Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect


Jason Collins


December 19, 2011

The situation is more important than a person’s disposition. This message permeates through Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, and while I disagree with some of the implications that he draws from this message, Zimbardo’s case is compelling.

Zimbardo builds the book on the Stanford Prison Experiment, one of the most cited psychological experiments. Zimbardo and his colleagues selected a group of “psychologically normal” young men and randomly assigned them roles as guards and prisoners in a role-play that they would conduct in the basement at Stanford University. Almost as soon as the experiment started, the guards started to abuse the prisoners and create more intricate methods of psychological torture. Ultimately, Zimbardo terminated the two-week experiment on day six due to fears for the mental health of the participants. The experiment now stands as the prime example of how good people can go bad due to the situation they are in.

The first half of The Lucifer Effect gives a blow-by-blow account of the experiment, with a chapter allocated to each day from the Sunday through to the experiment’s termination on the Friday morning. The detail of the experiment is enthralling, and, for me, there were some interesting new factoids.

The first was that the abuse, while clearly terrifying to the prisoners, never breached the guidelines set down by Zimbardo and his colleagues. There was no physical violence and the participants in the experiment acted as though the prohibition was a clear constraint. It would be interesting to conduct the experiment with less upstanding citizens to have seen if that constraint would have held.

The second was how Zimbardo and the others who ran the experiment played roles within the experiment, and how they were also transformed by these roles. Zimbardo was the prison superintendent and the others acted as wardens. It did not take long for them to fall into these roles, nudging guards to be tougher, implying to prisoners that they had a limited right to leave the role-play and manipulating outsiders to create the impression that the prisoners were well treated. Others who became involved in the experiment such as a prison chaplain, pro bono lawyer and the prisoners’ parents all quickly fell under the spell of the experiment and acted as though the experiment was real. The power of the situation extended beyond the experimental subjects.

The Stanford Prison Experiment, and Zimbardo and others’ subsequent experimental work, makes clear that situational factors are important. But in placing the emphasis on the situational assessment, Zimbardo is somewhat blind to the role that people’s disposition plays in forming the situation faced by others. For example, when a couple of guards were clearly reluctant to push the prisoners, it was a nudge from the experimenters (in their role as wardens and superintendent) that caused them to be more aggressive. The more passive guards were also motivated by the actions of the most aggressive on their shift.

Another result of people’s disposition forming part of the situational environment for others is the potential for feedback loops. People with bad dispositions create a situation in which good people might do bad things, creating a permanently negative situation for all people. How can this feedback loop be broken?

The second half of the book seeks to place the Stanford Prison Experiment in a broader context. A chapter on power, conformity and obedience (including a description of Stanley Milgram’s almost as famous electrocution experiment) examines how people are unwilling to oppose power or breach norms. The next chapter on dehumanisation and deindividuation discusses how depersonalising people can lead to people treating each other as less than human.

The book then moves to an analysis of the events in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Zimbardo acted as an expert witness for one of the Abu Ghraib accused, Chip Frederick. Frederick was one of the seven low ranking people who faced the full brunt of prosecution for the abuse. As the military framed it, they were the “bad apples” in the barrel.

Zimbardo provides an extended discussion of the environment in which the accused existed and the strong effects of this situation (which make the Stanford prison seem a bit soft). He then details the abuses. Zimbardo’s argument, based on the events in the Stanford Prison Experiment, was that the situation drove the conduct, not Chip Frederick’s disposition. And Zimbardo’s argument is strong as he paints a compelling picture of how the situation faced by the people working in the Abu Ghraib would have affected them. If the prison had been under better control with clear, strong instruction from above, the abuses are unlikely to have happened.

This leads to where Zimbardo’s and my views on the right punishment for his client part company. Zimbardo argues that as the situation was the larger driver of Chip Frederick’s conduct, the military tribunal should not hold him to be as culpable and his punishment should reflect this.

Zimbardo’s position reflects the first of two ways to treat people who, while not of a “bad disposition”, do bad things due to situational forces. The other way is to recognise that due to the power of situational forces, we need to strengthen the incentives for people to fight against them – and that comes in the form of harsher penalties. The framework for punishing someone forms part of the situational forces. This is a similar argument to that crafted by Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate, who notes that it is equally credible to argue for harsher prison sentences if people are genetically predisposed to crime as it is to argue that they should be held less culpable.

The other question that arises through this, and in Zimbardo’s discussion of heroism later in the book, is why some people fall under the spell of the situational forces and others don’t. Are they distinguished by disposition? Would harsher penalties mean that even more people would refrain from abusing the prisoners? These questions are not answered.

Zimbardo then presents the case for those higher up to the command ladder to be held culpable for the Abu Ghraib abuses. It is obvious that many higher ranking officers, civilian contractors and the CIA either explicitly or implicitly ordered the abuse, making the failure to fully prosecute many of them disgraceful. But Zimbardo takes his case to the top - to Dick Cheney and George W Bush. I am sympathetic with his argument. Their implicit approval of torture through their treatment of the Geneva Conventions and practice of renditioning, among other things, were significant factors in the situational forces faced by those lower down the chain. An interesting question is whether it was situational forces that drove Cheney and Bush’s conduct? It’s not easy to fit in with your conservative base and Republican buddies if you are soft on the enemy. Do we simply need the strong spectre of punishment or consequences at all levels?

Zimbardo closes the book with a plea for heroism. He suggests a range of ways in which people can prepare themselves to act heroically, such as humanising others and questioning authority at the right times.

When it comes to why people do act heroically, strangely (to me), Zimbardo reaches a conclusion that, like those who commit evil, heroes are normal people. This may be true, but the question then becomes why they resist the situational forces and avoid committing evil acts, and then take action at personal risk to themselves? Perhaps this should be the topic of Zimbardo’s next book.