Book review: The Lucifer Effect

March 4, 2011

Note: I cross-posted this at my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

I was really looking forward to The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, by Philip Zimbardo. I had high expectations that it would provide me with a deeper understanding of how “evil” comes about. Unfortunately, I was quite disappointed with it, and did not come away with the sense that I had learned much at all.

Before I delve into my critique, let me start with the caveat that I do not think I was the target audience for the book. In college I took several psychology classes, including social psychology. Therefore many of the studies and psychological principles that Zimbardo discusses in The Lucifer Effect were quite familiar to me. This is probably the major reason I did not feel that I learned much from the book; I was expecting it to somehow go deeper than the classic psychology studies. That said, however, there were other reasons that I did not find the book particularly compelling, some of which I think would in fact be a turn-off to the target audience (the general public, and in particular people who believe that individuals are inherently good or evil).

One major issue I had with The Lucifer Effect is that it is extremely long-winded. In fact, while reading it I did something quite rare for me: I skimmed large chunks of it. Zimbardo’s main goal in this book is to demonstrate that situational and systemic factors have a far stronger influence on behavior than we realize or want to believe (people in general tend to attribute behavior to dispositional – inherent to the individual – factors rather than situational ones). To achieve this goal, he presents an in-depth analysis of two situations: his famous Stanford Prison Experiment and the Abu Ghraib prison abuses. I felt that there was far too much detail; it was not interesting to me and I did not need it to be convinced of the results. In addition, I found the writing itself to be long-winded. Often there would be a sentence or even paragraph that I felt like I had read before. He repeats the same important points over and over in slightly differently phrased ways, and it felt tedious.

I do believe that the points Zimbardo makes in The Lucifer Effect are important ones. However, I fear that the length of the book and the details it contains detract from these points reaching the people who are skeptical – would they really spend the time needed to read such a heavy and long book? On the other hand, for those of us already convinced of the general principles and hoping for new insights, it is a disappointment as it seems to mainly re-hash the standard psychological experiments (for example, the Milgram obedience study and the blue-eyed/brown-eyed children experiment).

The other major issue I have with The Lucifer Effect is that I do not feel his systemic analysis, particularly in the case of Abu Ghraib, goes far enough. While he thoroughly covers one systemic aspect – the way in which even the top of the chain of command was aware of and allowed the sorts of abuses that occurred – he spends only a couple pages addressing the fact that the very core of the military is in training people to kill and in dehumanizing other people because they are the “enemy.” The fact is, the individuals who committed these “evil” deeds existed in a culture with an authoritarian and violent mindset, and to me that is an important influence on their behavior that needs to be taken into consideration.

I believe that, while situational factors are certainly important, the picture is not complete without examining the societal context as well. Most cultures, including the American culture, normalize authoritarian, punitive, and dehumanizing behavior at some level. In the American culture, most children are raised using punishment, sometimes physical punishment, people who have broken laws are routinely dehumanized, and we have a powerful military actively fighting wars. Most people act morally in the normal situations they encounter in their life, but this morality is layered on top of the non-verbal messages in our culture that normalize authoritarian, punitive, and dehumanizing attitudes. When a particular situation then provides the additional factors necessary to normalize actually acting in such ways, it is not surprising that many people do in fact then act in ways we label as “evil.”

I suggest that if our culture did not in any way normalize authoritarian behavior – that is, if children were raised using non-punitive discipline, people who broke laws were treated humanely (such as through restorative justice programs), and we did not engage in wars – then far fewer individuals would turn evil even in the situational factors described by Zimbardo. Although as Zimbardo says, we can never know for sure how we ourselves would act in a particular situation until we are actually in the situation, I am fairly sure that I would not treat other people inhumanely no matter what the situation. I was raised non-punitively and any form of violence against another human being is completely outside of my way of being in the world.

We must dialogue

August 6, 2010

In most conversations, we talk at each other, often without even really hearing what the other party has to say. As others speak, we are already preparing in our head how we are going to respond. This sort of conversation is often sufficient to get us through the day – we pick up on the content that is relevant to ourselves, the parts with which we already agree, and let the rest slide by.

However, when we get into conflict or encounter individuals different from ourselves, our usual approach to conversing will lead us to dehumanize each other. Typically, if we are having a disagreement, we work hard to convince the other party of our position, without making an effort to understand their perspective or attempting to discover common ground. We take our beliefs as a given and do not let ourselves question the assumptions on which our views are based. We will quickly become stuck in intractable conflicts with this approach, as each party refuses to recognize the validity of the other party’s perspective.

