The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo


‘The line between good and evil is at the centre of every human heart’ Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Few outside the field of psychology had heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment before those horrific pictures of Abu Ghraib prison and the tortures inflicted on prisoners by their guards.

Performed in the 1970s the Stanford Prison Experiment was a mock prison with civilian volunteers randomly assigned to be guards or prisoners.

The results seem to exonerate the individual perpetrators of the degrading torture performed on Iraqi prisoners. They suggest that evil is a potential in us all and that the guards in Abu Ghraib were scapegoats of the system in which they were.

So evil is not due to the individual, but a product of the situation. Situational forces at Abu Ghraib created the freedom from the normal moral and social constraints of society and led to the abusive actions. Good people can become evildoers or passive victims because of the forces of the situation in which they find themselves.

The guards were not the few bad apples. Like their prisoners the guards had become anonymous and it was as if they wore a Mardi Gras mask. Anonymity permitted antisocial actions in a social situation that encouraged violence and aggression. They would not be found out or recognised. The masks gave them the freedom to be abusive and violent. It liberates you from guilt or shame.

Imprinted war messages, camaraderie and the all too pervasive dangers added to the dynamic of a situation where there was contradicting moral standards present. Dehumanisation is central to the process. The prisoners were not seen as human but as dogs.

In this fascinating book, Zimbardo provides some chilling evidence for the view that most people under certain circumstances have the capacity for evil.

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