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The definitive firsthand account of the groundbreaking research of Philip Zimbardo—the basis for the award-winning film The Stanford Prison Experiment

Renowned social psychologist and creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment Philip Zimbardo explores the mechanisms that make good people do bad things, how moral people can be seduced into acting immorally, and what this says about the line separating good from evil.

The Lucifer Effect explains how—and the myriad reasons why—we are all susceptible to the lure of “the dark side.” Drawing on examples from history as well as his own trailblazing research, Zimbardo details how situational forces and group dynamics can work in concert to make monsters out of decent men and women. 

Here, for the first time and in detail, Zimbardo tells the full story of the Stanford Prison Experiment, the landmark study in which a group of college-student volunteers was randomly divided into “guards” and “inmates” and then placed in a mock prison environment. Within a week the study was abandoned, as ordinary college students were transformed into either brutal, sadistic guards or emotionally broken prisoners.

By illuminating the psychological causes behind such disturbing metamorphoses, Zimbardo enables us to better understand a variety of harrowing phenomena, from corporate malfeasance to organized genocide to how once upstanding American soldiers came to abuse and torture Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib. He replaces the long-held notion of the “bad apple” with that of the “bad barrel”—the idea that the social setting and the system contaminate the individual, rather than the other way around.

This is a book that dares to hold a mirror up to mankind, showing us that we might not be who we think we are. While forcing us to reexamine what we are capable of doing when caught up in the crucible of behavioral dynamics, though, Zimbardo also offers hope. We are capable of resisting evil, he argues, and can even teach ourselves to act heroically. Like Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, The Lucifer Effect is a shocking, engrossing study that will change the way we view human behavior.

Praise for The Lucifer Effect

The Lucifer Effect will change forever the way you think about why we behave the way we do—and, in particular, about the human potential for evil. This is a disturbing book, but one that has never been more necessary.”—Malcolm Gladwell

“An important book . . . All politicians and social commentators . . . should read this.”The Times (London)

“Powerful . . . an extraordinarily valuable addition to the literature of the psychology of violence or ‘evil.’”The American Prospect

“Penetrating . . . Combining a dense but readable and often engrossing exposition of social psychology research with an impassioned moral seriousness, Zimbardo challenges readers to look beyond glib denunciations of evil-doers and ponder our collective responsibility for the world’s ills.”Publishers Weekly

“A sprawling discussion . . . Zimbardo couples a thorough narrative of the Stanford Prison Experiment with an analysis of the social dynamics of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.”Booklist

“Zimbardo bottled evil in a laboratory. The lessons he learned show us our dark nature but also fill us with hope if we heed their counsel. The Lucifer Effect reads like a novel.”—Anthony Pratkanis, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology, University of California