In order to move beyond the “us vs. them” mentality, beyond dehumanizing people different from ourselves, beyond the concept of “the other,” we must make intentional efforts to engage with each other differently. We must dialogue.

In dialogue, we enter into conversation with the intent of understanding each other better, understanding ourselves better, and being understood. Together, we uncover and explore the assumptions and experiences that lead to our different perspectives. We listen attentively to each other’s words, and speak openly and honestly. We do not use rhetoric to try to convince others of our position, but instead share personal experiences that influence our current beliefs.

To dialogue, we must be willing to change. It requires us to put ourselves in a place of vulnerability. We may question previously held beliefs. We must be interested in valuing relationship above closely guarded views of “right” and “wrong.”

In order to create a world in which we can each reach our full human potential, where we live with our differences without feeling threatened, and where we resolve conflicts through non-violent means, we must be willing to enter into dialogue with each other.

I am particularly inspired by the work of Libby and Len Traubman, who founded the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogues in San Mateo, CA, 17 years ago, and continue to do inspiring work with dialogue.

For a more in-depth exploration of the dialogue process, I recommend an excellent essay at Here is an excerpt:

In dialogue, participants explore the presuppositions, beliefs, and feelings that shape their interactions; they discover how hidden values and intentions control people’s behavior and contribute to communication successes and failures. For example, it begins to become clear why a group avoids certain issues, or why it insists, against all reason, on defending certain positions. Participants can collectively observe how unnoticed cultural differences often clash, without their realizing what is happening.[18] These observations help participants to determine what is blocking effective communication.[19]

However, this can happen only if people are able to listen to each other without prejudice and without trying to influence one another. Because its broad goal is to increase understanding about parties’ concerns, fears, and needs, dialogue centers on inquiry and reflection. Participants refrain from assuming that they already know the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of the other.[20] Instead, they assume that the other is speaking honestly from experience, and listen closely. This process of deep listening and reflection typically slows down the speed at which parties converse. The slower interchange enables individuals to observe the conversation while it is actually occurring, so that they become more aware of both the content of the communication process and the structures that govern it. They gain insight into the “assumptions and unspoken implications of what is being expressed along with that which is being avoided.”[21] Each participant can examine the preconceptions and prejudices that lie behind his or her opinions and feelings, and then share these insights with one another. Participants not only expose ideas to one another’s scrutiny, but also open themselves up to the possibility that their ideas will be changed. This means that they try to appreciate what the other side is saying and keep their ears open, even when they do not like what they hear.[22] To be fully open to new ideas, participants must be ready to abandon their old ideas in the face of new and better ones. They must be willing to change their minds and emerge from the dialogue as altered people. If they instead strive to convey their own points of view and defend their positions, genuine dialogue will not be possible.[23]

Reading Lolita in Tehran

September 24, 2008

I recently read Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi’s memoir of her life in Iran during and after the revolution, where she taught literature at the universities as well as to a private group of women. It is an excellent, well-written and heart-wrenching book, and I highly recommend it (you can read my full review here, on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany).

It was a difficult book to read, however, because of Nafisi’s honest and intense depictions of life under an oppressive regime and during a war (the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s). The horror of the atrocious human rights violations, as well as of living in a country at war, is made incredibly real. Through simply relating her life and those of her students, Nafisi shows the damage that oppression does, the way in which it prevents people from being able to know who they truly are or what they truly want. This an important book, because it humanizes war and oppression.

Reading Lolita in Tehran left me with many questions on my mind. How does this happen, that people come to power and then succeed at restricting people’s freedoms and rights? How is it possible for a government to get away with executing thousands of people? Is it true that violence wins in the end, because if you try to resist it, you will just be killed? Is it possible to counteract such regimes, for human rights to win in the end, without violence? What makes people act with such cruelty towards others?

It is easy to dehumanize the leaders in a regime such as the one in Iran. It makes things simpler if we call them monsters, subhuman, doing things that humans – you and I – would never do. However, this is a very dangerous thing to do, because it masks the fact that anyone is capable of committing “evil” acts – yes, even you and I. I was recently reminded of psychologist Phil Zimbardo’s work on evil, in particular his famous prison experiment. He demonstrated the conditions under which ordinary people will treat others cruelly. In fact, he recently wrote an entire book on the topic of how good people turn evil, titled The Lucifer Effect. Only when we remember that in fact anyone can be cruel under the right conditions can work towards ensuring that such conditions do not exist, and towards resisting cruelty in ourselves. Instead of dehumanizing oppressive leaders, we should remember that they are just as human as you and me, and examine the conditions that led them to become cruel and that allowed them to come to power.

