The Lucifer Effect is a thoroughly fascinating and scholarly account of the situational forces that compel individuals to act without due thought and regard for the feelings of their fellow human beings. It contains one of the most detailed treatments of the author's Stanford Prison Experiments I've ever read, complete with details unavailable elsewhere. That treatment alone justifies reading the book. The arguments are compelling and convincing, and illustrated with copious examples of real world situations in which perfectly normal people have gone 'to the dark side'.
The sole criticism I have of the book is that the lengthy section on the Abu Ghraib scandals contains too much editorialising, especially in the sections where the author goes through the chain of command apportioning blame. While the author is not especially detached throughout the text, in this particular instance it veers off into bias in a way that jars.
That's a fairly minor objection though, and I thoroughly recommend the book to anyone who wants to understand a bit more about how human nature is only part of the moral equation.
on 1 December 2012
This book provides detailed accounts of the Stanford prison experiments and the abuses committed by US military personnel against prisoners. It is a good book for a student wanting to do a project on one of these. One of the more surprising details is the use of "torture chicks" which shows how far some female military personnel were willing to go, to serve their country. However, the book is printed with small letters, making it difficult for a sustained period, and the analysis is not as good as the accounts. The author has in particular no discussion of personality differences and their impact on whether people behave evil or resist an outside pressure to do so. In other words, he wants mainly to explain what is happening based on situational factors. The author leaves out that people resisting often is the type that in normal situations are considered troublemakers, something that was found among American prisoners of war during the Korean war. He also leaves out the role of selection. The persons commiting evil may appear ordinary, but they may have volunteered or been selected according to criteria that makes them more vulnerable, something that appeared to be the case when personnel were selected to extermination camps in nazi Germany.
on 17 May 2007
This is a very interesting book on the nature and causes of evil behaviour.
Zimbardo's basic thesis is that situation plays a bigger part in determining evil or heroic behaviour than innate disposition. The starting poing is the Sanford prison experiment in which students were divided randomly into guards and prisoners for an jail simulation in the basement of the university's psychology department. They very quickly meld into their roles.
From there he ranges far and wide over african boy soldiers, nazi camp guards, the My Lai massacre, Abu Ghraib and experiments where participants are encouraged by authority figures to inflict pain.
Moral agency isn't denied but a different basis for how we act than personal disposition is suggested. Our personalities are seen as situational and conditional constructs.
My main criticism is that it really could do with some editing. Its long winded and repetitive in parts but the its well worth ploughing on.
on 11 June 2007
Well worth reading for everybody who knows somebody else!
The bad: as other reviews state there is quite a bit of repetition, and on occasion it feels like Zimbardo discards disposition through the use of psychological inventories alone.
The good: highlights the evil that systems and situations can encourage whilst not belittling the responsibility of the individual. Provides the reader with practical steps to avoid being drawn into evil behaviour.
The key message for me was that I am thoroughly average and therefore capable of great evil given the right circumstances.
The book has the power to be transformative, I have caught myself in the process of dehumanising others, considering others as "them", and been given an opportunity to change my thinking. As a side effect of this I have been reminded of the way that we are prepared to dehumanise others by the media.
on 27 January 2013
It could be an incredibly interesting book had the author been far more concise. The same information, observations and conclusions are repeated over and over again. Nevertheless, the subject of the book is fascinating and worth the effort, because it helps a lot in understanding how human beings work - as individuals and as societies. It also forces you to think more critically about yourself and, at the same time, it makes you aspire to do better. It is a great pity that the narrative is so discouraging.
on 29 January 2009
I was often mystified as to why people behave in such inhumane ways towards each other. Daily reports in the news range from bullying through torture to genocide. Things I think of as unimaginable cruelty are surely the behaviours of maniacs and madmen, right? WRONG!
The Lucifer Effect highlights the simple process by which completely healthy, rational people become evil.
Zimbardo's experiments show how what we think of as being indefensible becomes not only possible but completely normal. Zimbardo's research describes tendencies in human psychology and reveals the process of how cruelty takes place. If we think that 'We' would never do such things...we are Quite Wrong!
The Lucifer Effect describes the process as a gradient; a little inaction here; a little silence there. The process is simple and subtle; all we have to do is collude through silence - say nothing, do nothing, don't rock the boat, ignore our doubts etc.
The final chapter talks about Learning to recognise Influences and Resist them. An awareness of how this psychological process takes place is key. If things look, feel or sound bad - Pay Attention - this means things Are Bad. We can learn to pay attention; learn how to put the brakes on and learn how to maintain integrity.
on 22 August 2011
This is an important book, as many of the official reviews and comments have said, and the content and relevance are both excellent. However, it's worth saying from the outset that it is no light read. This is true in terms of the subject matter, but also in terms of the small font and exhaustive writing style. This is a thorough book that covers its message to absolute completion, and makes no attempt to skip over the detail of that.
Roughly, the book is split into 3+1 sections. I say 3+1 instead of 4, as the 4th is almost an appendage rather than a dedicated section in its own right. After a brief introduction, the book dives directly into its main subject matter: an exhaustive and minute-by-minute account of the Stanford Prison Experiment. It is by far the most detailed account I have read on the subject, perhaps not surprisingly so when you consider that Zimbardo was the principle orchestrator of the study. I won't go into detail of the accounts, as that would spoil the book, but there are detailed descriptions of every nuance and situation encountered.
Having consider the experiment from start to finish (or strictly speaking, to abortion), the second part of the book then reflects on the social psychology lessons learned from it. Alongside other famous contemporary experiments, such as the work by Stanley Milgram on obedience to authority, a picture is drawn of how situational forces are much stronger at influencing our behaviours than we care to admit. This is, of course, the core point of the book.
