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The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Philip Zimbardo

Psychologist Zimbardo masterminded the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, in which college students randomly assigned to be guards or inmates found themselves enacting sadistic abuse or abject submissiveness. In this penetrating investigation, he revisits—at … see full wiki

Tags: Book
Author: Philip Zimbardo
Publisher: Random House
1 review about The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good...

A riveting account of how good people can go bad

  • May 24, 2010
It's a safe bet the first few sentences of Professor Zimbardo's obituary will define him in terms of the (infamous) "Stanford Prison study". In the early 1960s Stanley Milgram had shocked the scientific community with his series of "obedience experiments" that showed how an apparently strongly hardwired obedience to authority could lead people to commit barbaric acts of cruelty. A decade later Zimbardo eliminated any possible doubt when a simulated "prison experiment" he was conducting on the Stanford campus had to be discontinued early for ethical reasons because the behavior of the participating students had degenerated into "Lord of the Flies" savagery within a period of only 4 days.

The first 200 pages of this book are given over to a description of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE). The middle third covers lessons learned from SPE and summarizes other experimental work related to the problem of people behaving badly. The final 200 pages discusses events at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, as well as other excesses of the Bush administration in terms of what has been learned about human behavior from the SPE and similar experiments.

To me, it's this final part of the book that is the most interesting. The initial material is readable enough, but seems way over-extended. I suspect that very few people (or the kind of people reading this book) are unaware of the SPE, so summarizing the main findings in 20-30 pages should have been possible, instead of the 200-page account which helps inflate "The Lucifer Effect" to a bloated 550 pages.

That said, I remain a fan of Doctor Zimbardo. Even if the book is a little too long, he is always clear. And though what he has to say can be depressing, it's clearly not wrong. Understanding our own weaknesses and the factors that can allow cruelty and evil to flourish seems more important than ever these days. This is an important, valuable book.

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