Just Read: The Lucifer Effect

I’ve just finished reading The Lucifer Effect. The basic premise is “how good people can become evil” – how honest, morally upstanding people can be induced to conduct immoral, illegal acts.

The first half of the book describes the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), in which the author, Philip Zimbardo, took a group of US college students and created a mock prison, aiming to study the effects of stress and anonymity. After a series of psychometric tests, ‘normal’ students were randomly allocated the role of prisoner or guard, with the intention of analysing their behaviour over two weeks.

In less than a week, two of the ‘prisoners’ left the study suffering extreme stress – effectively a breakdown – and the guards were becoming increasingly sadistic, forcing prisoners to perform ever more devious punishments. The experiment was terminated after 6 days.

Following the early termination of the experiment, Zimbardo conducted extensive post-mortem analysis with both prisoners and guards, and also of his own team. He highlights how even external observers (for example the parents of the ‘prisoners’) became absorbed in the ‘game’ of the prison, instantly forgetting that it was all an experiment and the participants were free to leave at any time.

Zimbardo uses the second half of the book to compare the SPE to the abuses of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib, made famous by the degrading photographs taken by Military Police officers and shown around the world. Initially this seems quite a leap, comparing a group of relatively passive, middle-class students to trained, hardened soldiers in the battlefield, but the concepts are surprisingly similar.

Despite public assertions from senior US military figures (indeed as far as Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney) that these were just ‘bad apples’ in an otherwise well-oiled military machine, Zimbardo asserts that they were in fact in a ‘bad barrel’ – significantly over-stretched, fearful of their own lives and living in squalid conditions, MPs with little training of how to look after prisoners are expected to maintain order, with little guidance on how to achieve it.

Beyond this, there was seemingly a strong carry-over from Guantanamo, where ‘high value’ prisoners were routinely tortured. CIA officials operated anonymously along-side the military in the Iraqi prisons, outside of military rules and thus giving conflicting sets of behaviour for the soldiers to follow. Staggeringly, it seems a lot of this interrogation was carried out not by military intelligence, but by contracted-out US companies like CACI. This ‘interrogation’ extended as far as using ‘fake menstrual blood’ that was wiped across the faces of Muslims, followed by the denial of cleaning facilities, to make them feel dirty and question their faith, so as to weaken them to retrieve information.

The analysis of Iraqi abuses highlights the ‘evil of inaction’, wherein observers do little to discourage or prevent morally objectionable behaviour, and how this can then encourage conditions to worsen. Examples are cited where soldiers expect to be rebuked by their senior officers, or for comment to be passed, and in its absence, assume tacit acceptance of the behaviour as ‘the norm’.

In the final chapter Zimbardo describes ‘hero’ behaviour, citing a number of examples of individuals who rally against ‘the system’. He notes that often in such severe situations, it can take just a small amount of effort ‘at the coalface’ to change people’s perceptions of acceptable behaviour. He also gives pointers on how to avoid being absorbed into such situations (obviously on a different scale!) by being conscious of the dynamics of a situation. He makes interesting references to the NASA Challenger Shuttle Disaster, caused technically by the failure of an O-Ring washer, but widely recognised to be caused by various organisational failures within both NASA and the manufacturer Morton Thiokol.

In all, a fascinating book. Its reference section runs to some 31 pages, so I can’t hope to cite all the examples I’ve mentioned, but Zimbardo seems to have found good claim and counter-claim examples in many cases, lending some authority to his argument. Highly recommended.