The Democracy of Evil

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo (Random House, 576 pages)

Philip Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil is a promise a long time coming.

In 1971, when Zimbardo was a young psychology professor at Stanford University, he presided over a psychology experiment exploring what happened when normal students were immersed in two distinct roles: One group were to be prison guards -- in a makeshift prison set up in the basement of the psychology lab -- and the other group were to be prisoners.

The experiment, peopled by well-adjusted, paid volunteers, was to last for two weeks. Within days, however, told they had to control the prison and provided with virtually no oversight by Zimbardo (in his role as warden), the bulk of the guards had begun engaging in startlingly sadistic, humiliation-based behavior -- dragging prisoners around naked and with bags over their heads, forcing them to do press ups while others sat on their backs, taking away their bedding, locking them up in dark closets overnight, even sexually humiliating them. Several of the inmates had experienced nervous collapse in response to their conditions of confinement. So extreme had those conditions become, that, at the urging of Christine Maslach -- herself a psychologist and also Zimbardo's future wife -- on day five the researchers decided to bring the project to a premature close.

Both groups, in turned out, had rapidly ceased to think of their identities as simply acting roles in a psychology experiment, and had internally absorbed the new power dynamics set in play in the basement. "Fight them! Resist violently! The time has come for violent revolution!" one brutalized, exhausted prisoner shouted out, his 1960s-politics seeping through into his new role. A guard reported enjoying "harassing the prisoners at 2.30am. It pleased my sadistic senses."

In a way, the guards' capacity to inflict pain wasn't a surprise. Nearly a decade earlier, trying to see whether the conditions of blind obedience that had allowed Nazi atrocities to occur could be replicated in democratic America, a Yale psychiatrist named Stanley Milgram had designed an experiment intended to measure how far people would go in electric-shocking others as part of a learning project. Panels of experts beforehand had predicted almost none of the volunteers would follow orders to shock people up to a top level of 450 volts. In the event, it turned out huge numbers of people, when following the orders of authority figures, would do precisely this. Orders, it turned out, in certain situations easily overrode moral qualms.

While Milgram and Zimbardo are often studied together in academic settings, Zimbardo's study is the one that has crossed over into the popular culture. The Stanford Prison Experiment is almost certainly the most well-known, oft-quoted psychology experiment ever conducted. The Pentagon has interrogators watch its grainy black and white video footage; a rock band is named after it; numerous films and documentaries have added to its iconic allure.

In essence, it recreated a Lord of the Flies scenario: Put good, intelligent people into a terrible situation in which the broader social and moral codes cease to apply, and the great majority of those good people will end up engaging in extraordinary acts of brutality. They will, quite simply, cease to respond as morally cognizant human beings.

Zimbardo has been haunted by the implications of his research for close to four decades. While he has given hundreds of interviews over the years, written numerous papers and articles about his findings, and set up one of the world's busiest websites to educate new generations of students on what happened in Stanford in 1971, he has always shied away from writing a book on the topic. It was, he sometimes claimed, simply too painful for him to re-immerse himself so as to be able to write a full-length book. And so, the meticulous notebooks he and the experimentees wrote in during that awful week were kept boxed away; the video footage and Ampex audio recordings reaped from bugs placed in "inmates" cells were released only in dribs and drabs; and the "debriefing" documents filled in by guards and prisoners in the wake of the project's conclusion were filed away for future use.

Like the identity of Deep Throat, another icon from the period, the inner workings of the Stanford Prison Experiment were kept under wraps.

Now, the world knows who Deep Throat was. And, with the publication of The Lucifer Effect, it also has Zimbardo's behind-the-scenes account of his experiment, a venture that, in many ways, could serve as a precursor to today's omnipresent reality TV shows and webcam-based voyeurism expeditions. (Of course, the technology was very different then. "We don't have sufficient funds to record continuously," Zimbardo writes of that period. "So we do so judiciously.")

Zimbardo has finally been prompted to write his first-person account of the SPE, as he calls it, by the specter of Abu Ghraib, and the shattering images of American military personnel engaging in torture there and in Guantanamo; and by his anger over the belief that high-level U.S. political, intelligence, and military leaders have created a climate in which torture is legitimated.

Stylistically, the first half of the book, detailing the Stanford Prison Experiment, is slightly gimmicky. The experiment unfolds in the present tense -- which, given how extensively it has already been written about, is a bit like a mystery writer trying to keep the wraps on a plot whose ending has already been trumpeted far and wide.

