The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil By Philip Zimbardo Random House, 576pp, $ 55
FEW of us see what goes on behind the closed doors of the world’s university research laboratories. Television news reports give us images of bespectacled investigators in white coats hunched over microscopes or of earnest faces emblazoned with blue screens of flickering data.
But occasionally academe’s doors are flung open and science explodes into the public arena to reveal something truly extraordinary about ourselves. Two particularly chilling experiments stand out in the history books. The Lucifer Effect is the inside story of one of them.
Both studies have garnered cult status in undergraduate psychology classes for their investigation of evil and human nature, and both, interestingly, were contrived by men born and reared in the Bronx, in New York, attending the same high school. A case of early situational influences, perhaps: ‘‘ Give me the boy and I will show you the man’’?
The Milgram experiment, headed by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, investigated the dark side of obedience, the capacity in all of us to commit atrocities at the command of an authority figure. Participants found themselves giving apparently lethal electric shocks to people when instructed to, despite the obvious suffering and protestations of their subjects ( later revealed to be actors).
Inspired by the Nazi war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann in the same year ( 1961), Milgram’s contentious experiment put a bomb under his profession when the results were published.
In The Lucifer Effect , a long and expansive read, Philip Zimbardo reveals the full story of his equally notorious investigation, the Stanford prison experiment.
In the summer of 1971, Zimbardo constructed a mock prison in a basement on the leafy Stanford University campus at Palo Alto, California. Students were assigned to play the role of prison guards or prisoners. Realistic arrests were made, strict rules were enforced, number were assigned, chains were clamped and the conditions were harsh.
As the book documents in intricate detail, what unfolded was sadistic and disturbing, so much so the experiment must never be repeated, Zimbardo says, with his characteristic sensationalist flair. After just six days he was prompted to end the study early and liberate the young prisoners and guards. A handful didn’t even make it that far, broken by the demeaning cruelty of their fellow student guards.
The experiment, Zimbardo claims, demonstrates the capacity in all of us, even the most virtuous, to commit evil acts when confronted with a dehumanising situation and system. While many question the voracity and integrity of his original study’s design, his summary of a host of other studies probing the dynamics of power, conformity and obedience is riveting. He goes on to draw compelling parallels with the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq, which he describes as his ‘‘ journey into a new heart of darkness’’.
Zimbardo dons the hat of investigative reporter, unearthing original arguments and psychological evidence for why a group of apparently ‘‘ good apples’’ placed in a ‘‘ bad barrel’’ behaved the way they did. But he also adopts the role of opinionated activist, again abandoning the role of objective scientist. Zimbardo was an expert witness for a US soldier, staff sergeant Ivan ‘‘ Chip’’ Frederick, now serving time for his role in the Abu Ghraib scandal. Frederick clamped the wires on the hands of the Iraqi prisoner cloaked in a Ku Klux Klan hood, now an emblematic image of the sordid affair.
As with the Milgram experiment, Zimbardo’s prison experiment wouldn’t pass the scrutiny of a scientific research ethics committee today. For a start, he was chief investigator and prison superintendent, a definite conflict of interest. But the Stanford prison experiment continues to raise profound questions about what is and isn’t permissible in research on human subjects. Even seemingly benign studies have the capacity to psychologically scar unprepared, untested participants.
Zimbardo says it’s the first time he has been able to bring himself to document the full extent of the 1971 experiment. His effort reads like a cathartic tome written to appease, himself especially. But the reader is left wondering: How much guilt and remorse does he feel about what he did, really? In reality the acclaimed Stanford psychologist has been enthusiastically retelling the story for more than three decades, leveraging off the notoriety the experiment attracted.
A Hollywood version is under way; the BBC recently attempted a reality television series based on the experiment; a German film, Das Experiment , received critical attention; and multiple documentaries have been made about the experiment’s legacy, starring Zimbardo.
To some he’s a superstar psychologist seduced by the bright lights of fame ( his website features his tanned face grinning beside the likes of Bill Clinton); to others this former president of the American Psychological Association is a hero of his profession, translating the findings of academic psychology for the rest of us.
Hannah Arendt wrote of the ‘‘ banality of evil’’ and the ordinary people who commit extraordinary acts of evil. Zimbardo now wants to turn his attention to what he calls the ‘‘ banality of heroism’’. How do ordinary people achieve extraordinary feats of goodness, and how can all of us resist unwanted influences? Noble questions indeed. Natasha Mitchell is presenter and producer of All in the Mind on Radio National.