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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Lucifer Effect

The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo
Reason for Reading: My Year of Reading Dangerously Reading Challenge, Dewey Decimal Reading Challenge

Summarize the book: If you have ever studied psychology, you've probably heard of the Stanford Prison Experience. Philip Zimbardo created a simulated prison in the basement of the psychology building to study the psychology of imprisonment, but ended up canceling the project a week in because the simulated prison had become real. The guards were acting in creatively cruel, abusive ways, and the prisoners were beginning to show extreme stress reactions to their confinement. Zimbardo spent the rest of his life studying the power of situational influences on human behavior and in this book, argues that evil situations turn good people into evil people.

One sentence review: Although the scholarly style makes parts of this book a tough slog, Zimbardo has an extremely important message about the nature of evil and the potential within all of us to commit evil deeds.

Longer review: I had studied the Stanford Prison Experiment extensively in college, so I originally intended to skip through the sizable portion of the book that analyzes the SPE. Except that I couldn't put it down. The stories are horrifying. Ordinary college students, purposefully chosen because they were as normal as possible, randomly selected to either be prisoners or guards. Each one slipping so deeply into their roles, by the end of the short-lived experiment, the prisoners were regularly subjected to mental, physical and sexual abuse and three prisoners had to be sent home.

Zimbardo makes a compelling argument from the SPE and other social psychology experiments about the power of situational influences on everyday behavior. When people are given masks, for example, to hide their identity, they have a strong tendency to act much more aggressively. If an authority figure tells a person to do something, they are likely to comply even if the authority is shaky, and what they are being told to do is to harm another person. From these lab experiments, Zimbardo extrapolates how an ordinary person put into a brutal ethnic conflict (like the genocide in Rwanda) can be persuaded to take up a machete against a neighbor they have known for years.

The most eye-opening portion of the book is Zimbardo's analysis of the Abu Ghraib scandal, and if I could force people to read one thing this year, I would make everyone read this. It is so important in light of the current political situation. Zimbardo started the book with the premise that despite the military's attempt to paint the soldiers who abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib as a "few bad apples", it was a bad barrel that made the bad apples.

Zimbardo takes us inside the hell that was Abu Ghraib to show how the situation was set up for the prison guards to fail. The entire prison was under constant attack, rations were short, running water was rare, and military leadership was almost nonexistent. The guards were left pretty much on their own, with the vague directive that they should warm the prisoners up for interrogations.

While not excusing the soldiers who abused prisoners, Zimbardo points the real finger of blame at the military leadership and ultimately the Bush Administration that wanted interrogations to be carried out with no holds barred. They created the "bad barrel" and when the chips were down, they threw a few low-ranking soldiers under the bus in order to make the situation go away. If you have ever thought or cared in the slightest about the US military prisons and how we have been treating suspected terrorists, please pick up this book.

Finally at the end of this lengthy, academic treatise on the nature of evil when any ordinary reader will come to the conclusion that everyone is evil, Zimbardo offers insight into what makes a hero and how the reader can avoid the pitfalls that cause people to commit evil acts. I only wish there could have been more on this topic to balance out the rest of the book.

Should I read it? Yes. I know it is hefty. I know it's academic. I know it has a footnotes section about as long as the typical YA novel. But everyone needs to know what Zimbardo has to say about the nature of evil.

Other opinions: ebook30, the story's story.



Anonymous said...

This book is on my wishlist and with every review I feel like reading it even more. Thanks so much for the great and indepth review.

Lezlie said...

Wow! This looks really, really good. I don't think I had never heard of that experiment, but then I never studied psychology. Maybe I need to start!


Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

Sounds good! I loved the episode of Veronica Mars where Logan and Wallace have to do a version of the prison experiment for a sociology class, although I'm curious how accurate their interpretation of the results were.

I'm interested in what you said at the end, that you wished there had been more on the hero side of it. Did you find the book to be too dark because of the subject matter?

mariel said...

I'll be honest. I have such little faith in human beings as it is right now, that this book may just push me over the edge! Maybe I should give it a miss for a while! Great review, thanks.

Oh said...

I don't know if I could read it. Your review pretty much covered the premise and overall, it gave me that sick feeling, that this-can't-be-true though it likely is feeling. I can't even watch (fictional) movies with terror and torture.
Yet I realize we have to speak up, speak out against these (prison)places, these acts, these situations.

I'll keep an eye out for the book and decide when i see it.

Alice Teh said...

This is the first time I heard about the Stanford Prison Experience. I like psychology although I don't study it and the sound of the book.

samantha.1020 said...

This sounds like a really worthwhile read. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it!

Stephanie said...

Oh, this sounds really interesting!! I haven't read an academic book in awhile. Although, to tell you the truth, this one might actually make me mad.

What a great review!

Kim L said...

violetcrush-no prob, I do hope you find it useful!

lezlie-it is definitely worth googling the Stanford Prison Experiment! You'll find out a TON.

kim-yes, I did kind of wish there had been more about heroism because the entire book was SO dark, plumbing the depths of humanity. It is interesting that this experiment became so famous, I've seen it mentioned in other television shows as well, but to my knowledge, no college has ever allowed the experiment to be repeated!

mariel-I can totally understand your point of view. When you need a kick in the pants, it is a worthwhile read, but maybe not at the moment!

oh-I do have to mention that what made the book worth reading is it made me MAD, just FURIOUS about the things being done in my country in the name of patriotism. Mad enough to make me want to speak out about the subject, and get me into action.

alice teh-google it, you'll find out everything you need to know :-)

samantha-you're welcome :-)

Stephanie-like I mentioned, it made me furious, like want to jump up and down furious about the things going on here in the states. I am closely watching to see if anything changes under Obama.