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The Lucifer Effect

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil is a 551 paged book authored by Philip Zimbardo, a professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University who once taught at Yale University, New York University, and Columbia University. He is also the co-author of Psychology and Life and Shyness. Zimbardo has been president of the American Psychological Association and is now director of the Stanford Center on Interdisciplinary Policy, Education and Research on Terrorism. He narrated the award-winning PBS series Discovering Psychology, which he helped create. In his wide range of topics exploring different theories on why people do what they do, he demonstrates in his most famous work - The Lucifer Effect, “Stanford Prison Experiment” of 1971 giving answers and explaining how and the myriad reasons why we are all susceptible to the lure of “the dark side”, drawing examples from history as well as his trailblazing research. Zimbardo details how situational forces and group dynamics work in concert to make monsters out of decent men and women.

The Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) was in 1971 and the initial parts of the book existed with a different publisher, the author quit writing soon after beginning as he could not relive the SPE experiences. Thirty years later he feels much wiser and brings a more mature perspective upon this complex task, timed is right with theout break of Abu Ghraib abuses which had striking similarities with SPE, giving it added validity shedding light on the psychological dynamics that contributed to creating horrific abuses in that real prison.  Involvement with the defense team of lawyers representing Abu Ghraib prison guard Staff Sergeant Ivan “Chip” Fredrick gave Zimbardo full access to all investigation and background reports to testify as an expert witness in SSG Frederick's court martial, and that is when Zimbardo drew on the knowledge gained from participating in the Frederick case (Abu Ghraib American Military Prison), to complete writing the book The Lucifer Effect, which Random House published in 2007.

The Premise

Zimbardo in The Lucifer Effect supports the premise of situational attribution rather than dispositional attribution, arguing that situations causes peoples behaviors, rather than anything inherent in their individual personalities.  He replaces the long-held notion of the “bad apple” with that of the “bad barrel”– an idea that the social setting and the system contaminate the individual, rather than the other way around.

Zimbardo highlights the psychological causes behind such disturbing metamorphoses, and enables us to better understand a variety of harrowing phenomena, from corporate malfeasance to organized genocide and recently to how once upstanding American soldiers came to abuse prisoners in Abu Ghraib in Iraq events proving hisLucifer Effect theory. Other evidence are the Milgram Experiment, where ordinary people fulfilled orders to administer what appeared to be electric shocks to a confederate of the experimenter, The Third Wave, Nazi Party dynamics recreations, revolts in the San Quentin and Attica prisons facilities. All sufficiently supports Zimbardo’s argument of situational forces affecting individuals.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

Zimbardo and his team set out to test inherent personality trait of prisoners and guards as summarily the basics to understanding abusive prison situations. They drew from the 75 respondents 24 all-white middle-class male participants, deemed most psychologically stable and healthy for a two-week prison simulation. The basement of Stanford's Jordan Hall was converted to a mock jail, with an undergraduate research assistant being the warden and Zimbardo himself the ‘superintendent’. He set up a number of specific conditions on the participants to promote disorientation, depersonalization and de-individualization and emulate real prison, providing wooden batons, khaki uniforms and mirrored sunglasses for the guards; prisoners got ill-fitting uncomfortable smocks and stocking caps, numbers on uniforms to replace their names, and chains on ankles. Humiliating exercises depicting prison procedures were adopted like full booking of the prisoners, finger printing, taking mug shots and strip-searching. The experiment became so gruesome but Zimbardo allowed it to continue not lasting the initial 14 days planned. Day one was uneventful; prisoner no. 8612 went into a rage after 36 hours and was soon released. A riot broke-out on the second day, while sanitary conditions began to deteriorate rapidly. Stress levels progressed leading to rebellion by prisoners. By the fourth day some prisoners were talking of escape. A third of the guards exhibited genuine sadistic tendencies most of which were upset when the experiment concluded after only six days. Many participants showed severed emotional disturbances by the end of the experiment. Zimbardo argued that the prison participants had internalized their roles based on the fact that some had would accept parole even with the attached condition of forfeiting all of their experiment-participation pay, yet when their parole applications were all denied none of them quit the experiment.

Validating the SPE ecology, Zimbardo argued that prison was a confusing and dehumanizing experience and that it was necessary to enact these procedures to put the prisoners in the proper frame of mind; however, it was difficult to know how similar the effects were to an actual prison, thus the experiment's methods would be difficult to reproduce exactly for others to attest. He uses SPE to illustrate cognitive dissonance theory and authoritarianism, supporting the premise of ‘Situational Attribution’ rather than ‘Dispositional Attribution’ arguing the situation caused participants' behavior, rather than anything inherent in their individual personalities.


Zimbardo agrees SPE indeed had ethical problems and he faulted ethical codes by passively allowing unethical acts to be performed under his direct supervision. Conditions were arbitrary and may not have correlated with actual prison, like blindfolding incoming prisoners, not allowing inmates to wear underwear, look out of the windows or use their names. Though the study was cleared by the Ethics Code of the American Psychological Association based on paper, the experiment was criticized as unethical and unscientific, in the later Zimbardo argued as being a field experiment impossible to keep traditional scientific controls in place. Not adopting ethical standards of psychology breached ethics to conduct for such a study in more modern times. It violated the Ethics Code of the American Psychological Association and the Canadian Code of Conduct for Research Involving Humans and the Belmont Report. Zimbardo considers the broad category of the ethics of intervention provides a foundation for comparing absolute ethics to the relative ethics that guide experimental research.

