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Book Review: The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo

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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. 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, 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.

About Dan Schneider

  • Jake

    “Zimbardo’s book, by contrast, is more grounded in experimentation, documentation, and less malleable and subjective than Bloom’s book [...]”

    Which is, to be sure, true, but he also engages in a great deal of speculation and meaning making from his examples. I discuss this and some other books that tie into Zimbardo’s work in my post on The Lucifer Effect. The most important lesson to take from it is, I think, how secrecy can beget tyranny at virtually all levels, from the top of statecraft (see: the USSR) to the lowliest prison guard.