Review of The Lucifer Effect, by Dr. Philip Zimbardo
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/7/08


  Everyone has their biases, but the thing that distinguishes a real intellectual from a phony is recognizing the bias and moving on. This thought struck me as I read social psychologist Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s 2007 book, The Lucifer Effect. I received the book gratis, from the publisher, because I will be interviewing Zimbardo at a later date, and immediately I thought of the book The Lucifer Principle, by Howard Bloom, a man I’d interviewed a few years ago. That earlier book, while a good read, was in no way a book that used hard science, nor the scientific method, to approach the subject of humans and evil. Bloom’s book was, in many ways, a modern echo of the Thomas Hobbesian view of mankind as an evil agent just waiting to bust loose, even if leavened by claims that ‘evil,’ or the propensity toward violence, is a natural outcome of evolutionary selection. Zimbardo resists both supernaturalism and philosophic psychobabble when he claims that evil is merely a system of intentional harm, abuse, and dehumanization of innocents, whether by direct or indirect means.

  Zimbardo’s book, by contrast, is more grounded in experimentation, documentation, and less malleable and subjective than Bloom’s book; despite Zimbardo’s critics often railing against his methods as ‘unscientific.’ Yet, perhaps because of Zimbardo’s book’s title’s similarity with Bloom’s, I was preparing for another metaphysical trip into pop culture’s tangential nod with science. I was, admittedly biased to be skeptical about the book, but, as I am a good critic, and had let past biases toward such works of art, as It’s A Wonderful Life, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, and The Curse Of The Cat People, rob me of their insight for too long, I dashed all expectations and was rewarded early on, starting with Zimbardo’s excellent Preface to the book, wherein he documents personal and professional things which led up to the book’s release, over three decades in the making.

  Zimbardo rose to fame in the early 1970s, when he conducted one of the seminal studies into human nature and brutality, the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment (a recounting of which takes up the first 40% or so of the book); a direct outgrowth of Yale University social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s 1961 study of obedience to authority, where 65% of subjects in a study, supposedly about memory, were coaxed into delivering what they were told were successively higher voltage shocks to another person. In actuality, an actor merely voiced the agonal screams, but most of the subjects bent to Milgram’s authority. In the SPE, students at the college where Zimbardo taught, were subjected to a week’s worth of faux imprisonment, to see how selected ‘prisoners’ and ‘jailers’ would react. It caused a sensation, naturally, and was fortuitous because, mere weeks later, the Attica Prison Riot erupted, which thrust Zimbardo’s experiment’s premises into the center of a national debate. Decades later, after the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal came to light, Zimbardo’s work found a new relevance, as he testified as an expert witness for one of the accused military men, trying to dispose of the ‘few rotten apples’ theory of why there was a breakdown in decency at the prison, to posit his belief that it was a ‘rotten barrel’ that caused the abuses, as well as those ongoing ones at Guantanamo Bay. Zimbardo testified for the defense in the court martial of Sergeant Ivan Frederick, the Abu Ghraib prison guard, and argued for reducing sentence, due to the climate of intimidation and corruption the military fostered. Zimbardo’s claim, voluminously and excruciatingly detailed in the last third of the book (almost too intricately for some readers who may likely be turned off, less by the vile actions, than the sheer weight of their terminological details), is that the U.S. Army did not do enough to prevent prisoner abuse, and promulgated a system of procedures that encouraged dehumanization in creatively subtle and evil ways. He also argues that this was an almost inevitable result of President Bush’s willful suspension of the rights accorded prisoners of war by the Geneva Conventions. But, he failed, as Frederick was sentenced to jail time.

  Yet, the book is not just another attack by some effete Left Wing intellectual against the military industrial complex, for early in the book Zimbardo gives a lengthy accounting of his youth, growing up in the Bronx, New York, and this early testicular bona fides shows Zimbardo does not merely look at such questions with a detached eye, immune to the consequences of his ideas nor actions. Zimbardo espouses the ‘situational ethics’ model that, while far more consonant with reality’s grays, many black and white thinkers, on the Left and Right, simply cannot stomach. He ascribes much of what went on, in both the SPE and Abu Ghraib, as being proof that his more reality-based methodology of ascribing a person’s actions is superior to others, and the whole of his 488 page book does an excellent and exhaustively detailed job of supporting his thesis, which has almost another fifty pages of rigorous sourcing at its end.

  Of course, while many may be surprised at the rather simple elegance of Zimbardo’s claim- the ‘rotten barrel’ replacing the ‘rotten apple’- is it really any surprise to anyone who has worked in corporate America? After all, is not the very experience of ‘going corporate’ exactly what Zimbardo describes, that of the individual seeking approval from the group- be it in a social or professional setting? How many times have you worked with a person you thought you knew, who, if offered a promotion, seemingly changed their color their stripes, or both? Or, was that, as Zimbardo suggests, their evidencing the corrupting barrel, rather than letting their ‘true self’ loose?

