Book Review: The Lucifer Effect How Good People Turn Evil.

The Lucifer Effect, a New York Best Selling book written by research psychologist Professor Philip Zimbardo  highlights an uncomfortable but honest observation regarding human nature: That even the most seemingly ordinary, up-right and good person can become a perpetrator of evil. When we're trying to understand behavior that is destructive, irrational and malicious we often direct our focus primarily onto innate characteristics or personality traits which would have lead to such behavior, while ignoring any circumstantial factors which would have shaped such behaviors. Similar to the Fundamental Attribution Error which you can read more about here.

What Zimbardo hypothesized is that it is possible for external situations and systems to become key influences of  change in behavior and that they can often override a persons morals and values and be a corruptive force in extreme circumstances. The analogy of Lucifer within this book was that he was God’s favorite angel, but due to Lucifers fall from grace when he challenged God’s omnipotent authority, Lucifer was transformed into the forever recognized symbol of evil, Satan. This is the idea of people turning from good to evil.

In The Lucifer Effect, the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971 is the ideal starting point for Zimbardo as he recalls from first person accounts on how the events of the experiment unfolded. He describes how he and the other researchers set up a simulated prison in the basement of one of Stanford University's academic buildings and then selected 24 students to participate and play the roles of both prisoners and guards. The students he said were chosen from a larger group of 70 volunteers and were chosen specifically because they had no criminal background, had no psychological issues or medical conditions. The student volunteers agreed to participate during a one to two-week period in exchange for $15 a day.

Lasting only a premature six days due to the experiment having to be stopped early Zimbardo describes in gripping detail how the students began to sink deeper and deeper into their roles and how they as guards became abusive, and the prisoners begin to show more signs of extreme stress and anxiety as their time in the experiment went on. While the prisoners and guards were free to interact in any way they pleased, the interactions became hostile and malicious. The guards began to behave in ways that were aggressive and abusive toward the prisoners while the prisoners became passive, depressed and show signs of anxiety.

He writes that even the researchers themselves began to lose grip of the situation and lose sight of their objective whilst potentially leaving the students open to psychological damage. Zimbardo, who acted as the prison warden, repetitively overlooked the hostile behavior of the jail guards until graduate student Christina Maslach voiced her concerns as to the conditions in the simulated prison and the morality of continuing the experiment. Zimbardo aptly draws out every bit of emotion and drama involved in the experiment in 1971, which keeps the  reader in awe every step of the way. The Lucifer Effect is brilliantly written, intriguing, and keeps you emotionally engaged throughout reading it. In reference to the end of the experiment Zimbardo beautifully quotes in his book "Only a few people were able to resist the situational temptations to yield to power and dominance while maintaining some semblance of morality and decency; obviously, I was not among that noble class,"

The book doesn't stop there.

In the remainder of The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo goes to show how important the concept of the Stanford Prison Experiment is and extrapolates that to some of the more horrifying real world events in recent times, such as the abuse at the hands of agents of the US at Abu Ghraib, the genocide in Rwanda and the rape of Nanking. He discusses how the insidious and corrosive effect of power often leads to the creation of a corrupt system corrupting the people involved.

The prison study of Abu Ghraib in Iraq is used as an example. Zimbardo became thoroughly involved in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib when he was asked to be an expert witness for Sergeant Ivan Frederick, one of the accused who inevitably stood trial for alleged prisoner abuses. Through his research into what transpired at the Abu Ghraib prison, Zimbardo was able to gain insight into what it was like for the soldiers who spent long weeks working shifts within a military prison, and although the accused was eventually sentenced to eight years hard time in another military prison, Zimbardo was able to document the failures in leadership that led to many of the abuses and states that the military system itself was the leading proponent and should be to blame for the conditions in which such atrocities could take place.

In conclusion, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Much of the book has much of a darker sombre feel to it compared to other books due to the descriptions of how ordinary good people can perform evil acts. The final chapters of The Lucifer Effect offers us a lighter tone reminding us that some people are able to resist situational influence and can have an unbending resolve against peer pressure and systemic evil. Zimbardo gives examples of such unique individuals which include Christina Maslach, the graduate student who spoke up to Zimbardo to end the Stanford Prison Experiment, and Private Joe Darby, the soldier who blew the whistle on the atrocities that took place at the Abu Ghraib prison.

If you want to learn more about The Lucifer Effect and read other book reviews about it...

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