This article by Major Joon K. Hong reviews the book “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil” by Philip Zimbardo. It starts with a story about a U.S. Army Sergeant, John M. Russell, who shot five American soldiers while undergoing psychiatric treatment in Bagdad. The tragedy took everyone aback despite the fact that Russell was known to suffer from periods of severe depression and PTSD before that. The book elaborates on how these situations happen and warns that “every one of us is susceptible to the powers of the situation” (Zimbardo, 2007) using the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) and study of violence at the Abu Ghraib prison as examples.
The article gives a brief introduction that describes the Russell shooting incident and explores the explanations provided in the book of the circumstances which can lead to such events. Elaboration is provided with the help of examples like the Stanford Prison Experiment and observation of the Abu Ghraib atrocities. In both prisons, the guard – inmate relationship was monitored.
The difference was that, in the first case, the prison environment was simulated through role play: “Zimbardo hired normal, healthy, intelligent, male college students, who agreed to participate for $15 per day”. Participants became improvised prison guards and prison inmates (Hong, 2012, p. 56).
The SPE produced unexpected results when the guards, given little to no idea of how to perform their professional duties, started abusing and humiliating prisoners for their own entertainment. The prisoners, on the other hand, were only concerned with the question of individual survival and therefore did not care for unity and cooperation for the purpose of opposing the unjust prison system. The experiment showed that even artificial circumstances could make people undergo drastic character and behavioral changes which might not always be regarded as positive.
The results of the SPE seemed to be clearly paralleled in the case of the Abu Ghraib prisoner mistreatment. The incidents of torture, rape, and murder that took place at Abu Ghraib received wide publicity within and outside the United States, but, according to Zimbardo, it was not an isolated case – it was a pattern (Hong, 2012, p. 58). The SPE was a valuable experiment that has demonstrated how this pattern is formed.
Along the way, Zimbardo also contemplates what makes us obey and respect the system and how we can make it work right.
The given article provides a full overview of the main portions of the book and muses over the aspects of human behavior that not many people dare to acknowledge. However, I agree with Hong on the fact that no matter how graphic and shocking the images portrayed in the book may be, Zimbardo “fails to capitalize on his findings by offering a solution” that will correlate with the book’s topics. The notion that you should not let others “deindividuation you”, or “to turn you into an object” and instead of that find solace in who you are and present it as your shield against the social pressures looks like a generalization (Zimbardo, 2007, p. 454).
Sure, asserting your individuality is important, but how is it going to help when you are faced with six armed guards determined to abuse you for the lack of anything better to do? Zimbardo wants to inspire readers to become strong enough and be able to quit their role in a system, but Hong makes a good point saying that a more consistent decision would be to encourage leaders to reform the existing system in a way that prevents people from losing their moral integrity, no matter the consequences.
Despite the critique, Hong agrees that the images described in the Lucifer Effect are a disturbing reminder of what makes people like SGT Russell snap. Unless we start thinking about the contributions the social system makes to keep incidents like this happening, each of us will be exposed to the same fate one way or another.
Hong, J. K. (2012). The Lucifer Effect. The Army Lawyer, 55-58.
Zimbardo, P. (2007). The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.