Rebecca's Reviews > The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

The Lucifer Effect by Philip G. Zimbardo
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Sep 03, 08

Read in September, 2008

Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect is a difficult read, not because its premise is particularly startling, but because its examination of the psychology of evil shows it to be disturbingly simple. By placing each act of breathtaking cruelty beside a description of its perpetrator--invariably an ordinary, psychologically normal person--Zimbardo makes clear that we are just animals socialized into one behavior, and easily socialized into another. And though he never outright asks it, every page of his book prompts the impossible question: What kind of monster are you?

Zimbardo spends nearly 500 pages supporting an argument that’s convincing by page two: Situations entice people to commit heroic acts and unspeakable atrocities alike. With little provocation, formerly good people will discard their values entirely. Some of the examples were new to me, such as Pauline, a women’s empowerment lecturer in Rwanda who ordered the genocidaires under her charge, “Before you kill the women, you need to rape them.” Other examples are well known--millions of World War II-era Europeans turned on their Jewish neighbors, the horrifying Rape of Nanjing, and many more.

And while the author tries time and again to complicate his argument, to mitigate the bleakness of his premise, those attempts feel insufficient. He assures readers that--although social systems seize control of our ethics, elicit our worst selves, and punish those who refuse to comply--people can still be dissuaded from committing atrocities. We can learn to resist grotesque situational pressures by simply applying Zimbardo's handy maxims: “I respect just authority but rebel against unjust authority,” “I want group acceptance, but value my independence,” “I will assert my unique identity,” etc.

But, in fact, Zimbardo’s sociological studies and historical survey offer ample evidence that people who defy the demands of the societal machine are rare, and that they are mostly punished for their moral courage. American serviceman Hugh Thompson stopped the My Lai massacre by aiming machine guns at his superiors and ordered medical evacuations of wounded Vietnamese civilians--and as “punishment was required to fly the most dangerous helicopter missions again and again. He was shot down five times, breaking his backbone and suffering lasting psychological scars from his nightmare experience. It took thirty years before the military recognized his heroic deeds… Paradoxically, Lieutenant Calley (an orchestrator of the massacre) was treated as a hero.”

Certainly people are to blame for the moral crimes they commit, and yet it seems somehow flippant to assume that all people can avoid the blameworthy road, that all people are capable of risking hardship or death to resist descending into evil--especially when submitting to situational demands is the psychologically normal (and perhaps healthy) thing to do. The stronger and sadder argument, the one that Zimbardo tries to avoid making, is the one his own research supports: Most of us are available for total moral conquest by our bosses, parents, peers, and government, irredeemably adrift on currents much stronger than ourselves.
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message 1: by The Hermit's (new)

The Hermit's This sounds like an encompassing read but I don't buy this 'good person gone bad' dichotomy at face value. We all experience situational morality 24/7. We are all put into various overlapping 'systems' and 'situations' that we must handle a little differently. For example, raising and providing for a dependent yet rebellious child who's views and practices are opposite your own and that of the status quo. So it's always up to the individual as to whether they want their own personal value system to share the same perspective as the objective value system.

I'm interested in why Hugh Thompson would lethally defy his superiors yet go on to continue to allow himself to stay in the military and suffer their 'punishments'?! Did he himself view those subsequent assignments as 'punishment'? Maybe he felt like he was a martyr then? It sounds like his behavior during this time could be considered a lapse in brainwashing.

Does Zimbardo acknowledge the exaggerated effects that extremely controlled environments have on behavior? The brainwashing and isolation experienced by young brains with still maturing frontal lobes, such as with young soldiers and prisoners in the Stanford Prison Experiment, is hardly a cross-cultural study of morality. Also, it's obvious that If there is no environment to adapt to or people to integrate with, then people will sometimes do 'evil' or things to others just because they are bored, like psychopaths, lone wolfs and modern suburban middle class teenagers or even 'good' things like retiree volunteers.

This makes me wonder, If morality is related to a need for socio-environmental adaption, then I'm interested in how this study applies to our current postmodernism/liquid modern economic system with civic infrastructure becoming more and more obsolete.

What does Zimbardo have to say, if anything, about apathy, non-action, the simple complete ignoring of other's suffering while in their presence in relation to morality? For example, like when already financially struggling workers ignore homeless beggars? Can't that be seen as a passive form of good people giving into the 'enticing evil' in a system(economic recession)? Apathy is common amongst mass atrocities(thousand-yard-stare). Is apathy a situational side-effect of those conquered within a system?


Lily Pilly This book sound like "a must read" for me....Thanks for the review


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