With the account given and the social and behavioural analysis complete, the book then moves to Zimbardo's own experiences as an expert witness in the trials of guards involved in the Abu Ghraib scandal. As would be expected, Zimbardo's core point is that the terrible acts committed are not--as the official explanation states--the work of a few bad apples, but instead were the result of systemic and situational failures throughout many areas. He draws on his research through the Stanford experiments to conclude that anyone in that situation may have acted in the same way. This is not an excuse, but rather an explanation.
Lastly, the book considers the reverse, whether situations can also generate heroes, and what that might say about them.
Personally, I found the first and second sections the most enlightening and interesting. The implications for Abu Ghraib, whilst damning, are somewhat academic since the sentences have already been passed and the blame apportioned. In fact, Zimbardo himself admits on a few occasions that he feels his expert testimony wasn't really taken seriously. As such, the third section turns into something of an exercise in creating a water-tight soap box for his now incarcerated clients. Whilst his conclusions are compelling, he is somewhat preaching to the choir, and the sheer quantity of his "evidence" can be overwhelming. I found that I didn't need to read and dissect tens of testimonies and statements to agree with his core point, and I have to confess that I eventually skipped much of this section.
Similarly, with the final section, whilst an interesting muse, I did not feel that there was anything of a revelation in nature. Because of the length of the book (deceptively so because of its small font size and tightly packed paragraphs), I think that it could arguably be split into two books, and for me is the account of the Stanford Prison experiment and the subsequent psychology analysis which is important, less so the political agenda.
Buy this book if you are fascinated in the equality of people, and how the saint can become the sinner, the freedom fighter the dictator. It shows how we are all capable of incredible good and incredible evil, and the route we take is less of our own intrinsic nature and more a product of our circumstances.
on 3 August 2009
I found this book just amazing. I learnt so much about how conditions with bad rules as well as no rules with no accountability will encourage a very large majority of people, sometimes as much as 90% of people, to commit acts of evil. This totally shocked me.
The reason why I bought this book is that I started to work in a very repressive environment. I had never worked in such an environment before, and I could not understand why, as in previous places I was able to pin such a negative vibe on an individual. At this place I could not. It seemed to me that the system was at play, but no-one was trying to challenge it.
This book answered that question - almost all people will comply or enforce negative behaviours. Very senior management, who set the tone and the rules, will also let the negative behaviour occur and do nothing. Very very few people will ever challenge it. And the reason for this : people want to belong and they fear rejection. If they challenge the norms there is a high emotional cost to pay : exactly what happened to me. In a matter of weeks I went from being a confident person to utter depression as I so detested the environment. The last chapter was the saving grace and has enabled me to know how we can work to make working environments better. Thank you Phil.
I have four criticisms having read this book:
1. Having read it I seem to trust psychologists less : they seem to create scientific experiments where by volunteers are duped into them, for example they provide adverts to come to an experiment. The advert does not set out what will happen in the experiment.
2. The psychological experiments are always evil. Phil in his last chapter comes up with a thought experiment of doing a good positive behaviour experiment, stating that such a one has not been done.
3. Phil regularly states that the individuals who committed crimes cannot be excused for their crimes. But he never elaborates on this. On the one hand he spends 98% of the book explaining that the conditions caused the bad behaviour, and then 2% (or less) stating that they were responsible for the bad behaviour. For me I want to know why at the end of day do human beings commit evil acts in such bad conditions. Is Phil saying that at the end of the day we are puppets, 100% manipulated by our environment? Or is he saying we are manipulated by say 99% of our environment and that there is 1% within each individual person to choose good or evil? In my heart I believe we are able to choose, and we must learn to choose to find that 1% to do good, and perhaps we can start growing that 1% to 2% to 10% and so on, the maximum I do not know though. Would groups of nuns do the same? Would Jesus and the 12 disciples have done the same?
4. I worry if the social construct of psychology research is to fund evil experiments. I shall keep detached from the research. At one point I was considering studying psychology, but would be concerned that after a while I would end up being manipulated into their social construct.
I have now bought Phil's next book : The Time Paradox, and look forward to writing my next review of it
on 3 August 2009
At first glance I was intimidated at the thickness and small type of the text thinking it would take me weeks to read this book - I finished it in a week!!!
Zimbardo has extensively researched this topic as well as having had and been exposed to real-life experience of the environment where evil grows and thrives. I noted in one review that it was felt he made his feelings too clear. I like this about the book, due to his extensive research he has earned the right to a solid opinion on the matter. Saying this, he lays out the facts within the book, so you are able to make your own mind up as to whether you agree with him or not.
Zimbardo goes into detail on the Stanford Prison Experiments but also draws parallels from other research carried out by others, both in the lab as well as in the public domain. He also investigates and draws parallels with Abu Ghraib, leaving you with a thorough understanding of what his opinions (and those of many others) are built upon.
He ends the book celebrating the good in people and demonstrating how if you can create situations where evil thrives, then you can do the same for goodness.
There are many parallels with the corporate world so I do not think it is just politicians who need to read this but also any Organisational Designer, Human Resourcer and Learning and Development personnel could benefit from reading this book!
on 2 August 2011
I did a college course last year which involved psychology. I was advised to get a copy of this book to read if I wanted to understand the study better and research it in more detail. I have to say, it is a very good read for a study book. I've read normal story books before and thought I'd not be able to read a book like this, but the study was intriguing and the way the book is written kept me hooked to it. If you are studying psychology, this is definitely a book to read. I'd recommend it to anyone.