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.


Book review: The Other

October 24, 2009

Note: I also posted this on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

The Other, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, is collection of six lectures written and delivered by Kapuscinski between 1990 and 2004. He was a Polish foreign correspondent who spent a great deal of time in the developing world reporting on the events taking place there. I had never heard of Kapuscinski when this book caught my attention while browsing at the library (although I have a vague memory of seeing the title of one of his other books, Travels with Herodotus, somewhere before, perhaps on a blog). I was intrigued by the subject matter, as “othering” is something I have thought quite a bit about, and I was not disappointed. Kapuscinski draws on his own experiences and various philosophical lines of enquiry both to acknowledge our experience of “the Other” when we encounter someone who is different from us and to make a strong case for recognizing our common humanity as our world becomes more and more globalized and multi-cultural.

One section I found particularly illuminating was his breakdown of the possible reactions when we encounter “an Other.” He points out that all options have always been there, and that we choose which one to take:

And so the three possibilities I have mentioned have always stood before man whenever he has encounter an Other: he could choose war, he could fence himself in behind a wall, or he could start up a dialogue.

Over the course of history man has never stopped wavering between these options; depending on the situation and culture he makes now one, now another choice; we can see that he is changeable in these choices, that he does not always feel certain, and is not always standing on firm ground.

It is hard to justify wars; I think everyone loses them, because it is a defeat for the human being. It exposes his inability to come to terms, to empathise with the Other, to be kind and reasonable, because in this case the encounter with the Other always ends tragically, in a drama of blood and death.

These paragraphs immediately resonated with me because it puts in to words something I have felt for a long time, that war represents a human failure. The perspective that Kapuscinski offers is an important contribution to the discussion of peace.

The Other is under 100 pages and a quick read. The translation from Polish is good: the language flows easily and it does not feel translated. I highly recommend it!


Human nature

July 18, 2009

Why is the term “human nature” so frequently used to mean only negative, “animal” characteristics of humans, such as aggression, violence, and greed? I noticed this in a talk I heard last week and it got me thinking. Positive characteristics such as cooperation, compassion, and generosity are just as much a part of “human nature” as aggression and greed, but these seem to be much less frequently referred to as such. I think this is actually an important indicator of why we are still such a violent, unpeaceful society. We have it drummed into us from when we are young that life is about overcoming these negative natural instincts of aggression and selfishness. This orients how people approach life and their interactions with each other. What if instead we taught our children that life is about drawing out and encouraging our natural instincts towards cooperation and compassion? I think our society would look very different from the way it does today.