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.


Quote of the week

January 13, 2010

I collect quotes and quite a few are relevant to the topic of this blog, so I thought I’d start another weekly theme. Although I will usually post the quotes without added commentary, I welcome discussion in the comments!

From Life and Death in Shanghai, by Nien Cheng:

It seemed that they really thought I would change my mind simply because they had beaten me up. But then, people who resort to brutality, must believe in the power of brutality.


Maintaining hope

April 12, 2008

Deepak Chopra, in Peace Is the Way, is incredibly optimistic. He believes that, first and foremost, the way of peace begins with each individual becoming a peacemaker:

All you are asked to do is to go within and dedicate yourself to peace… The single best reason to become a peacemaker is that every other approach has failed. No one knows what the critical mass must be before peace becomes the foundation of a new order; your duty and mine is to bring about change by personal transformation.

His words carry the conviction that a worldwide transformation to peace will come about (and can only come about) through a critical mass of people who each individually decide to follow the way of peace. This attitude is very convincing and very hopeful, and I believe in it. Most of the time. Sometimes, however, it is so hard to remain hopeful in the face of all the negative, violent things that you read about every day. For example, in the January issue of Ms. Magazine, there was an excerpt from the book My Life as a Traitor, by Zarah Ghahramani. The excerpt was about her experience being tortured, and it was awful to read. She describes ultimately giving the torturer what he wants and how she feels that she is betraying herself:

These are the tears you weep when you discover that your fear of peace is stronger than your convictions. These are the tears you cry when you hate yourself. Dear God, I’d always believed that I’d be so much stronger, that I’d resist and resist until death if need be. But it’s not true. It’s not true. I am not the person I hoped I would be.

Reading things like this dearly tests my hope. How can I maintain belief that peace is possible when there are people in the world who can treat other human beings with such cruelty? And when that cruelty breaks the one being tortured? I do not have a answer to this question. In this case, I think reading the entire book may be more hopeful than reading just this one excerpt. Zarah did eventually escape, after all. Regardless of whether this book is hopeful or not, though, I think it is important that these sorts of exposures exist. One way to maintain hope in the face of reading such awful things is to believe that other people who read it will experience sympathy and compassion for Zarah, understanding in a deep emotional level how terrible her treatment was. If people can have such feelings and allow themselves to be aware of them and listen to them, then there is hope. Ultimately, this does come back to Chopra’s words, and to the need for each person to choose the way of peace. I can hope that reading about the experiences of a young woman who was tortured may be the trigger that motivates some people to become peacemakers.