Wicked games

The Lu­cifer Ef­fect: Un­der­stand­ing How Good Peo­ple Turn Evil By Philip Zim­bardo Ran­dom House, 576pp, $ 55

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Natasha Mitchell

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Sak­tor

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