Thoughts on restorative justice

August 13, 2008

I just read The Little Book of Restorative Justice, by Howard Zehr, which provides a nice overview of the philosophy and principles of restorative justice. I had seen this term several places recently but did not know exactly what it meant. After reading this book and exploring some websites on the topic, I now have a better understanding of what restorative justice is. Overall, I think it is an exciting and positive direction for justice to be taking, but there are a few aspects I am slightly uncomfortable with.

First of all, what is restorative justice? Below, I will give an overview of what I see as the key points, but if you wish to read more about it, I recommend this article and Restorative Justice Online.

Given that much has been written about it, it is not easy to summarize in a few words. In his book, Zehr provides one possible working definition:

Restorative justice is a process to involve, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense and to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible.

One of the key philosophical underpinnings is that crime is a violation of individuals and relationships, rather than an offense against the state. The criminal justice system essentially ignores some of the major “stakeholders” in a crime; that is, the victim and immediate community, focusing entirely on making sure the offender gets what they deserve. Restorative justice, on the other hand, aims to address victim and offender needs and to involve the immediate stakeholders in an effort to “put things right.” Zehr lists the key questions that direct criminal justice versus restorative justice:

Criminal justice:

  • What laws have been broken?
  • Who did it?
  • What do they deserve?

Restorative justice:

  • Who has been hurt?
  • What are their needs?
  • Whose obligations are these?

The lens through which restorative justice looks at crime resonates with me as a much more productive way of handling crime than criminal justice. I am extremely uncomfortable with the criminal justice system. It is built around the concept of punishment, of giving people what they deserve. It makes little effort to help criminals transform into productive members of society, and it makes little effort to help victims heal and feel safe in their community. As Zehr points out, this attitude towards crime arises in part from the fact that criminal justice treats crime as an offense against the impersonal state – the breaking of laws. But in fact, crime is about individuals – one individual harmed another individual in some manner – and for true healing to occur it needs to be viewed through this lens. This is what restorative justice attempts to do.

One of the key aspects of a restorative justice approach is a facilitated encounter between victim and offender. This can take a few different formats, but the general goal is the same: to facilitate dialog between the victim and the offender and possibly community or family members. This allows each individual to express feelings in a safe space, allows the victim to receive answers to questions they may have, provides an opportunity for the offender to empathize with the victim, and provides a place for everyone to come to an agreement on an acceptable outcome. I must admit I am slightly skeptical about how a direct encounter can be healthy and helpful, particularly in a case where violence was involved. However, I read some case studies linked from the Restorative Justice Online website and it seems that it can indeed be a powerful and positive experience for both victim and offender. It does make sense to me, psychologically speaking, that it can be helpful to the victim’s healing process to be able to directly ask questions of the offender, if they can do so while feeling safe, and that it can help the offender understand the effect of their crime.

One thing I especially like about restorative justice is that it emphasizes respect for everyone, including the offender. The goal is not to stigmatize or antagonize the offender, but to help everyone heal. One of the many problems I see in the criminal justice system is that it uses an us vs. them model, placing the offender on the defensive. This is naturally going to make the offender angry towards the state and community, and does not encourager him or her to explore or address the causes of his/her behavior. In a restorative justice approach, the offender is encouraged to work on self-transformation and healing. This approach recognizes that offenders are human also, and may also have been hurt in the past.

The idea of dialog, or a “circle,” to discuss and resolve the offense makes a lot of sense to me, perhaps because I was raised in a family that held family meetings. When a conflict arose in our family, we discussed it civilly in a meeting, each having the opportunity to share their side of the story, and then coming to a resolution that everyone was happy with. The leap from the relatively trivial conflicts in my family to a situation where a murder has occurred is a little difficult for me to make, however. I like the concept that everyone is involved in addressing, understanding, and resolving the harmful behavior, but it is hard for me to understand exactly how it works and how it is effective for physically harmful behavior without seeing it in action.

One aspect of restorative justice that I am slightly uncomfortable with is the use of the phrase “obligations.” I am not sure why it bothers me; when Zehr breaks it down into the specific ways in which obligations come in to play, it makes sense. The offender has an obligation to make some sort of reparation towards their victim, and the community has an obligation to help both the victim and the offender to heal, and to work on preventing similar crimes in the future. Actually, I think it is the first part that bothers me, the obligation of the offender towards their victim. I don’t like the term because it sounds too close to requiring the offender to do something to “pay” for the crime, that is, to close to punishment. I don’t think this is the intention with the use of the word, but that is the association it evokes for me.

