Book Reviews

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding how good people turn evil by Philip Zimbardo

ISBN-13: 978-0812974447
Publisher: Random House Trade Paperback
Pages: 576

The person-situation controversy stands as a theoretical divide in the field of personality psychology. Historically, the former camp held the upper hand emphasizing the individual's inner nature, personality traits, and even the character in explaining behavior. Zimbardo challenges that view by explaining how situational forces can bring good people into antisocial and destructive behavior. The Lucifer Effect is an important book well worth reading for several reasons.

Philip Zimbardo is best known as the creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment. In this classic experiment, 24 students were selected to study the effects of prison life. The students were randomly assigned the role of either guard or prisoner. And here's a key point in understanding the power of the situation: the students were selected to the experiment because they were as normal and ordinary as possible. Before the experiment, each applicant underwent a psychological examination. Further, none of the students in the experiment had any history of crime or psychological issues. Once the experiment started, the rapid transformation of character surprised Zimbardo and his researchers. The guards engaged in increasingly strong sadistic, humiliating, and dominating behavior (bear in mind that the guards knew that the "prisoners" were students just like them, assigned their role by the flip of a coin). The syndromes shown by their prisoners were just as strong. As they adapted to their role they became increasingly passive and depressed. And after just 36 hours the first prisoner broke down and had to be released from the experiment. At the end, the Stanford Prison Experiment had to be discontinued prematurely.

In this book, Zimbardo re-visits the extensive video and audio recordings from the experiment and walks us through its six dramatic days. Zimbardo makes a smart move and provides little analysis up-front; it's more like a diary that drags the reader into the darkness of human evil. The analysis is saved for a separate chapter. It's one of the highlights of the book, particularly as Zimbardo provides us with the personality measures of the involved participants and the subsequent interviews.

Zimbardo's recap and analysis of the experiment is reason enough to read this book. But it doesn't stop there. Zimbardo explains other classic experiments (e.g. Milgrams ethically questionable and fascinating "Obedience to authority" study) and applies the lessons learned in the Stanford prison to real-world tragedies such as the Abu Ghraib abuse (Zimbardo was an expert witnesses for one of the defendants).

The Lucifer Effect is not simply a book to read and put back on the shelf. Instead it is the kind of book that will change the way you look upon the world. It's a book to reflect about and to discuss with friends and colleagues. The Lucifer Effect is required reading if you're interested in human nature and behavior. Along the way, it is a highly interesting, fascinating, and scary read that deserves a wide audience.

Reviewed February 2009