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.

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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.