The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

I’m reading two excellent books about applied psychology right now. The Invisible Gorilla isn’t (yet) in our collection, so I’ll review it when we get some copies.  I’d like to point out an earlier one, though, which is intriguing and marvellous.  It’s called The Lucifer Effect, by Philip Zimbardo.

Dr Zimbardo conceived of, and ran, an experiment which has become notorious in psychology circles: the Standford Prison Experiment. That is, he divided students into two groups, and saw if situational factors like uniforms and a culture of compliance would lead some to abuse others, and others to accept that abuse. For those of you not familiar with the study, follow the link above to a slide show by Dr Zimbardo. The kernel of the study is: yes, perfectly normal people become sadists if you engineer their situations precisely enough.

This is, of course, quite challenging to the reader, because the reader is used to the idea that their identity is made up of their choices and preferences. Zimbardo’s point, developed more fully on his web page is that in addition to this, people should be aware that situational factors, framed by others, may lead them to compromise their principles. Zimbardo is, initially, interested in fringe events, like the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib by American service personnel. He later expands his interest to everyday behaviors, like financial interactions, and interactions with co-workers.

A challenging, but rewarding, book.  I recommend it highly for those interested in works that make you think about yourself and your actions, without the sugary personal affirmation of many self-help books.