Friday, September 14, 2007

The Lucifer Effect

"Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?"
Shakespeare King Lear

I doubt that Dr. Philip Zimbardo was intentionally answering King Lear's question but he does a wonderful job of doing just that. The Lucifer Effect details the effects of one psychologist’s, Zimbardo's, experiment to understand what happens in a prison situation. His goal was to analyze the difference between dispositional responses and situational responses. He inadvertently created a situation that he refers as an example of administrative evil.
I've noticed that I frequently make the comment that "I'm enjoying this book". The word enjoy is wholly inappropriate for this book. However, as if forcing myself to learn from the mistakes of others, I am continuing to push through it.
I've always been a big advocate of free-will. I believe in holding individuals accountable for their evil actions. So when the whole Abu Ghraib event hit the media I was whole heartedly behind punishing the "bad apples". As Zimbardo points out, this is a dispositional response to the problem. Zimbardo effectively points out that many times the problem lies not with the bad apples but with the barrel that had gone bad. Just as in his own prison experiment those in charge of the prison at Abu Ghraib, and ultimately those in charge of the Iraq occupation, created a situation where the worst behaviors in people were allowed to flourish and the good behavior was seen as weakness and a lack of control.
This book has been very enlightening about how easily even the best of us can turn to evil.
He repeatedly cautions the reader that those who think they are incapable of this type of evil are all too frequently the most susceptible. I must confess that I have seen reflections of my own behavior at times in the actions of Zimbardo's subjects.
Each year the American Alpine Club publishes a book called Accidents in North American Mountaineering. It's a detailed list of all the accidents for that year. In a sense it is very morbid. However, I read it with the attitude of learning from the mistakes of others. I get the same feeling as I read The Lucifer Effect. It's not a pleasant read, but the hope that I can learn how to prevent the same behavior in myself keeps me reading.


  1. You have expressed, so well, the reason this book is so benefical!

  2. Granny Sue4:01 PM

    I think I shall have to read this book also with such strong recommendations from both you and Victoria.