In the second section, the study's relevance for our understanding of Abu Ghraib is explained. Essentially, Zimbardo argues it's futile to blame a "few bad apples" when a situation has been created that puts a premium on certain forms of violence and cruelty. Don't blame the character of the torturers, he writes, blame the situation they're thrust into. Or, to use his own metaphor, it's not bad apples in a good barrel, rather it's good apples being corrupted by a bad barrel. If Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld declare the Geneva Conventions do not apply to the war on terror; if intelligence officials start waterboarding, beating, and even killing suspects; and if military officers such as Geoffrey Miller -- the man who made torture the norm in Guantanamo -- visit Iraq and urge a toughening-up of the treatment of detainees, nobody, Zimbardo eloquently argues, should be surprised at the acts that then unfolded on Tiers 1A and 1B of Abu Ghraib.

Finally, as something of a feel-good ending, Zimbardo concludes with a chapter on heroes, trying to identify what makes some people refuse to go along with the crowd when the easiest thing for them to do would be to act complicit in harmful activity.

Zimbardo is, perhaps, not a master of narrative writing, but his book is nevertheless an extraordinarily valuable addition to the literature of the psychology of violence or "evil." Like Samantha Power's A Problem From Hell, the volume sheds lights on ways in which atrocities -- from torture on up to genocide -- acquire institutional momentum, both through the actions of some and the passivity of many, including those in positions of authority who have the power to make a humanitarian intervention. While Richard Rhodes, in Why They Kill, was interested in documenting the specific, or "dispositional," mindset of killers, Zimbardo takes the opposite tack. All of us, he believes, are capable of committing evil acts in specific "situational" contexts. Evil, as Hannah Arendt famously opined, is too frequently simply "banal."

"Most people, most of the time, are moral creatures," Zimbardo writes. "But imagine that this morality is like a gearshift that at times gets pushed into neutral. When that happens, morality is disengaged." He goes on to argue that "the line between Good and Evil, once thought to be impermeable, proved instead to be quite permeable... Any deed that any human being has ever committed, however horrible, is possible for any of us -- under the right or wrong situational circumstances. That knowledge does not excuse evil; rather it democratizes it."

Of course, the follow-up question is what environmental triggers are likely to release this evil? Unfortunately, it's a question Zimbardo never fully answers. His "bad barrel" argument explores what happens when senior political and military figures abandon long-standing behavioral norms and embrace an "ends-justify-the-means" rationale. He writes about the dangers of a populace whipped up into a frenzy of fear by purported threats to national security. And he details the perils of officers of the state being allowed to act anonymously against "enemies" in the absence of realistic constraint or oversight. But, like most arguments that eventually fall back on unexplainable First Cause beliefs, he doesn't satisfactorily explain how these disastrous total situations emerge in certain places and times and not in others.

It's clear from Zimbardo's analysis that it is disingenuous to blame a few lowly reservists for the Abu Ghraib scandal. And, by the end of his book, he's made a compelling case that a slew of the most senior figures in the land should have to answer before war crimes tribunals for the actions at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. But then the question becomes, how did conditions emerge in early 21st century America that re-legitimized torture so thoroughly? Why did Rwanda explode into full-blown genocide when faced with civil strife, ethnic tensions, and political chaos -- and why did so many other civil-war-wracked nations not go down that same hellish route? Or to take the Nazi example, one that Zimbardo writes about extensively: Yes, an unfathomably cruel system created conditions in which "normal" men and women could carry out genocide, but how did Hitler achieve power and so completely convert the German governing apparatus for his own psychopathic ends? Daniel Goldhagen's "willing executioners" argument may well not be an adequate explanation for Nazism's atrocities, but surely at some level the political and ethical choices of the individuals who first elected the Nazis and then manned their genocidal machinery are important too.

Yet, while Zimbardo's analyses of background political conditions and choices isn't very deep, overall the book is a powerful warning to all of us. In times of chaos and fear, all too easily we as individuals, and the broader culture of which we are a part, can slide into acts of brutality. Some of us will commit those acts; others will simply sanction them through silence and inaction; some of us will make decisions that encourage others to act violently; and some of us will lend our support to politicians going down this devilish road.

"Maybe each of us has the capacity to be a saint or a sinner, altruistic or selfish, gentle or cruel, dominator or submissive, perpetrator or victim, prisoner or guard," Zimbardo muses. "Maybe it is our social circumstances that determine which of our many mental templates, our potentials, we develop."

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