  But, what makes Zimbardo’s book so good is that he does not fall off the wagon on the other side, putting all the blame on corrupting organizations. He demands that human beings be accorded their due as fallible beings- that they can be corrupted, but also can resist. As he states:

  Our usual take on evil focuses on the violent, destructive actions of perpetrators, but the failure to act can also be a form of evil, when helping, dissent, disobedience, or whistle-blowing are required. One of the most critical, least acknowledged contributors to evil goes beyond the protagonists of harm to the silent chorus who look but do not see, who hear but do not listen. Their silent presence at the scene of evil doings makes the hazy line between good and evil even fuzzier. We ask next: Why don’t people help? Why don’t people act when their aid is needed? Is their passivity a personal defect of callousness, of indifference? Alternatively, are there identifiable social dynamics once again at play?

  That Zimbardo acknowledges that evil emanates not only from one’s actions, but from one’s inactions, is a rarity in today’s polarizing political climate. But it shows that Zimbardo is acutely attuned to reality, rather than political or scientific convenience. He tackles the inactions- most famously demonstrated in the 1964 Kitty Genovese case, wherein a building full of people did nothing to help as an innocent woman screamt for help as she was brutally murdered. Yet, he also expands the scope of his inquiry (and/or indictment) to include the reactions of nations and peoples to genocides; especially those which occurred post-World War Two, after the War Crimes Trials of Nuremberg and Tokyo removed the ‘just following orders’ defense. Instead, most people now simply tune out such atrocities with a ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ approach.

  Throughout the book, Zimbardo does an excellent job of making a case, documenting the facts with observation, drawing conclusions, then deducing or inducing from the results. The book opens with a recounting of the legend of Lucifer, and how it applies to human violence on a large scale (war) and smaller everyday scales. When he gets to the SPE he gives details via verbatim transcripts, snippets from his notebooks, as well as anecdotal accounts of the experiment from him, the participants, and observers, both from in the midst of the experiment, and from reflections years and decades on. The SPE serves as Zimbardo’s template from which to analogize on other human evils (recounting genocides and other war crimes), although he focuses mainly on the Abu Ghraib scandal- not for political reasons, but because of its almost textbook confirmation of the SPE’s ideas. Some critics have railed a bit that Zimbardo is a bit too self-congratulatory re: the connections between Abu Ghraib and the SPE, but if you had to wait three decades plus to see your most famous work vindicated, I think it’s a bit churlish to harp on Zimbardo’s pride in extolling, say, the fact that Googling ‘experiment’ will lead one to his website about the SPE (although, as I type, the Wikipedia entry for ‘experiment’ comes up first).

  Zimbardo then details how human psychology works at individual and group levels, and how breakdowns in social networking often lead to isolated loners who can cause evil, especially when these ‘outsiders’ form their own networks against the mainstream (be they members of organized crime, terrorists, or members of hate groups or groups with philosophic or political ideologies. Zimbardo details Abu Ghraib, and especially Sergeant Ivan Frederick’s life and routines at the prison, where sleep deprivation and wink and nod attitudes from above, among many other things, created the classic ‘rotten barrel’ that Zimbardo describes. He also goes into official Bush Administration policies, the outsourcing of blatant torture to other nations, and the groupthink that flourished at the prison, and while Zimbardo strongly and rightly condemns the President and his Republican minions, writing, ‘The seeds for the flowers of evil that blossomed in that dark dungeon of Abu Ghraib were planted by the Bush administration in its triangular framing of national security threats, citizen fear and vulnerability, and interrogation/torture to win the war on terror,’ one never gets the idea that Zimbardo is yet another out of touch Liberal Academic Elitist in his proscriptions, for, had this occurred forty years earlier, there’s little doubt that he would have been just as damning of President Lyndon Johnson and the many known abuses that occurred in South Vietnam, under the aegis of the CIA.

  From such a detailed examination, plus my earlier description of Zimbardo’s take on evil as ‘merely a system of intentional harm, abuse, and dehumanization of innocents, whether by direct or indirect means,’ rather than something that might be inborn or immanent in an individual or group, one might get the idea that Zimbardo accepts the social philosopher Hannah Arendt’s by now trite take on the ‘banality of evil,’ especially since he references Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi for whom the term was coined. Here is his take on why the phrase stuck:

  Arendt’s phrase ‘the banality of evil’ continues to resonate because genocide has been unleashed around the world and torture and terrorism continue to be common features of our global landscape. We prefer to distance ourselves from such a fundamental truth, seeing the madness of evildoers and senseless violence of tyrants as dispositional characters within their personal makeup. Arendt’s analysis was the first to deny this orientation by observing the fluidity with which social forces can prompt normal people to perform horrific acts.

  But he actually does not. Instead, he believes it distracts the public from the far more interesting and important ‘banality of heroism.’

