The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

Renowned social psychologist and creator of the "Stanford Prison Experiment," Philip Zimbardo explores the mechanisms that make good people do bad things, how moral people can be seduced into acting immorally, and what this says about the line separating good from evil.The Lucifer Effect explains how—and the myriad reasons why—we are all susceptible to the lure of “the dar...

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Title:The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil
Author:Philip G. Zimbardo
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Edition Language:English

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil Reviews

  • David

    Well, I need to state my prejudices upfront. I'm kind of a secret fan of Doctor Zimbardo. See, I guess at some point he put together some kind of massive 26-episode series of half-hour lectures on how the mind works for public TV. They would come on at some ungodly hour of the morning so that I used to catch them while scarfing down my nutritious Lucky Charms and locally squozen OJ before leaving for work. Doctor Z would introduce each episode with a kind of geekish seriousness of purpose that o

    Well, I need to state my prejudices upfront. I'm kind of a secret fan of Doctor Zimbardo. See, I guess at some point he put together some kind of massive 26-episode series of half-hour lectures on how the mind works for public TV. They would come on at some ungodly hour of the morning so that I used to catch them while scarfing down my nutritious Lucky Charms and locally squozen OJ before leaving for work. Doctor Z would introduce each episode with a kind of geekish seriousness of purpose that one totally had to respect. Plus he would always be wearing some seriously appalling fashion atrocity - most commonly a truly regrettable sports jacket or shirt. But some episodes he'd get those down only to spoil the effect with some kind of hypnotically iridescent tie whose width was at least a decade off the prevailing norm.

    But the programs were not actually an insult to the intelligence, for the most part - the material was decently organized, lucidly presented, with a minimum of pomposity. If I'm not mistaken, in recent months Doctor Z has resurfaced on my public TV dial with a

    version of the lectures. One imagines lots of snazzy functional mRI s**t.

    But of course that's not Doctor Z's only claim to fame. It's a safe bet the first few sentences of his obituary will define him in terms of the (infamous) "Stanford Prison study". In the early 1960s Stanley Milgram had shocked the scientific community with his series of "obedience experiments" that showed how an apparently strongly hardwired obedience to authority could lead people to commit barbaric acts of cruelty (

    ). A decade later Zimbardo eliminated any possible doubt when a simulated "prison experiment" he was conducting on the Stanford campus had to be discontinued early for ethical reasons because the behavior of the participating students had degenerated into "Lord of the Flies" savagery within a period of only 4 days.

    The first 200 pages of this book are given over to a description of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE). The middle third covers lessons learned from SPE and summarizes other experimental work related to the problem of people behaving badly. The final 200 pages discusses events at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, as well as other excesses of the Bush administration in terms of what has been learned about human behavior from the SPE and similar experiments.

    To me, it's this final part of the book that is the most interesting. The initial material is readable enough, but seems way over-extended. I suspect that very few people (or the kind of people reading this book) are unaware of the SPE, so summarizing the main findings in 20-30 pages should have been possible, instead of the 200-page account which helps inflate "The Lucifer Effect" to a bloated 550 pages.

    That said, I remain a fan of Doctor Zimbardo. Even if the book is a little too long, he is always clear. And though what he has to say can be depressing, it's clearly not wrong. Understanding our own weaknesses and the factors that can allow cruelty and evil to flourish seems more important than ever these days. This is a good book.

  • Amanda

    I, after a couple of weeks, have finally finished “The Lucifer Effect.” I normally don’t dog ear books because, well, that’s almost sacrilegious, but there were points that I knew I wanted to come back to. Like this one which really came out there unexpectedly, and had me laughing so hard.

    I, after a couple of weeks, have finally finished “The Lucifer Effect.” I normally don’t dog ear books because, well, that’s almost sacrilegious, but there were points that I knew I wanted to come back to. Like this one which really came out there unexpectedly, and had me laughing so hard.

    The guy was so angry that he then had to step out of the room and let the board continue the “parole hearing.” Wow.

    Then there was this little tidbit about the lessons learned when a normally powerless person is given power: this is the transformation.

    The sum of the whole: Systems create these Situations that then once submerged into them; ordinary “good” people would do things that are categorically “evil.”

    Once a person is put into a set “situation” created by this “system” they emerge from it not able recognize who they are; they are not going to be the same person. This is why surprise, surprise the people, who committed those “you can not believe they did that” acts against prisoners at Abu Ghraib, while responsible for their actions, aren’t solely to blame.

    The entire portion of the book accounting the Horrors of Abu Ghraib was unbelievably fascinating. It really gave you a complete view of what happened from the bottom up. Riveting read I must say.

    The only down side, obviously this book is a bit wordy. There were times when I put the book down and didn’t bother with it for days on end. I know that some people just skipped to the "good stuff," but I stuck it out, having read the whole thing. I’m glad that I did, because of the social implications and discoveries that you get from these chapters of basic “setup” or “premise,” it really gives you a more in depth understanding of what happens later in the book.

    Very interesting read although a bit tough at times.