Evidence for Situational Power

The SPE’s ethical concerns drew comparisons to the Milgram Experiment of 1961 at Yale University, all frightening in their implications of the dangers lurking in the darker side of human nature is another experiment built to assimilate real-world situations. In 1967 at Palo Alto, California a high school teacher Ron Jones in a The Third Wave, recreated Nazi Party dynamics, a real-world event demonstrating appeal to fascism. Bloody revolts at both San Quentin and Attica prison facilities were recorded shortly after the study ended, and Zimbardo reported his findings on the experiment to the US House Committee on the Judiciary.

When the Abu Ghraib military prison torture and abuse scandal was publicized in March 2004, many observers were struck by its similarities to the SPE - among them Zimbardo who paid close attention to the details of the story and was dismayed by official military and government efforts shifting the blame for the torture and abuses in prison to “a few bad apples” rather than acknowledging it as possibly systemic problems of a formally established military incarceration system. The Abu Ghraib abuse at the American military prison in Iraq is a show case of situational power in recent times.

April 2007 high school students in Waxahachie Texas participating in a role-playing exercise fell into a similar abusive pattern of behavior as exhibited in the original SPE. Quiet Rage: the Stanford Prison Experiment, a documentary written by Zimbardo and directed and produced by Ken Musen was released in 1992, while in 1977, Carlo Tuzii an Italian director adapted the story of the experiment to an Italian environment, and students making the film La Gabbia, or The Cage where "prisoners" and "guards" are all in a huge room parted in two halves by a row of iron bars with a small window in each half.

De-humanization, de-individuation and Inaction

Zimbardo outlines a set of dynamic psychological processes which can induce good people to do evil and describes de-individuation as obedience to authority, passivity in the face of threats, self justification and rationalization. Dehumanization is one of the central processes in the transformation of ordinary, normal people into indifferent or even wanton perpetrators of evil. It is like a cortical cataract that clouds one’s thinking and fosters the perception that other people are less than human and makes some people come to see those others as enemies deserving of torment, torture, and annihilation.

Evidently, in the SPE Study video Zimbardo is seen telling the guards, "You can create in the prisoner’s feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree; you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they'll have no privacy... We're going to take away their individuality in various ways. And true this is done in many arbitrary and de humanizing conditions set in the trial. He is unable to remain a neutral observer and influenced the direction of the experiment as "superintendent." When the experiment grew out of hand, Zimbardo still allows it to continue as prisoners suffered—and accepted—sadistic humiliating treatment from the guards. De-individualization is enacted when the newly admitted standby prisoner number 416 is sent to solidarity confinement (divide and rule) for expressing concern to the ill-treatment accorded to other prisoners.

Comparing SPE with Abu Ghraib

Parallels in the two cases residing in its systematic application of the lessons learnt from the SPE and social science research to a new understanding of the abuses at Abu Ghraib (chapter 14) are a major contribution to the book. While the SPE is a field experiment, the Abu Ghraib was a real life situation of similar plot and striking similarities. Both bore the allegation that these immoral deeds were the sadistic work of a few rogue soldiers, so-called, “bad apples,” that exist in the situational forces and psychological processes operated in the prisons, a claim Zimbardo challenged. The explanatory chain from person to situation to system, based on the investigative reports into these abuses and other evidence from a variety of human rights and legal sources, puts both ‘systems’ on trial.

Resisting Situational Influences

Zimbardo suggests strategic inoculants against unwanted attempts to conform, comply, obey, and yield to social influence by developing a three ‘S’ resistance strategy of self – awareness; Situational sensitivity; and Street smart. He further unfurl a ten step resistance and resilience strategy that can be summed as -; Admitting mistakes; Being mindful of others; Take responsibility; Being yourself; Respect for just authority; social acceptance and independence; Frame vigilant; Balance time perspective; Civic freedom and security and oppose unjust system.

Real-world examples of people resisting situational influence exists in two casts, a few who make life-long sacrifices - heroes like Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Martin Luther King USA, Gandhi of India and Mother Teresa in the Catholic missionary, and heroes of the moment, of the situation, who act decisively when the call to service is sounded like Christina Maslach in SPE who forced the experiments to an end and the whistle blower Private Joe Darby who exposed abuses and tortures in Abu Ghraib.


The answer to people questions throughout the ages “Why do good people do bad things?” is answered in The Lucifer Effect.  Until the SPE, standard response was “the answer lies in the individual.” The reason for this behavior is a product of a person’s genetics, personality and background or any combination of the three. It was not until Zimbardo's experiment that views began to change. People began to think that maybe the individual is not the source of bad behavior. Good men and women can be seduced into behaving immorally by the circumstances they are faced with. Zimbardo puts the ghosts of SPE to rest by validating the thirty years old results with the Abu Ghraib case coming to light and leading to the write-up. The book is thanks to the whistle blower, or it would not have come to be. The ‘Effect’ title as opposed to “Affect” concludes Zimbardo’s view of “Bad barrel” being the main cause of “Bad Apples”. The evil is an end product or consequences leading to the rot. Affect merely is selective, involves, shapes and imitates the situation and does not strongly describe the wholesomeness of the situation as in “Effect”. The factors in the SPE influenced the results – but the scenario of the mock prison plus the ecology depicted/created by the participants was the effects of SPE. Effect confirms situational attribution rather than dispositional.

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