I also find that there is not enough of a focus on offender rehabilitation in restorative justice as I understand it. Zehr mentions several times the importance of addressing the needs of the offender, including the cause of the crime and what they need to not repeat the offense, but each time he mentions it, it sounds like an afterthought. The primary focus of restorative justice seems to be the needs of the victim. I agree that this is important, but I think the needs of the offender are equally important for repairing the break in relationships and for creating a safe community. I do not think that someone who has committed a crime can truly empathize and be able to re-integrate into the community until they receive rehabilitive help. People who commit crimes have most likely been harmed in some way in the past, and they need to heal from that past harm before they will be able to become fully productive members of society. Thus, I think that helping the offender heal is absolutely crucial in an effective justice system, and I do not feel that restorative justice focuses quite enough on that, at least as layed out by Zehr. However, it may be that in practice, it often does address the offender needs, or is completed by a program directed at that.

Restorative justice as it is currently used in practice, at least in this country, is often a complement to a traditional criminal justice process, rather than a substitute. I certainly think this is a step in the right direction, but I have radical ideals. I would do away with the criminal justice system, and particularly the prison system, in its entirety. I believe that the only reason to lock someone up is as a restraint of someone who is violent. However, we should be giving that person rehabilitation at the same time, to help them become less violent and able to reenter society. I believe that punishment is completely counter-productive. It will only serve to antagonize the offender and do them further psychological harm. Criminals need to be seen as troubled human beings who need help, and as a possible symptom of a larger societal problem (e.g. poverty), rather than as monsters to be put in their place. I believe that restorative justice is definitely one part of what is needed to implement this approach to crime.

The Third Side

July 31, 2008

My aunt sent me a link to a great resource on conflict resolution, The Third Side. Although I am familiar with the concept of not taking sides in a conflict, I had never thought of it as “the third side” before. When you take the third side in a conflict, you are (quoted from the website):

  • Seeking to understand both sides of the conflict
  • Encouraging a process of cooperative negotiation
  • Supporting a wise solution – one that fairly meets the essential needs of both sides and the community

Among the many resources on the website, the most intriguing to me initially was the descriptions of the 10 different roles that one can take in relation to conflict. I spent some time reading the detailed descriptions of each one, and I found it quite enlightening. There was nothing especially new or startling to me, but the examples and the breakdown of roles connected some things in ways I had not thought about before. The roles are the following (summaries taken from the headings on the page I linked earlier):

  • The Provider – Enabling People to Meet Their Needs
  • The Teacher – Giving People Skills to Handle Conflict
  • The Bridge-Builder – Forging Relationships Across Lines of Conflict
  • The Mediator – Reconciling Conflicting Interests
  • The Arbiter – Determining Disputed Rights
  • The Equalizer – Democratizing Power
  • The Healer – Repairing Injured Relationships
  • The Witness – Paying Attention to Escalation
  • The Referee – Setting Limits to Fighting
  • The Peacekeeper – Providing Protection

I encourage you to click on the link above and read about each role in more detail. The first three roles are meant to prevent conflict, the next four help resolve conflict peacefully, and the last three contain conflict to try to keep it from escalating. Although I think all the roles are important – conflict is inevitable – I am most drawn to the ones earlier on the list. I prefer to direct my efforts towards preventing conflict or resolving it peacefully.

I think I am perhaps most suited for being a bridge-builder, mediator, or healer, because I am an excellent listener and communicator. I have been interested in mediation for some time; I was trained as a peer mediator in high school, although I did not have the opportunity to facilitate many mediations. I feel that mediation is a concrete activity I can do where I will be making a direct impact on creating a more peaceful community. I am hoping to find a way to get involved in mediation again sometime in the near future.

Bridge-building stood out to me as I read about these roles, perhaps because I had not thought about it for awhile and I think it is an absolutely critical aspect of peace. As the website says, “The more bridges we build across the chasms of culture and distance, the harder it becomes to demonize others.” Exactly. Conflict, especially violent conflict, arises most easily when the individuals, communities, or nations involved are engaged in an us versus them mentality. They see the group they are in conflict with as “the other,” people with whom they have nothing in common and thus who they can see as less than human. Bridge-building involves bringing people together in activities that require them to work together and communicate. For example, an experiment by psychologist Muzafer Sherif in the 1950s “demonstrated that a common task, such as jointly pushing a truck to get its engine started, helps reduce negative stereotypes and build friendships – far more effectively, in fact, than simply bringing the boys together to socialize.” I recall that when I was a teenager, I heard about a project to bring Israeli and Palestinian children together. I felt inspired by such an idea and thought that it was a definite way to peace. These children would not be able to fight each other when they grew older if they played together when they were young, right? I still believe that this concept is crucial to creating and sustaining peace.