  • Katie

    I was excited to read this, since I have a psychology background and had heard that it was a good look at the Stanford Prison Experiment, which I studied in college. I wasn't too impressed with this book though. It is at least 100 pages too long and bogged down by excessive detail, making it read like a numbing textbook. The breakdown is as follows: 200 pages on Zimbardo's Prison Experiment, 100 pages of analysis of the experiment, 75 pages on Abu Ghraib, 75 pages about the Bush administration's

    I was excited to read this, since I have a psychology background and had heard that it was a good look at the Stanford Prison Experiment, which I studied in college. I wasn't too impressed with this book though. It is at least 100 pages too long and bogged down by excessive detail, making it read like a numbing textbook. The breakdown is as follows: 200 pages on Zimbardo's Prison Experiment, 100 pages of analysis of the experiment, 75 pages on Abu Ghraib, 75 pages about the Bush administration's culpability, 50 pages on factors for improvement, 25 pages on heroism, and 50 pages of footnotes. The author did not attempt to eliminate his personal biases (even embracing them, calling himself a "bleeding heart liberal" at one point), which really bothered me, since the book was presented as an unbiased view of social behavior as it relates to situational forces. The subject WAS very interesting, but I'd recommend it to a limited audience - those who are schooled in social psychology and/or prison societies, who are comfortable diving into scientific literature, and who won't mind the liberal spin that Zimbardo includes.

  • Rebecca

    Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect is a difficult read, not because its premise is particularly startling, but because its examination of the psychology of evil shows it to be disturbingly simple. By placing each act of breathtaking cruelty beside a description of its perpetrator--invariably an ordinary, psychologically normal person--Zimbardo makes clear that we are just animals socialized into one behavior, and easily socialized into another. And though he never outright asks it, every page

    Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect is a difficult read, not because its premise is particularly startling, but because its examination of the psychology of evil shows it to be disturbingly simple. By placing each act of breathtaking cruelty beside a description of its perpetrator--invariably an ordinary, psychologically normal person--Zimbardo makes clear that we are just animals socialized into one behavior, and easily socialized into another. And though he never outright asks it, every page of his book prompts the impossible question: What kind of monster are you?

    Zimbardo spends nearly 500 pages supporting an argument that’s convincing by page two: Situations entice people to commit heroic acts and unspeakable atrocities alike. With little provocation, formerly good people will discard their values entirely. Some of the examples were new to me, such as Pauline, a women’s empowerment lecturer in Rwanda who ordered the genocidaires under her charge, “Before you kill the women, you need to rape them.” Other examples are well known--millions of World War II-era Europeans turned on their Jewish neighbors, the horrifying Rape of Nanjing, and many more.

    And while the author tries time and again to complicate his argument, to mitigate the bleakness of his premise, those attempts feel insufficient. He assures readers that--although social systems seize control of our ethics, elicit our worst selves, and punish those who refuse to comply--people can still be dissuaded from committing atrocities. We can learn to resist grotesque situational pressures by simply applying Zimbardo's handy maxims: “I respect just authority but rebel against unjust authority,” “I want group acceptance, but value my independence,” “I will assert my unique identity,” etc.

    But, in fact, Zimbardo’s sociological studies and historical survey offer ample evidence that people who defy the demands of the societal machine are rare, and that they are mostly punished for their moral courage. American serviceman Hugh Thompson stopped the My Lai massacre by aiming machine guns at his superiors and ordered medical evacuations of wounded Vietnamese civilians--and as “punishment was required to fly the most dangerous helicopter missions again and again. He was shot down five times, breaking his backbone and suffering lasting psychological scars from his nightmare experience. It took thirty years before the military recognized his heroic deeds… Paradoxically, Lieutenant Calley (an orchestrator of the massacre) was treated as a hero.”

    Certainly people are to blame for the moral crimes they commit, and yet it seems somehow flippant to assume that all people can avoid the blameworthy road, that all people are capable of risking hardship or death to resist descending into evil--especially when submitting to situational demands is the psychologically normal (and perhaps healthy) thing to do. The stronger and sadder argument, the one that Zimbardo tries to avoid making, is the one his own research supports: Most of us are available for total moral conquest by our bosses, parents, peers, and government, irredeemably adrift on currents much stronger than ourselves.

  • Bookdragon Sean

    During the "Stanford Prison Experiment," an experiment he created, he was part of the actual testing and also became victim to the traps the other participants fell into.

    The idea was to separate the participants into two groups, guards and prisoners with Zimbardo taking the role of prison overseer in a monitored environment. But things quickly went from weird to damn right unethical. Instead of simply playing the roles assigned to them, everybody involved actuall

    During the "Stanford Prison Experiment," an experiment he created, he was part of the actual testing and also became victim to the traps the other participants fell into.

    The idea was to separate the participants into two groups, guards and prisoners with Zimbardo taking the role of prison overseer in a monitored environment. But things quickly went from weird to damn right unethical. Instead of simply playing the roles assigned to them, everybody involved actually became the roles. The guards became violent, the prisoners became unhinged and unstable and Zimbardo himself became rather tyrannical and uncaring. The experiment would have continued if his girlfriend, at the time, didn’t break through to him and show him how messed up things were.

    Zimbardo is rather embarrassed at his own part, understandably. But he still used the findings of the experiment to theorise why it actually happened and considered how normal people can become violent and evil so quickly. It’s all about situational factors and conformity. The men adapted to their roles all too quickly and the power given to the guards was theirs to exploit at their own will. The separation of men into two factions also helped to evoke as dangerous “us” and “them” attitude allowing for an unsympathetic approach to others.

    discusses the psychology of roles we take on when forced into power struggles. It’s a strong piece of research, and Zimbardo theorises quite heavily. His assumptions on his own experiments are grounded, though he takes them much further afield and considers many violent prisons. As logical as some of his argument are, at this stage they are only arguments rather than findings. I much preferred the first section of the book, the part about his research, rather than his speculations on situations with seperate cultural and social factors.

    What

    shows us though is the dangers of conformity and where it can lead us. Social conditioning plays a huge part in our cognitive makeup, a part we’re not always aware of until it’s too late. I really appreciated the author’s honesty; it must have been hard to write a book about one’s own short comings.

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