From the Hardcover edition.
Published: Random House Publishing Group an imprint of Random House Publishing Group on
ISBN: 9781588365873
List price: $13.99
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A critical examination on the role of social psychology to turn decent people evil. This book was written by the principal investigator of the landmark Stanford Prison Experiment and explores how an evil situation can warp a person's mind and ethics. It also provides hope that not only can we all be evil, but also we all can be heroes (under the right circumstances).more
This book by the guy who conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment—and who was the warden, and got sucked into abusing his power—is about half a detailed account of what actually happened in the SPE, blow by blow. There’s a really detailed website for the SPE with a lot of extra material, including video. The rest of the book is about other situations in which people abuse their power—and the parallels between the SPE and Abu Ghraib really are striking, down to the guards’ invention of sexual humiliations as a way to control and dehumanize their captives. Zimbardo strikingly illustrates how humans tend to blame the degraded for their own degradation—both in the SPE and at Abu Ghraib, the prisoners smelled bad, having been denied access to real toilet facilities, and this led the guards to think of them as dirty and unworthy. He argues that we too readily attribute bad behavior to individual disposition (rotten apples) rather than situational and structural factors (the construction of the barrel). This fundamental attribution error pervasively distracts us from the need to build better systems. At the end, he spends some time on heroism: the qualities that lead people to resist situational forces and stand up for what’s right. A disturbing but worthwhile book.more
One of the most sobering, thought-provoking and thoroughly absorbing books I’ve read all year. Psychology students will know of Zimbardo in the context of the Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted in the 1970s, where a group of students were randomly assigned to roleplay either students or guards in a mock prison experiment conducted in a basement in the University. The experiment was intended to last for two weeks, but was suspended early because of the extent to which it influenced the behaviour of the guards and the prisoners. Zimbardo here presents a detailed account of the way in which the experiment unfolded, arguing that it was the situation – and ultimately the system – that shaped this behaviour, and not the characteristics and personalities that the students brought with them into the experiment.He then broadens his scope to include an analysis of events at Abu Graib, and elsewhere in Iraq, and argues similarly that situational and systemic factors played a crucial role here also.While acknowledging that individuals should also be considered responsible for their own behaviour, Zimbardo argues that the responsibility does not belong solely to individual ‘bad apples’, but to the situation and system that created them. He argues that that very few people exposed to such situational and systemic pressures would have the integrity and strength of character to resist them, and that paradoxically our naive belief that we ourselves would never behave in such a way only blunts our ability to remain alert to such dangers -- so that we can act differently when confronted by such pressures.In his conclusion, Zimbardo changes tack, arguing that if ‘evil’ is an all too human capacity, then perhaps ‘heroism’ is too, and we might similarly be able to create situations and systems in society that inspire people and bring out the best that they are capable of, instead of the worst. I found this engrossing from start to finish, and count it among my best reads of the year. One caveat to this recommendation, however -- some reviews of this work suggest that it is overly detailed and repetitive. As with so many other things, this seems to be a matter of individual taste and preference.more
'Although you probably think of yourself as having a consistent personality across time and space, that is likely not to be true.' Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect This was a very interesting book about a darker side of our personality lurking in each one of us. Even though I was initially skeptical as to the validity of Zimbardo’s Stanford experiment, I came to accept its main conclusions. Zimbardo provides enough evidence throughout the book from a plethora of studies and incidents to support his thesis that basically good and decent people can turn into sadistic monsters if the circumstances are conducive to, or demanding of, such behavior. Among many examples of studies, experiments, and real events, Zimbardo concentrates on the two in the book to prove his thesis. One of them is his own Stanford Prison Experiment from the 1970’s, in which a group of college students role played prisoners and prison guards in a makeshift, simulated prison in the university basement. Under the pressure to perform, the guards became cruel and oppressive to the point when some of the ‘prisoners’ suffered nervous breakdowns and the experiment had to be terminated just after a few days. Some of the decent and educated young men role playing prison guards turned into sadistic monsters under the circumstances, and the prisoners into hapless victims. There was no previous history of abnormal behavior in any of the subjects, and they proved to be normal and decent people in their futher lives as well. The other example Zimabardo elaborates on extensively is the horrific 2004 abuse in the Iraqi Abu Ghraib prison. There, a group of otherwise normal young men and women inflicted torture and horrific abuse on the fellow human beings with complete emotional disengagement. Citing a number of other studies and incidences, Zimbardo argues that these and other abuses were in a big part induced by the same circumstances and pressures.He calls these circumstances broadly as ‘environmetal factors’. They include institutionalized and ideological endorsement of cruelty, socialized obedience to authority, dehumanization, emotional prejudices, situational stressors, and gradual escalation of abuse. He stresses that the lack of supervision and deindividuation of both the perpetrator and the victim work as key factors in applying cruelty, and are most commonly achieved by face painting, wearing dark reflecting eye glasses or masks, or putting paper bags over the victims’ heads. People who perpetrate evil acts against other people don’t display hidden sadistic tendencies, but rather want to control and dominate others of whom they do not think as of equals. Surprisingly, under those pressures most of decent, law-abiding ‘good’ people, turn evil, and that includes by far the biggest portion of the group, which even though not actively oppressive, passively or almost passively, condones the cruelty around them. According to Zimbardo’s and other studies, only a small percentage of the group involved in such circumstances is strong enough to oppose the draw to belong and groupthink. By the same token, he believes that many people are capable of altruistic and even heroic behavior if the circumstances are conducive to it.Finally, he makes a case against the highest levels of institutionalized evil in the US, namely the Bush administration, whom he makes responsible for the war tortures and abuses, including the torture in Abu Ghraib by spreading the ideology of evil, suspending civil rights and condoning torture. There were two issues I had initially a problem with- it was difficult to believe that the role playing college students could get so carried away as to endure real stresses and abuses- both inflicted and suffered, but it seems that they did. The other one was to believe the proportion of the ‘wrong doers’ to be so high (on average about 80%), but again it seems that it is more or less consistently so.more
I was excited to read this, since I have a psychology background and had heard that it was a good look at the Stanford Prison Experiment, which I studied in college. I wasn't too impressed with this book though. It is at least 100 pages too long and bogged down by excessive detail, making it read like a numbing textbook. The breakdown is as follows: 200 pages on Zimbardo's Prison Experiment, 100 pages of analysis of the experiment, 75 pages on Abu Ghraib, 75 pages about the Bush administration's culpability, 50 pages on factors for improvement, 25 pages on heroism, and 50 pages of footnotes. The author did not attempt to eliminate his personal biases (even embracing them, calling himself a "bleeding heart liberal" at one point), which really bothered me, since the book was presented as an unbiased view of social behavior as it relates to situational forces. The subject WAS very interesting, but I'd recommend it to a limited audience - those who are schooled in social psychology and/or prison societies, who are comfortable diving into scientific literature, and who won't mind the liberal spin that Zimbardo includes.more
A riveting day by day account of the Stanford Prison Experiment, which Zimbardo designed and ran until his girlfriend and fellow psych professor intervened; followed by the famous Milgram shocking experiment; followed by Zimbardo's indictment of Abu Graib and the Bush administration. A very powerful book, just somewhat undermined by his occasional odd light-hearted tone - and by his consistent misspelling of John Yoo's name.more
Good, but rather long for the general reader.more
Read all 12 reviews

