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Why Good People Go Evil
Philip Zimbardo just published a book called The Lucifer Effect. On his website, he writes:

In this book, I summarize more than 30 years of research on factors that can create a "perfect storm" which leads good people to engage in evil actions. This transformation of human character is what I call the "Lucifer Effect," named after God's favorite angel, Lucifer, who fell from grace and ultimately became Satan.

Rather than providing a religious analysis, however, I offer a psychological account of how ordinary people sometimes turn evil and commit unspeakable acts. As part of this account, The Lucifer Effect tells, for the first time, the full story behind the Stanford Prison Experiment, a now-classic study I conducted in 1971. In that study, normal college students were randomly assigned to play the role of guard or inmate for two weeks in a simulated prison, yet the guards quickly became so brutal that the experiment had to be shut down after only six days.

From a UDelaware press release about a talk Zimbardo gave:

The torture of detainees by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq was the tragic result of perceived anonymity, the absence of a sense of personal responsibility and tacit approval by military commanders, factors that have been shown in experiments to make good people do evil, Philip G. Zimbardo, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University, said at UD Dec. 6.

Speaking to an audience of nearly 600 in Pearson Hall Auditorium, Zimbardo, who is widely credited for popularizing psychology through the PBS-TV series Discovering Psychology, cited several studies, including the landmark Stanford Prison Experiment that he led in 1971 and a 1961-62 study of obedience to authority by the late Stanley Milgram, who was then a professor of social psychology at Yale University.

Zimbardo said the Milgram study, which found that 65 percent of ordinary residents of New Haven, Conn., were willing to give apparently harmful electric shocks of up to 450 volts to a protesting victim so long as a person in authority commanded them to, is a lesson in how an ideology of doing public good can be used to create evil.

“You always start with an ideology. All evil begins with a big ideology,” Zimbardo said. “What is the evil ideology about the Iraq war? National security. National security is the ideology that is used to justify torture in Brazil. You always begin with this big, good thing because once you have the big ideology then it’s going to justify all the action.”

The lecture, titled “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil,” began with a slide and video presentation of graphic images of the victims of torture and murder in Abu Ghraib.

Zimbardo obtained the images while testifying as an expert witness for U.S. Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Ivan “Chip” Frederick, who is serving eight years in prison after pleading guilty to five charges of abusing prisoners in the prison, including dereliction of duty, assault and committing an indecent act.

“War is all about old men wanting young men to kill other young men, but we only want them to kill them when they are there; when they come back, we don’t want them to become killers. That’s why we put men in uniforms,” Zimbardo said.

Zimbardo said a study of abandoned cars in certain neighborhoods shows that a sense of anonymity can encourage vandalism by ordinary-looking individuals. “Anonymity of a person and anonymity of place works similarly to get good people to do bad things,” he said.

The Stanford experiment, a planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life using college students, had to be ended prematurely after only six days when the guards became sadistic and the prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.

Zimbardo said that in addition to poor training and supervision, the same psychological forces that were at work in the Stanford experiment were present at the Abu Ghraib prison and that the findings of the experiment should have been a forewarning to the military about possible dangers of abuses of power.

Zimbardo said Frederick was “the most normal, the most average, the most patriotic American,” who could have been “a poster boy for the U.S. Army” and a good person before he went to work in appalling conditions at Abu Ghraib, where soldiers were rewarded for breaking prisoners down in preparation for interrogation by Navy Seals, the CIA and civilian contractors.

Zimbardo said the military court disregarded his testimony and held Frederick responsible for his actions, saying that the soldier should have known to do what was right.

“They ignored all the situational, all the systemic influence,” Zimbardo said. “They dishonorably discharged him, imprisoned him for eight years, put him in solitary confinement in Kuwait, lowered his rank to private, took away 22 years of his Reserves retirement funds, totally disgraced, took away his medals and now his wife is divorcing him because they are broke. After eight years, when he gets out he will have nothing.”

Quoting Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a victim of Soviet repression and the gulag prison system, Zimbardo said, "The line between good and evil lies in the center of every human heart." He added that any person is capable of doing evil depending on situational forces.

Zimbardo said that unless systemic forces, including poverty, racism and military conditions like those that existed in Abu Ghraib are recognized and changed, imprisonment alone will never eliminate the problem of evil behavior and there will always be a bad apple at the bottom of the barrel.

Posted by aalkon at March 31, 2007 11:32 AM


I have no immediate plans to read his book, so I'll ask rhetorically whether people act evil due to external forces (coercion, threats) or internal (desires or instinct).

Posted by: Dave at March 31, 2007 7:59 AM


Are you asking about individuals or groups of people?

To me its a combination of both, but I would ammend your comments on coercion and threats.

The famous Stanley Milgram experiment on how oridnary people will do cruel things to complete strangers on the orders of experts or authority figures:

Posted by: Joe at March 31, 2007 8:59 AM

Well, I'm evil because it's in my genes. But I suspect most do evil because they don't know any better or are too chickenshit to say no.

Posted by: Paul Hrissikopoulos at March 31, 2007 10:59 AM

And Phil Zimbardo wrote my college Psych 1 textbook. Still have that thing. I love the "Case Studies"; my favorite is the one about the pathologically shy guy who got a brain tumor and turned into a big time Ladies' Man. Phineas Gage eat your heart out!

Posted by: Paul Hrissikopoulos at March 31, 2007 11:10 AM

At first, I thought this was going to be about Muslims who do evil.

Posted by: doombuggy at March 31, 2007 11:33 AM

I remember when I saw Zimbardo on the Colbert Report I was like 'Hmm...he vaguely reminds me of Lucifer with the beard the the slick hair"

Posted by: PurplePen at March 31, 2007 1:08 PM

Hollywood is still trying to do a movie version of the Stanford Prison Experiment of the early 1971. I believe there is a German movie version called Das Experiment (2001)

Which actor would be perfect as Dr. Philip Zimbardo? My pick would be Brian Cox or Anthony Hopkins.

Posted by: Joe at March 31, 2007 1:28 PM

So, Joe, Hannibal Lecter #1 and Hannibal Lecter #2? Interesting choices. I cannot disagree...

Posted by: marion at March 31, 2007 2:01 PM

Lecter #1 would be my first choice. Hopkins may be too old for the real Dr. Phil.

Posted by: Joe at March 31, 2007 3:12 PM

Viktor Frankel wrote some seminal work on this. His credentials came out of 3 years in Auschwitz and Dachau. His thesis is the "Will to Meaning". No matter how bad it is you gotta get above it. This guy didn't know if he was going to die tomorrow he just kept "the faith" , as Adam Clayton Powell used to say. Not a good reference. Anyway, we are clueless to a large degree and need to come from our souls.

Posted by: bill at March 31, 2007 11:31 PM

It is the similar for any Westerner living in the M.E. You have to develop a fatalistic world view and a sense of detachment within your surroundings. The stoic philosophers, especially Epictetus, helped a great deal. Along with large quantities of alcohol and assortment of recreational drugs to let off steam and stress.

Posted by: Joe at April 1, 2007 8:55 AM

Dr. Zimbardo has been coasting on his reputation for one failed experiment, one that titillated the world, from over 25 years ago. I don't even think that even Jeremy Rifkin has been able to coast on his reputation and get free drinks and meals for that long. Haslam and Reicher attempted to duplicate Zimbardo's experiment in 2003 and found, admittedly in a shorter period, that none of the original results could be repeated. In fact Zimbardo has never been able to replicate any of the results of his initial experiment.

Posted by: Pat Patterson at April 1, 2007 11:20 PM

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