Book Discussion/Book Review: The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, by Philip Zimbardo.


CW/TW: Due to the nature of this study, and the concept of ‘the banality of evil’ , this book evaluates and discusses multiple instances of evil. Warnings include: abuse/homophobia/racism/rape/murder/massacre/discussions about Auschwitz/Discussions about Rwanda/ Graphic detail of Abu Ghraib abuses/ deindividuation/mental breakdowns/emotional breakdowns/depression/verbal, psychological and physical abuses/The Stanford Prison Experiment is discussed in detail. Be aware that I may have missed some warnings due to the broad and narrow focuses on evil throughout the book.


Note: The Lucifer Effect, by Philip Zimbardo discusses the concepts/theories of: Role Internalisation, Situational effects on behaviour, banality of evil, deindividuation, effect of the absence of authority, banality of heroism, dispositional attributions versus situational attributions, evil of inaction, and more.

It is important to note that A) situational explanations of behaviour are not excuses for said behaviour, as Zimbardo calls it, this is not ‘excusiology’ it simply proposes that dispositional explanations are not always accurate and may be too superficial/ignorant of systemic failures. B) It is important to be aware that the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) has, for multiple reasons, been considered unethical. While the study likely yields interesting and important psychological results it is important to recognise the ethical issues surrounding it. This includes, the ethical issues surrounding the effects on the participants and the conditions of the study, as well as Zimbardo’s own influence on the study as he cast himself in the superintendent role.


Hey hey, BookNerds! As many of you know by now, I usually read and review fiction. However, in an attempt to broaden my horizons and supplement my own academic journey I have added a few psychology books to my tbr, with The Lucifer Effect being the first. Because these books deal with complex psychological concepts and are not fiction, I will be reviewing in a different way, more of a discussion instead!

The Lucifer Effect, by Philip Zimbardo is a fascinating book that simulates the structure of a psychological research paper. It starts off addressing the concept of good versus evil, and of dispositional versus situational explanations. The books discusses the broad, philosophical and historical beliefs of good and evil, relating it back to the Apollonian – Dionysian struggle, and works its way up to real life examples of extreme evil – drawing on the Rwanda massacre, the horrors of Auschwitz, and the abuses at Abu Ghraib. The background and opening of the book does a good job of setting up the topic, explaining why it is important and why Zimbardo decided to research it. Interestingly, he explores these examples and discusses how, when these things occur, we focus on dispositional explanations – we blame their personality and claim they must have been ‘bad apples’. We, as humans, do not look at evil being a product of our environment – that our situation could have made good people turn bad – and this is what Zimbardo set out to explore with his SPE.

This was incredibly fascinating because, as a person, the reluctance to look at situational causes seems to be a massive error on our part and yet who would want to blame the situation? Blaming the environmental and situational factors is too close to acknowledging that it could happen to you too – the wrong situation could turn you to evil as well. This is inherently terrifying to us, to people, because we see good and evil as a dichotomy with clear and distinct barriers, a line between that we surely would not cross. An interesting area to explore because we seem to have such a deep rooted fear of evil, and of becoming evil.

This has always been a concept broadly explored, the SPE and real life examples of evil may cause you to remember the book Lord Of The Flies, by William Goulding. Zimbardo himself noted the horrifying allusions to it in this behaviour, and in his experiment. The boys in the book were not inherently evil, but the island, the painted faces (specifically the feel of anonymity), the situation turned them so. Though, as I explore this you may have likely noticed that not all the boys did turn evil in the book, and in real life these situations do not turn everyone evil, we have ‘heroes’ so to speak – the people who blew the whistle on the crimes or helped protect those being victimised, but we also have those who fail to act in an evil way or prevent the evil actions – this is evil of inaction, an evil in itself. So, if evil is a product of our situation then why do some people resist? Well, psychology has no clear cut answers because to do so would ignore too many factors, but Zimbardo outlines a few explanations from dispositional to other situational explanations in the book – but I won’t detail this because the book is well worth the read!

Zimbardo, after considering the history on good and evil, and the explanations surrounding such behaviours, decided to conduct the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE). Zimbardo’s hypothesis and experiment explored a) the idea that people internalise the role they take on (in this experiment it was Prison guards versus prisoners), b) this internalisation and use of uniform provides a sense of anonymity c) the anonymity facilitates evil behaviour (aggressive behaviour, in this case, on the part of the guards).