Reviews

A critical examination on the role of social psychology to turn decent people evil. This book was written by the principal investigator of the landmark Stanford Prison Experiment and explores how an evil situation can warp a person's mind and ethics. It also provides hope that not only can we all be evil, but also we all can be heroes (under the right circumstances).more
This book by the guy who conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment—and who was the warden, and got sucked into abusing his power—is about half a detailed account of what actually happened in the SPE, blow by blow. There’s a really detailed website for the SPE with a lot of extra material, including video. The rest of the book is about other situations in which people abuse their power—and the parallels between the SPE and Abu Ghraib really are striking, down to the guards’ invention of sexual humiliations as a way to control and dehumanize their captives. Zimbardo strikingly illustrates how humans tend to blame the degraded for their own degradation—both in the SPE and at Abu Ghraib, the prisoners smelled bad, having been denied access to real toilet facilities, and this led the guards to think of them as dirty and unworthy. He argues that we too readily attribute bad behavior to individual disposition (rotten apples) rather than situational and structural factors (the construction of the barrel). This fundamental attribution error pervasively distracts us from the need to build better systems. At the end, he spends some time on heroism: the qualities that lead people to resist situational forces and stand up for what’s right. A disturbing but worthwhile book.more
One of the most sobering, thought-provoking and thoroughly absorbing books I’ve read all year. Psychology students will know of Zimbardo in the context of the Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted in the 1970s, where a group of students were randomly assigned to roleplay either students or guards in a mock prison experiment conducted in a basement in the University. The experiment was intended to last for two weeks, but was suspended early because of the extent to which it influenced the behaviour of the guards and the prisoners. Zimbardo here presents a detailed account of the way in which the experiment unfolded, arguing that it was the situation – and ultimately the system – that shaped this behaviour, and not the characteristics and personalities that the students brought with them into the experiment.He then broadens his scope to include an analysis of events at Abu Graib, and elsewhere in Iraq, and argues similarly that situational and systemic factors played a crucial role here also.While acknowledging that individuals should also be considered responsible for their own behaviour, Zimbardo argues that the responsibility does not belong solely to individual ‘bad apples’, but to the situation and system that created them. He argues that that very few people exposed to such situational and systemic pressures would have the integrity and strength of character to resist them, and that paradoxically our naive belief that we ourselves would never behave in such a way only blunts our ability to remain alert to such dangers -- so that we can act differently when confronted by such pressures.In his conclusion, Zimbardo changes tack, arguing that if ‘evil’ is an all too human capacity, then perhaps ‘heroism’ is too, and we might similarly be able to create situations and systems in society that inspire people and bring out the best that they are capable of, instead of the worst. I found this engrossing from start to finish, and count it among my best reads of the year. One caveat to this recommendation, however -- some reviews of this work suggest that it is overly detailed and repetitive. As with so many other things, this seems to be a matter of individual taste and preference.more
'Although you probably think of yourself as having a consistent personality across time and space, that is likely not to be true.' Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect This was a very interesting book about a darker side of our personality lurking in each one of us. Even though I was initially skeptical as to the validity of Zimbardo’s Stanford experiment, I came to accept its main conclusions. Zimbardo provides enough evidence throughout the book from a plethora of studies and incidents to support his thesis that basically good and decent people can turn into sadistic monsters if the circumstances are conducive to, or demanding of, such behavior. Among many examples of studies, experiments, and real events, Zimbardo concentrates on the two in the book to prove his thesis. One of them is his own Stanford Prison Experiment from the 1970’s, in which a group of college students role played prisoners and prison guards in a makeshift, simulated prison in the university basement. Under the pressure to perform, the guards became cruel and oppressive to the point when some of the ‘prisoners’ suffered nervous breakdowns and the experiment had to be terminated just after a few days. Some of the decent and educated young men role playing prison guards turned into sadistic monsters under the circumstances, and the prisoners into hapless victims. There was no previous history of abnormal behavior in any of the subjects, and they proved to be normal and decent people in their futher lives as well. The other example Zimabardo elaborates on extensively is the horrific 2004 abuse in the Iraqi Abu Ghraib prison. There, a group of otherwise normal young men and women inflicted torture and horrific abuse on the fellow human beings with complete emotional disengagement. Citing a number of other studies and incidences, Zimbardo argues that these and other abuses were in a big part induced by the same circumstances and pressures.He calls these circumstances broadly as ‘environmetal factors’. They include institutionalized and ideological endorsement of cruelty, socialized obedience to authority, dehumanization, emotional prejudices, situational stressors, and gradual escalation of abuse. He stresses that the lack of supervision and deindividuation of both the perpetrator and the victim work as key factors in applying cruelty, and are most commonly achieved by face painting, wearing dark reflecting eye glasses or masks, or putting paper bags over the victims’ heads. People who perpetrate evil acts against other people don’t display hidden sadistic tendencies, but rather want to control and dominate others of whom they do not think as of equals. Surprisingly, under those pressures most of decent, law-abiding ‘good’ people, turn evil, and that includes by far the biggest portion of the group, which even though not actively oppressive, passively or almost passively, condones the cruelty around them. According to Zimbardo’s and other studies, only a small percentage of the group involved in such circumstances is strong enough to oppose the draw to belong and groupthink. By the same token, he believes that many people are capable of altruistic and even heroic behavior if the circumstances are conducive to it.Finally, he makes a case against the highest levels of institutionalized evil in the US, namely the Bush administration, whom he makes responsible for the war tortures and abuses, including the torture in Abu Ghraib by spreading the ideology of evil, suspending civil rights and condoning torture. There were two issues I had initially a problem with- it was difficult to believe that the role playing college students could get so carried away as to endure real stresses and abuses- both inflicted and suffered, but it seems that they did. The other one was to believe the proportion of the ‘wrong doers’ to be so high (on average about 80%), but again it seems that it is more or less consistently so.more
I was excited to read this, since I have a psychology background and had heard that it was a good look at the Stanford Prison Experiment, which I studied in college. I wasn't too impressed with this book though. It is at least 100 pages too long and bogged down by excessive detail, making it read like a numbing textbook. The breakdown is as follows: 200 pages on Zimbardo's Prison Experiment, 100 pages of analysis of the experiment, 75 pages on Abu Ghraib, 75 pages about the Bush administration's culpability, 50 pages on factors for improvement, 25 pages on heroism, and 50 pages of footnotes. The author did not attempt to eliminate his personal biases (even embracing them, calling himself a "bleeding heart liberal" at one point), which really bothered me, since the book was presented as an unbiased view of social behavior as it relates to situational forces. The subject WAS very interesting, but I'd recommend it to a limited audience - those who are schooled in social psychology and/or prison societies, who are comfortable diving into scientific literature, and who won't mind the liberal spin that Zimbardo includes.more
A riveting day by day account of the Stanford Prison Experiment, which Zimbardo designed and ran until his girlfriend and fellow psych professor intervened; followed by the famous Milgram shocking experiment; followed by Zimbardo's indictment of Abu Graib and the Bush administration. A very powerful book, just somewhat undermined by his occasional odd light-hearted tone - and by his consistent misspelling of John Yoo's name.more
Good, but rather long for the general reader.more
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