Philip Zimbardo Explores How Good People Can Turn Evil

Philip Zimbardo probes the nature of evil in this book.

Philip Zimbardo probes the nature of evil in this book.

Unfortunately, instances of evil are all too easy to find.

Whether it’s in the degrading images of blindfolded  and nude Iraqi prisoners stacked on top of each other while a grinning Lynndie England smiles at the camera at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, the murder of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, or the ongoing killing in Darfur, examples of man’s inhumanity to man abound.

The question of why these abuses continue to occur in different parts of the world is far more difficult to answer than simply pointing out their existence.

It’s not for a lack of trying.

Some people cite the essential depravity of human nature, while others invoke the “few bad apples theory.”  In her famous and controversial work, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt coined the often-invoked phrase, “the banality of evil.”

Philip Zimbardo has a different take.

The emeritus Stanford University Psychology professor had his own memorable experiences with overseeing an experiment that turned evil in his 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment.

The experiment, which was slated to last two weeks, but which Zimbardo shut down after six days at his then-girlfriend and later-wife’s urging, involved paid volunteers who were divided into prisoners and guards.

Among the many elements that stunned Zimbardo was how quickly and completely his subjects, college-age men, absorbed their respective personalities.  On the second day a prisoner rebellion occurred.  A prisoner introduced into the group after the experiment launched a hunger strike.

On the guards’ side, each of the men acting in that capacity either committed, or was witness without speaking against, some form of abusive treatment of the prisoners.

I took an introductory psychology class from Zimbardo in 1984, and remember vividly his description of the experiment, which took place in the very building in which he was lecturing to me and the close to 300 other students in the class.

After class ended, I went outside into the hallway where he had just described the terrible events that had happened and tried to imagine what that had been like for the participants.  It was not quite like visiting a ghost town, but rather like trying to picture where the ghosts had walked and talked and breathed while alive.

Zimbardo uses the prison experiment and the lessons he learned from it as the basis to explore broader questions of human behavior in The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.

Zimbardo’s essential contention is that people are strongly influenced by the situations and systems in which they find themselves.  The power of the situation is strong enough in many cases to have people override their knowledge of what answer is correct in some experiments, or, as we have seen, to ignore their judgments of right behavior and perpetrate cruelty to others.

From my experience with him, Zimbardo is a fan of art and music.  On the last psychology class he taught us, he played Don McClean’s song “Vincent” while showing us images of Vincent Van Gogh’s work.

He frames the Lucifer Effect with M.C. Escher’s image,“Circle Limit IV,” in which white angels and black horned demons of differing sizes mingle in a circle to show both that people’s nature contains the capacity for both good and evil, and that the situation makes a powerful difference in influencing people’s choices.

Most of the first half of the book is devoted to a more than 200-page recap of the prison experiment, starting with the “arrest'” of the prisoners – he somehow claims that even with the arrest, these participants gave informed consent – and moving through the rebellion, the weathering of parental visits, the descent into constant prisoner abuse, and his finally heeding the words of Christina Maslach, who told him that terrible things were happening to those boys.

At the end of that part of the book, Zimbardo asks the question whether the experiment had been unethical and finds himself culpable on absolute moral grounds.  He writes that he bears responsibility as the experiment’s architect. He has apologized to the people he harmed in the experiment, and continues to do so.

Yet he also argues that the experiment can reasonably be considered ethical on a more relative ethical scale and goes on to list all the benefits he believes have accrued from what he calls the “SPE.”   These benefits range from the individuals who participated in it as prisoners and researchers to its being widely cited in cultural and professional arenas, according to Zimbardo.

From there, he moves to a broader consideration of the factors that contribute to the situations that seem toe exert such power over people.  People familiar with Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience, the Kitty Genovese case and high school history teacher Ron Jones’ Third Wave will likely move rather quickly through this section.  He adds to the tendency of obedience the power of anonymity and of dehumanization in increasing situational power and loosening social restraints.

Zimbardo then launches into an extensive exploration of the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib, where he contends many of the psychological dynamics that operated in the SPE also came into play.  In this section he also has his most thorough explanation of the military as an example of a System, pointing out how the consequences meted out by the military focused only on the direct perpetrators and not on their supervisors.

He includes in this section a  discussion of torture of terror suspects and a restatement of people that Human Rights Watch said should be tried for those actions, adding Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush to the list the group compiled.

The book’s final section looks at different forms of heroism.

Zimbardo notes that whether obedience toward heroism is something that can be encouraged has not been studied and articulates a framework to identify a dozen types of heroes who operate in military, civil and social areas.  These heroes are linked by taking significant risks for the good of others and without expectation of reward, he says.  Some take their actions in a single moment, while others act heroically for a lifetime.

Zimbardo writes that he includes this part of the book at the end to provide an uplifting conclusion to what he says freely is a difficult and emotionally draining journey.

I remember Zimbardo as having a hefty ego, and it does not appear to have diminished over the year.  He includes multiple glowing letters about the prison experiment and repeatedly notes the praise that others have heaped on his landmark work.

This somewhat off-putting tendency notwithstanding, he does deserve credit for pointing out similar underlying psychological dynamics in a number of historical situations and for arguing strongly, if not completely persuasively, about the importance of the situation on people’s actions.

That said, The Lucifer Effect does have a number of problems.

These begin with factual inaccuracies that undermine his credibility to write authoritatively about different historical moments.  He writes that Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years on Robben Island after being put on trial in 1962.   In fact, Mandela was sentenced in 1964 and, while incarcerated for 27 years, served his time in several different prisons.

Zimbardo also makes assertions about Milgram’s experiment that strain credulity. He writes that changing the initial experiment’s location from Yale University to a less prestigious site reduced obedience rates from 65 to 47 percent – a result he says was not statistically significant. Later in the section he asserts that Milgram’s results did not vary meaningfully by country, even though the obedience rate of Australian participants was 28 percent while that of South Africans was 88 percent!

These statements appear hard to believe, if not outright ridiculous.

A more troubling element is how Zimbardo appears comfortable applying full moral scrutiny to those who were responsible for the misdeeds at Abu Ghraib while essentially putting his own ethical failures into an introductory section on ethics that later is trumped by the positive results to which he says his experiment contributed.  He even writes that a high-ranking military official’s assumption of responsibility for what happened at Abu Ghraib is essentially meaningless without some formal consequence, yet does not seem to think that anything similar should have happened to him.

Zimbardo would likely point out rightly that there are major differences between an academic experiment and sanctioned abuse and torture of American prisoners of war.   His accuracy in making that point underscores the most basic problem with his explanation: it is so general as to be applicable in every situation, and, therefore, of limited utility.

Zimbardo’s assertion that the basic psychological dynamics are the same whether for Jim Jones in Guyana, the Stanford Prison Experiment, Abu Ghraib, Rwanda and Milgram’s experiments, apartheid South Africa or Nazi-era Germany ignores the specific aspects of each moment that contributed to their different outcomes and do not allow us to make meaningful distinctions between them.

The irony, of course, is that Zimbardo cites the distinction between experiment and ‘reality” to evade facing real consequences for the abuse he oversaw while running the prison experiment.

In short, if the Person, the Situation and the System are a brush, it is too broad and paints only one color.

These problems do not mean that one should not read the book, but rather than one should do so with a critical eye.  Being reminded of our capacity for evil through action and bystanding is something that we would all do well too heed, even if we are using a flawed tool for that purpose.

One response to “Philip Zimbardo Explores How Good People Can Turn Evil

  1. Pingback: Chilling in Rockport, some book thoughts « Jeff Kelly Lowenstein’s Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s