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Philip Zimbardo, unlike so many people in the world, has a fame that he deserves. He is the mind behind the famous Stanford Prison Experiment--a prison simulation that provides a good deal of evidence for the view that action depends more on situational variables than it does on individual dispositions. In this fascinating experiment, we learn that the individual characteristics of a person will not help us much in predicting their actions. You might think that a self-described 'pacifist' would never think of force-feeding someone. You might think that someone who is intelligent, and generally perceived to be a nice guy, would not engage in systematic acts of degradation and cruelty. On both counts (and many more), as the Stanford Prison Experiment famously shows, you'd be wrong. What makes nice, normal, and intelligent young adults become depressed, violent, self-loathing, or cruel? All it takes is a simulated prison, where everyone knows they are merely acting, and a little over a day.
This, in a nutshell, is the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE)--and it is the starting point of Zimbardo's new book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. The book begins as a memoir of the experiment, and leads us through a compelling account of the fragility of character in the face of situations. What happens when you randomly assign 19 normal college students to roles as guards and prisoners? We all know the answer: our brightest angels fall from grace. Lucifer is born of the heavens.
Zimbardo presents the riveting tale of this famous experiment--one that took place over 35 years ago, and which has had an immense influence both inside and outside the academy. The Lucifer Effect begins by spelling out, in wonderful and gripping detail, the 6 days of the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE). This is reader-friendly material of the highest order. Zimbardo writes in the first-person present as he recounts the excitement, surprise, and horror that was created by a simulated prison in the basement of an academic building on the Stanford University campus. Zimbardo is careful to bring out the deep drama and tensions of those days in 1971, ensuring that the reader is surprised by what happens--by the deindividuation and dehumanization that seems to overpower those involved (I have long been familiar with this study, and I couldn't help but find myself in awe at the details. This alone attests to Zimbardo's powerful story-telling abilities). In reading this material, we see full well why Zimbardo is as known as he is: he deserves it. The book is beautifully written, fully engaging, and accessible to anyone who wants a better insight into the SPE and its implications for our understanding of the human condition.
If Zimbardo's book stopped here, simply providing the detailed descriptions of the SPE so vividly, The Lucifer Effect would certainly deserve a place on your shelf. But Zimbardo does not stop here. In the remainder of the book, Zimbardo shows what the significance of the SPE is, and how this can help us understand some of the more deplorable events of our times. In particular, the events that have recently transpired at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Bagram Air Force base, and other sites of detention and abuse at the hands of agents of the US.
The great service of the latter half of Zimbardo's book, however, is not that it will effectively elucidate the relevance of social psychology to Abu Ghraib to those who are already familiar with the research. The book will not accomplish this. It will, however, enable persons unfamiliar with Milgram, the SPE, and other well-known research to come to possess a much greater understanding of how US soldiers might find themselves doing horrible things--indeed, how anyone might find themselves doing horrible things.
Zimbardo's role in the trial of one of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib (Ivan "Chip" Frederick, II), and his access to data about the abuse (torture) and the situational and systemic factors surrounding it, however, put him in a unique position to show his readers what is outrageous about the "bad apples" view of detainee abuse that is the official story of the Bush Administration. For those familiar with the documents surrounding the Abu Ghraib incident, this will come as no surprise (these documents are widely available, most notably and extensively in Greenberg and Dratel, The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib, but also elsewhere). For those who have read the memos and the reports, there seems to be little doubt that detainee abuse (torture) was (at least tacitly) condoned, if not outright encouraged, by the administration. But Zimbardo's ability to present this information from his position of social psychological expertise makes the case all the more compelling. Succinctly and plausibly, Zimbardo brings together two widely known phenomena (his earlier SPE work, along with the involvement of the administration in the Abu Ghraib scandal) in a prosecutorial style that will make the best lawyers proud. Going beyond the accusatory reports on Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo convincingly argues that the military system itself created the conditions in which unsupervised cruelty could flourish. Far from offering an excuse for those soldiers on the ground level who had a direct hand in torture, Zimbardo emphasizes the responsibility of those who created the situation at Abu Ghraib itself, as well as for those in the administration who created larger systemic conditions that made situationally-induced torture all the more likely. (Unlike many other indictments, Zimbardo's includes President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney). This is not a way of excusing torturers. It is a way of insuring that all responsible are made to be so.
Despite the vast amount of information in the book that encourages pessimism about the human animal--information that will undoubtedly worry the reader about what he or she is capable of--Zimbardo ends with a chapter that simply refuses to permit us our pessimism. If we are the creatures of situations and systems, we are not the slaves of these things. The banality of evil--the very thing so illuminatingly revealed by the SPE and by Abu Ghraib--is justified by the same arguments that lead us to justify the view of heroism as an equally banal phenomenon.
most people who become perpetrators of evil deeds are directly comparable to those who become perpetrators of heroic deeds, alike in being just ordinary, average people. Neither attribute is the direct consequence of unique dispositional tendencies...any of us could as easily become heroes as perpetrators of evil depending on how we are influenced by situational forces. The imperative becomes discovering how to limit, constrain, and prevent the situational and systemic forces that propel some of us to social pathology. (485-486).
To this end, Zimbardo offers some considerations regarding how we, as individuals immersed in incredibly complex situations, can attempt to navigate through them without becoming lost in anonymous roles, swept up into a de-individuated present that makes us strangers even to ourselves.
This, I would like to point out, is one way in which Zimbardo himself borders on the heroic. He is an ordinary human being that has found himself in a rather particular circumstance: that of an innovative social scientist--and one that has seen the darker sides of human nature. Always cognizant of the evil that emerged even in himself as he allowed the SPE to continue past the point at which it should have been terminated, Zimbardo recognizes that work with human subjects must be repaid with high dividends--dividends that are not guaranteed by the research results alone. One must be an active citizen, on Zimbardo's view, to insure that the pain and cruelty created by one's work is made up for in spades. Zimbardo has spent a good deal of his life doing just this, and The Lucifer Effect ought to be read as an ongoing part of this endeavor. It teaches us that we are weaker than we think, but strong enough to try to make a difference.
© 2007 J. Jeremy Wisnewski
J. Jeremy Wisnewski, PhD, Department of Philosophy, Hartwick College, Oneonta, NY, 13820, USA
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