing Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo begins to go wildly beyond his remit for the book. He starts imagining Bush Administration officials on trial for crimes against humanity, styling himself as an investigative reporter (even though, as he admits, he repeatedly refused to take an active part in the Abu Ghraib investigations as he was scared of entering the Iraq war-zone). By the time he suggests Jonestown was sponsored by the CIA (pg. 479), I was well and truly ready to be done with his book. It doesn't matter if you agree with his views – and, in some respects, I do (about Abu Ghraib) – but he's not being objective in his thesis by this point. His left-wing activist bias has broken through and started to set fire to the wagons and you do begin to wonder... When he's talking about 'the System' and how it creates situations that compel people to do bad things, is he thinking back to his radical days and the mantras about how 'the Man' always beat people down? His thesis is strong enough to withstand these doubts, but it does wipe away some of the gloss.

Despite these weaknesses, The Lucifer Effect did forward a thought-provoking thesis and I finished it with a greater appreciation for, as Zimbardo says, "the ways in which humanity can be transformed by power and powerlessness" (pg. 195). It is powerful and unnerving stuff to read at times, despite some debilitating bias and tonal errors (he ends this bleak journey into the heart of human darkness not with a lofty summation or open-ended food for thought but a flippant, personal "Thanks for sharing this journey with me. Ciao, Phil Zimbardo." (pg. 488)). One finishes it with a greater recognition of just how fragile our psyches are and how negligent we are of their defence. As Zimbardo shows, many of us in these high-pressured situations wouldn't be heroes or even decent people but would act as the guards did at Stanford or at Abu Ghraib. Not out of evil pique or moral corruption or sadistic fancy but because we are human – flawed and malleable. Too often, we "function on automatic pilot" (pg. 452), lazily drifting through life thinking we're the 'good guys'. But Zimbardo shows that evil behaviour is not induced by 'exotic' influences like brainwashing but by mundanity: normal people reacting to abnormal situations and systems (pg. 258). Most of the time, those who are doing bad things think they are doing it for the right reasons, and it is precisely this conviction that "oh no, we'd never do anything like that", which is potentially fatal. This "myth of our invulnerability to situational forces" is the very thing that makes us vulnerable, by "not being sufficiently vigilant" to the persuasiveness of these forces (pg. 211). To appropriate a phrase that Zimbardo uses repeatedly, we're not all bad apples but sometimes we can find ourselves floating in a bad barrel. The Lucifer Effect has enough flaws that it won't come to be seen as the definitive voice on this subject, but it is a powerful and disconcerting voice nonetheless." ( )
  Mike_F | Jun 3, 2016 |
Very interesting insights into the nature of evil and the power of the situation. Would be higher, but he did tend to repeat himself a lot and it got a bit tedious as it progressed. Probably could have fit the relevant information into a book a third shorter. ( )
  hickey92 | Jan 24, 2016 |
Ever since reading Frankenstein, I have been interested in the concept of evil. How can perfectly ordinary people become perpetrators of such horrible things? What turns a good person evil? These are the fundamental questions that Dr Philip Zimbardo attempts to answer in the book The Lucifer Effect. In 1971 Zimbardo conducted an experiment at Stanford University funded by the U.S. Navy into the causes of conflict between military guards and prisoners. This experiment is known as the Stanford prison experiment and is wildly studied and found in most psychology textbooks.

Then in 2003, news broke about human rights violations that were happening in Abu Ghraib, including torture and abuse to the prisoners by the United States Army and the Central Intelligence Agency. Philip Zimbardo appeared as a psychological expert during the legal proceedings conducted by the US Supreme Court. This lead to the writing and publication of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. With a growing interest in psychology, when this book was recommended to me by a BookTuber (along with others) I knew I had to read this first.

I have already done a blog post on this book, regarding the concept of enclothed cognition. There is a lot of interesting things to learn about psychology within the book. However this was written to help people safeguard themselves; if we can understand just how easy it is to be manipulated and corrupted, we are more likely to notice when it is happening. For me, I felt most manipulated by the American government (this is also a problem with the Australian government as well) with the way they spin things, that lead to the treatment of prisoners. If you look at the trials that came out of the Abu Ghraib incident, many people were punished but people like Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney or even George W. Bush never stood trial for their actions. The fact that Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay are classified as Detention Centres so they do not have to abide by the Geneva Conventions is horrifying and makes me suspect of how my country treats detainees.

The Lucifer Effect is a very interesting book, I feel like I have gotten a lot out of it, although it will need to be re-read in the future. Philip Zimbardo has put a lot of information into the book, but I do wish that there was more information on some of the theories mentioned. I am fascinated by psychology theories and want to learn more on the topics. I have a list of non-fiction books to get through, that might help me develop a better understanding. I recommend The Lucifer Effect to everyone, it is horrifying to read how people treat others, but it is important to understand the situations and work towards building a better solution.

This review orginally appeared on my blog; http://www.knowledgelost.org/book-reviews/genre/non-fiction/the-lucifer-effect-b... ( )
  knowledge_lost | Nov 9, 2015 |
This was a fascinating read. The book begins with an in-depth review of the Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted in the 1970s. The account of the participants' descent into their roles so quickly is absolutely intriguing. The author then goes on to review other relevant experiments and their outcomes before moving into a deeper look at the abuses of Abu Ghraib. The most terrifying thing about this book is the realization of just how mundane evil can be. Perpetrators can come from all backgrounds and all walks of life, especially when one is talking about the evil that exists within established roles and systems. Definitely an intriguing read. ( )
  JenLamoureux | Apr 8, 2015 |
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