The Lucifer Effect

The Lucifer Effect 

Author: Philip Zimbardo


The singular theme of this book is the age-old philosophical question of what makes good people do bad things. The book is the quintessence of a career-long endeavour to resolve this perplexing mystery, and the author’s answers are symbolised by his now classic Stanford Prison Experiment, and by his analysis of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. The book primarily addresses how some compelling factors, in the appropriate circumstances, override individual inhibitions and impel people to commit evil. The book makes the strong argument that these ‘situational variables‘, operating in the same way as Lucifer does, induce people into ‘temptation to do the unthinkable to others’ (page xii). It describes how these circumstantial factors promote the kind of heinous acts that characterise institutional violence and large scale genocides. The book also assesses the impact of several evil-facilitating concepts such as conformity, deindividuation, obedience to authority, self-justification, rationalization, passivity and inaction (pages xii and 21).

By Eric. E. Castro –, CC BY 2.0, Link

The author’s description of the unprecedented Sanford Prison Experiment was quite comprehensive and it illustrated quite graphically how institutional evil emerges. He particularly charted how the behaviour of the study participants quickly evolved to conform to their randomly assigned roles as either guards or prisoners. For example, he depicted how, very early on, the guards began ‘to take pleasure in giving commands and forcing the prisoners to execute them’, and in how they increasingly became intolerant of dissent, and ‘cleverly inventive’ in designing indiscriminate punishments such as ‘senseless, mindless, arbitrary tasks‘, handcuffing, dragging, and sexual humiliation. On the other hand, the participants playing the role of prisoners quickly began to experience time distortion, and eventually developed learned helplessness, manifesting such signs as passivity, dependence, and depression; whilst some of the prisoners became ‘mindlessly obedient‘ and ‘zombie-like‘ in their movements, others broke down under the pressure, one prisoner suffering an acute stress reaction (page 49-62, 74, 97, 172 and 196).

Galleries of Justice Museum. Elliott Brown on Flickr.

The author’s conclusions from the Sanford Prison Experiment entrenched his firm view that it is systems, rather than individuals, that are responsible for the emergence of institutional violence. He also arrived at the same conclusions from his very forensic analysis of the more than 400 investigations that investigated the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal, all of which pointed to situational and systemic forces as promoters of abuse (page 327). The author explored how the system exerts its influence, such as by defining ‘the guard role‘, and investing it with the authority and the resources that promote sadistic behaviour. Furthermore, the author demonstrated how the uniforms provided by the system promotes the anonymity of the guards and reduces their personal accountability, and how the blindfolds and head coverings supplied by the system anonymise and deinviduate the prisoners, further encouraging their abuse. It was rather discouraging that neither the morality, nor the personality, of individual guards stemmed the emergence of institutional evil; indeed many otherwise decent guards were reduced to being ‘passive contributors to the evil’ – doing nothing to ‘prevent, stop, or report them’ (pages 172-173, 201, 189, 226, 219, 40 and 396). 

Prisoner. Ted on Flickr.

Beyond prison institutions, the book also explored the emergence of evil at national levels, illustrating its case with several examples of relatively recent genocides that occurred in what the author termed the ‘mass murder century‘. In this regard, the book focussed on the Rwandan genocide which resulted in the massacre of 800,000 to a million people within three months, marking it as ‘the most ferocious in recorded history’ (pages 12-16). The book also cited more historical genocides such as the Spanish inquisition, an event that exposed how ‘the ardent and often sincere desire to combat evil generated evil on a grander scale than the world had ever seen before’ (pages 8-9). The book used these and other examples to show that the common driver for genocide, as well as for prejudice, racism, and discrimination, is the dehumanising and stereotyped conception of others as ‘worthless, all-powerful, demonic, monstrous, or threatening to cherished beliefs’ (page 11). 

Prisoner in the Torture Chamber. Jim Linwood on Flickr.

Perhaps the most disquieting message of the book, derived from the examples of evil the author has studied, is its assertion that all people possess the potential to transform into abusive and murderous thugs given the right situation (pages 307). The author underscored this point clearly when he said that ‘any deed that any human being has ever committed, however horrible, is possible for any of us‘ because ‘the potential for perversion is inherent in the very processes that make human beings do all the wonderful things we do’. He specifically pointed out that the situational forces which underlie our vulnerability to evil are frequently largely outside the control of our personal morality (pages 211 and 229). However, whilst the book emphasises the primacy of situational forces, it also held out the hope that ‘the power of people to act mindfully and critically as informed agents’ will help to mitigate the tendency towards situationally-driven evil. The ability to resist social pressures and conformity, and to shun the ‘mentality of the herd‘, must however be specifically nurtured by the individual (pages 21 and 265).

Hoa Lo Prisoner. Matthias Rozenkraz on Flickr.

The most practical aspects of the book are undoubtedly the wide-ranging recommendations it makes to mitigate the tendency to evil at both the societal and the individual levels. For example, the author called for a reappraisal of the Western model of individuality which assumes that people always ‘act from free will and rational choice, but which denies the reality of ‘human vulnerability‘ to commit evil (page 320). At the individual level, the author made suggestions on how to avoid ‘crimes of obedience‘, such as by asserting personal authority; by taking responsibility for our actions; by constantly reassessing ‘the worth of our social involvements‘; and by adopting altruistic role models (pages 275, 447 and 450). His insightful ‘ten-step program to resist unwanted influences‘ is exceptionally helpful as it, for example, warns against the traps of ‘the expanded present moment‘, ‘venal sins and small transgressions‘, and ‘in-group biases‘ (pages 451-456). The book supports many of its arguments with reference to an impressive array of experts such as Robert Jay Lifton on Nazi atrocities, C.S. Lewis on peer pressure, Muzafer Sherif and Solomon Asche on conformity, Stanley Milgram on obedience to authority, Hannah Arendt on the banality of evil, and Albert Bandura on moral disengagement (pages 207-208, 258-259, 262-265, 266-276,288, 310-311, 312, and 319).


Evil (detail). miss_millions on Flickr.


This book is a detailed review of one of the most important and seminal experiments in psychology. It provides an insight into the predictors of cruel behaviour, teaching the key message that situational forces override individual defences against evil. Significant is the author’s conclusion that all people are almost equally venerable to the situational forces that prompt evil behaviour, and he graphically illustrates this with key historical events and several research findings. The book is perhaps unnecessarily lengthy because it attempted to record every detail of the Stanford prison experiment and the Abu Ghraib scandal; whilst this puts the two episodes in proper perspective, the level of detail was probably not required to get the book’s messages across. The author also poorly explored those factors which mark out the few people who resisted the situational pressures to conform. These shortcomings aside, this book has addressed a significant aspect of humanity, one that resonates in all spheres of life, healthcare included.

Overall assessment

Whilst a disproportionate content of the book was dedicated to one study, the author has drawn from a wide range of sources to provide a detailed assessment of how situations, more than personal characteristics, determine the behaviour of actors under all circumstances. This is important in health care where the potential for callousness and harm are ever present. The book’s lessons and guidelines are practical and relevant for health care, and I recommend it to all doctors.

Book details

Publisher, Place, Year: Rider, London, 2007
Number of chapters: 16
Number of pages: 551
ISBN: 978-1-84-604103-7
Star rating: 4
Price: £8.46

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