The SPE took place in a mock prison, Zimbardo cast himself as the Superintendent and randomly allocated the roles of guard and prisoner to the participants. To combat dispositional variables, each participant was tested to be average or ‘normal’ so to speak (no evil dispositions). The SPE is incredibly well known but the books delves right into the details and is truly shocking. In only a few days the participants had become their roles, the guards increasingly aggressive, and the prisoners increasingly felt like true prisoners. Some guards were less aggressive than others but their failure to prevent evil actions was classed as ‘the evil of inaction’. While the study has many ethical issues and the effect of Zimbardo himself on the study is in questions – it still highlights some interesting results. The SPE drew far too many comparisons to the later horrors of Abu Ghraib, therefore reinforcing that Zimbardo was indeed onto something. When exploring evil behaviour we cannot solely rely on dispositional explanations, to do so is to ignore systemic failures, absences of authority and systemic oppression, thus situational explanations are a key thing to consider when exploring evil behaviour. Overall, the study is truly shocking and horrifying, particularly that these drastic changes occured in under a week.

After exploring the SPE, Zimbardo moves on to discuss the horrific abuses at Abu Ghraib. After addressing the similarities to his own experiment, Zimbardo moves on to explore the evils that occured and his own involvement as an expert witness in the case. This was again, very interesting to read about, as he discusses how a ‘good apple’ was turned ‘bad’ by the absence of authority, the lack of structure and general situation at Abu Ghrab. The critiques are harsh, though not unprecedented, and he outlines the resistance he faced when it came to criticising the army instead of the soldiers dispositions. I won’t detail this part of the book as the abuses are quite graphic and better explored in the book itself, however the look at a real world evil (and one so closely related to the SPE) acts as a striking reminder that these things do happen and can be the product of systemic failures. It reinforces the horrors of bad situations and the evil it can facilitate.

The book does, however, end on a good note. Zimbardo explores the ‘banality of heroism’. He believes that, much like anyone can turn evil, anyone can be a hero. The last part of the book details different forms of heroism, and how we can strive to be heroes ourselves. The idea of heroism was a perfect way to end the book, highlighting that good and evil is a spectrum, not a clear cut dichotomy, and that it is not always dispositional.

The book overall is well structured, incredibly detailed, and gives a lot of insight into Zimbardo’s view of good and evil – as well as the situational explanations contrasted with the dispositional.

While I could talk more about the book, and its concepts, I have rambled on for too long! The book is definitely worth the read, however, and I’d hate to spoil too much of the insights by going into further detail. Overall this is a fascinating, shocking and horrifying read, that pulls our beliefs into perspective and questions our own behaviours.


15 comments

  1. I agree that anonymity creates a situation where people can turn evil. Just look at bullying on social media. So prolific and all because the bullies feel anonymous hiding behind a screen. Such an interesting read! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed, anonymity is a powerful force, bullying on social media is a great example. It is surprising at how quickly one can feel anonymous in their role too – very shocking. It is a very interesting book, definitely one that makes you think! Thankyou! 💜💜

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    • It is very interesting, it helps that I’m studying psychology at uni, so it was an area of interest at least! Aha it is always scary broadening your reading – it always terrifies me too, definitely worth it though, I hope you find lots of great new reads! 💜

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    • The definition is not necessarily set in stone, at least not psychologically. ‘Evil’ people are those who usually act abnormally, against the norms of their society/culture , and cause harm to another person orsome sort of damage. ‘Evil’ people are defined by their ‘evil’ actions, though, other psychologists may argue ‘evil’ can be an inherent trait. To define an ‘evil’ person you must also define ‘evil’ itself and yet though we know in laymans terms what it means, psychologically it differs depending on where you are and the psychological perspective you argue from. Zimbardo focuses on ‘evil’ produced by your situation, specifically harmful ‘evil’ that takes the form of physical, pyschological and emotional abuse, murder, genocid etc… He defines it as “Intentionally behaving, or causing others to act, in ways that demean dehumanize, harm, destroy, or kill innocent people…” So in this particular book this is how ‘evil’ is defined.

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  2. “Intentionally behaving, or causing others to act, in ways that demean dehumanize, harm, destroy, or kill innocent people…”

    That is O.K. but it also depends upon why this person is doing this, I mean what is the motivation of the person who is doing this. If this person is doing it for his own personal advancement, money or security etc. then it is bad, but the real evil person is that who is doing this just for kicks. Most of your readers would perhaps will not even like to understand this motivation. But none the less this motivation is quite common. This perversion or radical evil is something which common people do not allow to come to their conscious level though subconsciously it is there. Think about it.

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    • I do not disagree that the motivation behind the ‘evil’ action also determines what is or is not ‘evil’. However, motivation is not so easily simplified, often we do not know why we do the things we do, we do not always conciously know our motivations – so how do you truly determine ‘real evil’ from just ‘bad’? People claim to do things for one reason but that is not always the true motivation. This particular book looks at how systems and situations can breed evil actions in ‘normal’ people, common people – so you can see why motivation is not so simple. Zimbardo does not include motivation in his definition because in the situations he is evaluating he is looking at widespread evil, evil of organisations and systems where motivation is not the core thing at play. Think about it.

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