I am glad that the role of the healer is recognized as important. People have angry and hurt feelings about things and they need to be able to express and process these feelings in a constructive, non-violent manner, so that they do not feel the need to act upon them violently. The healer provides the space for people to process their feelings; they listen and acknowledge without judging and thus allow people to heal.

Although both the bridge-builder and the healer are roles that I think I could “play” well, they do not seem as immediately accessible to me as mediator. That is, I do not see where in my immediate community I would play these roles, whereas mediator is more clear: there are community mediation programs in my city.

I find that these roles can help explain and focus the somewhat disparate topics I write about on this blog. The fact the peacekeeper is a containing role, as opposed to a preventative or resolving role, perhaps explains my slight disillusionment about UN Peacekeepers that I wrote about in an earlier post. When I write about food and sustainable living, I feel that it is primarily the role of the provider that I am addressing. I may, as an exercise, pay attention in my future posts to what role is most relevant to the topic of the post.

Juvenile prisoners at Guantanamo Bay

June 26, 2008

This article about the way in which the United States has been treating juvenile prisoners at Guantanamo Bay is absolutely horrifying. I’m really quite at a loss for words, so I’ll let some excerpts from the article speak for themselves:

Military records showed that during a 14-day period in May 2004, Jawad was moved from cell to cell 112 times, usually left in one cell for less than three hours before being shackled and moved to another. Between midnight and 2 a.m. he was moved more frequently to ensure maximum disruption of sleep.

Such tactics used against a detainee would have been severe under any circumstances – Department of Defense guidance limits sleep deprivation to a maximum of four days – but in the case of Jawad, they are particularly disturbing because he was a scared and suicidal teenager at the time. Jawad’s military-appointed lawyer, Maj. David Frakt, described the tactics as “sadistic and pointless,” and moved to dismiss the charges against his client on grounds of torture.

The Bush administration’s refusal to treat these prisoners as juveniles has had profound consequences for Khadr, Jawad and El Gharani. They have had no access to education or recreation facilities and have been housed in the same facilities as adult detainees. After five years of imprisonment, Jawad remains functionally illiterate. None of the three have been allowed to see members of their family.

The effects of prolonged isolation have taken a severe toll. El Gharani has tried to commit suicide at least seven times. He has slit his wrist, run repeatedly into the sides of his cell and tried to hang himself. On several occasions he has been placed on suicide watch in a mental health unit.

Jawad also tried to commit suicide about 11 months after arriving in Guantánamo, by hanging himself by his shirt collar. Prison records also state that he “attempted self-harm by banging his head off of metal structures inside his cell.”

International law does not preclude the possibility of prosecuting former child soldiers for serious criminal offenses. But the standards are very clear: Such cases should be handled as quickly as possible through specialized juvenile justice systems. Rehabilitation must be the primary objective, and conditions of detention must include access to family, education, recreation and other special assistance.

On every count, the U.S. has failed at Guantánamo to meet these requirements.

The behavior of the authorities in charge of these prisoners is simply beyond my understanding of what it means to be human. I find it hard to comprehend how anyone could view another human being with such an utter lack of compassion. How can the us vs. them mentality, that sees a less-than-human enemy rather than a fellow human being, take someone over so completely?

I believe in rehabilitation for criminals of ALL ages, not just juveniles, and I believe that it is never acceptable to treat someone in an inhumane manner. But somehow it seems even worse when it is juveniles – kids who were probably brainwashed and/or threatened into joining with the terrorists to begin with. Is it any surprise that in such circumstances and under such treatment they become suicidal? I have no doubt that if/when they are released they will be in a much worse state psychologically than before being imprisoned, and will probably be even more likely to commit terrorist acts in the future.

Death penalty addendum

June 18, 2008

I was searching for “death penalty” on Google’s blogsearch and I came across this article about a horribly tragic event: a young mother (23 years old) murdered her 11-month old baby and now may receive the death penalty. This is so incredibly sad in so many ways. It is hard to imagine how someone could do that to their own child, but saying that she is a “monster” (as one of the comments does) and does not deserve to live is not a solution. Clearly, she has psychological problems, so why not offer her resources to help her become a more healthy person instead of hiding her behind bars and ultimately killing her? Instead of demonizing and dehumanizing violent criminals (which allows us as a society to murder them in cold blood and consider it justice), we need look at them as follow human beings who went wrong somewhere and who desperately need help. Yes, we may need to use physical restraints to keep them from hurting other people, but we don’t need to just leave them to rot behind bars or, worse, kill them. We could also have intensive psychotherapy and other programs in place to help them.