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.

Two important petitions

October 8, 2008

I have recently been notified about two important petitions related to peace. I have signed both and encourage you to do the same.

The first petition, A Single Voice Project, is sponsered by The National Public Service Council to Abolish Private Prisons. It “seeks to abolish all private prisons in the United States, (or any place subject to its jurisdiction).” It is wrong and unacceptable for people to make a profit off of prisoners. As the text of the petition points out, “The same logic that motivates companies to operate prisons more efficiently also encourages them to cut corners at the expense of workers, prisoners and the public. Every penny they do not spend on food, medical care or training for guards is a dime they can pocket.” A for-profit environment encourages and supports inhumane behavior.

The second petition is requesting U.S. support of the U.N. resolution Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS). This is an extremely important resolution and “the U.S. has been the only nation in the world to vote no on a UN resolution to Prevent an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS).”

It is easy to sign these petitions online and you can choose to be anonymous. Please go sign them now.

Organization of the week: Critical Resistance

September 30, 2008

Oops, it’s Tuesday, not Monday. I guess I never said the Organization of the week was always going to be on Monday, but that was more or less my intention. However, Mondays are usually pretty busy for me, so it may shift to Tuesdays, as it has this week.

I learned about Critical Resistance from a post at Feministing; the author of the post, Miriam, attended the Critical Resistance 10 conference. They are a grassroots organization “committed to ending society’s use of prisons and policing as an answer to social problems.” Their mission statement says, in part:

Critical Resistance seeks to build an international movement to end the Prison Industrial Complex by challenging the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe. We believe that basic necessities such as food, shelter, and freedom are what really make our communities secure.

These words are very true and Critical Resistance is doing important work with the goal of abolishing prisons. It would have been very interesting to attend the conference, but I was not able to do that. Miriam at Feministing wrote a few posts about it, here, here, and here, and you can read more about it at the website.

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.

Peacebuilding books

August 3, 2008

Friday evening I was browsing at a bookstore and two books on peacebuilding jumped out at me. One is The Third Side: Why We Fight and How We Can Stop, by William Ury, which is the book that the website I wrote about in my last post,, is based on. It looks like it goes in to much greater depth than the articles available on the website, so I am looking forward to reading it.

The other book that caught my eye is The Little Book of Restorative Justice, by Howard Zehr. I wasn’t familiar with the term “restorative justice” until relatively recently, and I’m still not sure I understand exactly what it is. I have my own opinions on our current system of “justice,” so I am curious to learn more about the approach of restorative justice.

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.