The Lucifer Effect: Why Good People Turn Evil

Stanford Psychologist Philip Zimbardo Knows the Potential for Human Cruelty Lies Just on the Other Side of the Every Day.

The conference hall of Vienna’s Hotel Modul was gradually filling with people, including many Webster psychology students, faces curious and expectant.

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo: “It could have been me.” | Photo: American Psychological Association

Nonchalantly, Philip Zimbardo walked down to the front, shook hands with members of the faculty and took a seat. Professor at Stanford University, researcher on topics ranging from persuasion to violence to shyness, recipient of many awards and author of Psychology and Life, the best-selling introductory textbook that for many students represents the doorway to their future – he was all this, Dr. Thomas Oberlechner, head of the Webster Psychology department  told us.

Today, Prof. Zimbardo would not give a lecture for psychologists-to-be. He was here to talk about The Dark Side – more specifically, Why Do Good People Turn Evil?

Joking about his newly perfected technological skills, Zimbardo approached what years of careful research have taught him about this age-old question.

We all like to think of ourselves as inherently good people, incapable of causing harm to others, he said. We believe that those who do evil must therefore differ from the rest of us in crucial ways. This is what psychologists call the dispositional approach, the assumption that, like a sadist inclination, “is something in the person that causes him or her to act this way.” We all know the examples, with Hitler and Stalin usually heading the list.

Nevertheless, there are many situations in which a distinct leader cannot be identified, he said. Besides, “evil” is by no means a stable entity. Global terrorism, for example, is “faceless and placeless,” and more than anything else relies on networks of people or weapons.

When we think of evil as the result of “a few bad apples,” we forget that actions, whether good or bad, occur in a dynamic context. The immense power of a situation to absorb everyone in it revealed itself to Zimbardo when he and several colleagues began, in 1971, to explore the effects of prison life on behavior.

To do this, the basement of Stanford’s psychology building was transformed into a prison that had everything from cells to a yard. Half the participants were assigned prisoner status the other half became guards. From the very first day of the experiment, when “the prisoners” were picked up at their homes and officially arrested, participants had to go through prison life with all its unpleasant aspects.

Prisoners, for instance, were stripped naked and put in humiliating clothes – one of many degradation procedures that marks everyday life in real prisons. Anonymity dominated the setting, with all guards being uniformly dressed and wearing sunglasses.

It was – that much the photos (and video) professor Zimbardo presents made clear – quite a convincing simulation, so convincing in fact, that the idea that the whole thing was “merely an experiment” faded with each passing day. Control and severity of punishments increased, following a prisoner riot on day two.  So did emotional distress. Finally, the level of harassment got too high and what had been planned as a two-week experimental period, had to be called off after six days in the experiment. It had worked too well.

By the way, who were the participants? Psychologically unstable people with extensive criminal records? No. They were college students, who displayed no signs of emotional disturbance or psychopathology.

“No doubt people suffered,” Zimbardo admits. Still, valuable insights came from this experiment, insights that can be applied to understanding how essentially good people go wrong in real life situations
Zimbardo has applied these insights to the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib. Srg. Ivan Frederick, for example, was “an all-American young man.” Being on the nightshift in Tier 1A, he had to work long hours with no breaks and was forced to live in unhygienic conditions. Extreme fear of mortar attacks and a lack of mission-specific training only increased his stress and confusion. Prison responsibility was at higher levels and procedural and conduct regulations as well as effective channels of communication were non-existent.

In circumstances like these, a person’s ties to time and place easily loosen. Soon a sense of the future dissolves and the individual finds himself trapped in the mayhem of the here and now. Slowly but surely, “the other” becomes not merely different, but less of a human being, possibly deserving of the worst of treatments. From here, it is but a tiny step to the removal of all self-sanctions, that up to this point, have prevented the person from doing harm to others. This is especially true when such dehumanization is encouraged by higher-level authorities.

However, a single individual would probably not turn into an evildoer by himself. As a member of a group united by camaraderie, ideology and fear, a person is more likely to relinquish a sense of personal identity.

It is this process of de-individuation that very often sets the stage for crimes and other evil actions.

In summary, very often evil is the result of essentially good apples in bad barrels.

Now, what about altruism? According to Zimbardo, “heroes” somehow find it in themselves to resist the power of situational factors. They stand out of the crowd and manage to do “the right thing” even though this often involves turning the crowd against them….

In a sense, psychology is only one way of looking at the world, at behavior and the complexity of the human mind. With this lecture, it was more, however, and the realization that “It could have been me” was nearly unavoidable.

As Professor Zimbardo said, “The line between good and evil lies at the centre of every human heart.”

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