  Zimbardo feels that heroism is often measured only on the grand stage, whereas real acts of heroism are small and everyday, but help build up social bulwarks against evil’s creep. While I agree with the general idea that heroism does not necessarily have to be on a grand stage with a great act, there is something a little too PC in Zimbardo’s idea, for me. While it works well as a rhetorical device to point out the inadequacies of Arendt’s coinage; standing alone, it seems to have little else going for it. It is also the direct philosophic opposite of the old anecdote about the person who does not stand up against the Nazis when they came for Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, Communists, trade unionists, and Catholics, and then when they came for his group, there was no one left to stand up with and for him. And while also certainly true, I find it a bit too akin to al the pop cultural references to people displaying ‘courage’ for merely doing the very things they should- i.e.- accepting congratulations for doing the bare minimum, whereas real heroism is going above and beyond the call of reasonable citizenship. Yes, chiding a child or neighbor or co-worker who utters a racial epithet against someone is a good thing, but is that heroic- banal or not? Is whistleblowing really heroic, especially since most of the petty crimes that go on in corporate America are so small? I think not, although arguments can be made. Similarly, to use the case of former pro football star Pat Tillman, was he really a hero for merely volunteering for duty, then getting himself killed? Are all of out military people really heroes? How about cops and firemen; especially those who died on 9/11, or others in the line of duty? I mean, that’s why they get paid, right? And does not such a facile use of the very idea of heroism for the more banal things undercut its true application for the guy who runs into a burning orphanage and saves a dozen kids, or the gal who testifies about some truly horrific abuse of political or financial power, and whose life can be totally ruined?

  Now, one may be thinking that the very phrase ‘banality of heroism’ implies that Zimbardo agrees with my assessment, but he does not- or, he does, to a degree. Yet, he posits as heroes, for example, a couple of people who escaped from Jim Jones’ Jonestown cult and informed the world of his plots, months before the mass suicide occurred. Now, while there is no doubt that the two people named took risks, the fact is that their risks really did nothing to save any lives, so how can their undoubtedly good act be termed heroic? And, on a personal level, I think his usage of Mother Teresa as a heroic example is a very poor one, given all that is now known about her life and misdeeds in India, detailed by folk as diverse as journalist Christopher Hitchens, former acolytes, and me, but that’s a personal objection to his use of the woman’s persona rather than person. And, yes, Zimbardo goes on at length to extol what he terms a four dimensional model of heroism, and while I agree with it, in part, I also feel that he has taken a relatively simple definitional act like heroism, and tried to create a psychological Frankenstein’s monster out of it. That said, his monster is well built and well deployed within his argument, and my philosophic and common sense objections notwithstanding, it’s an idea that deserves a) scrutiny by others in and out of Zimbardo’s profession, and b) should be used as an example that public intellectuals should not refrain from putting forth controversial ideas into the public arena- even ones which may have dubiety.

  That said, my digressive objection takes up a far greater percentage of this review than it does to its representation of objections to that within the book, which I deem an important and likely seminal work, which argues quite persuasively on the side of the nurture aspect of the ongoing nature vs. nurture dialectic, for Zimbardo impugns what he feels is an American individualistic bias against situational norms and ethics in favor of dispositional ones. In other words, the American philosophy of the self-made man blinds many to the reality that ‘rotten apples’ do not always, much less often, occur in a vacuum, but rather in ‘rotten barrels.’ Zimbardo also invokes the old logical fallacy of the Fundamental Attribution Error, where when something occurs, of which we disapprove, we tend to assume that the action was based upon a flaw in character, whereas when we do something another disapproves of, we would get indignant of just such an accusation our way. Zimbardo recommends that applying an Occam’s Razor methodology of first assuming that the disapproved act may stem from the other person simply responding to a situation as best they could, under whatever social or physical pressures were applied, is the better option.

  The book also delves into cultural ritualism, such as the usage of masks and military uniforms to deindividuate persons into parts of a ‘machine’ to get them to commit acts of violence. It’s an ancient and effective technique, of course, and Zimbardo does a far better job of explaining the whys and wherefores of such things than did a charlatan like Joseph Campbell. The book has many great qualities, although it clearly is not for all readers. People with a video game mindset will get bored the first time Zimbardo digresses for a page or two to explain something, and many others will likely just skim through the long sections on the SPE and Abu Ghraib. However, for those wanting to get a fundamental understanding into the nature of why men do bad things, The Lucifer Effect, is a good start, and far easier to sift through than typical psychological texts or those which become more well known for the times they were written in than anything immanent (think of any book by Magnus Hirschfeld). In short, read this book with an open mind, and you will likely have a different opinion on many of the things you take for granted when you flip on the tv, watch the latest daily horror from around the world or around the corner. And for those you don’t, this book may explain why. Having one’s cake, yet eating it too, need not always be a desideratum, need it?


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]


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