The Stanford Prison Experiment is recognized as one of the most critiqued psychological experiments of the last century due to its ethical controversy and questioned practices, however it is important and intriguing even moreso due to its shocking results. When “average Americans” quickly assume rules of prisoners and guards, their characteristics, interactions, and mentalities transform 180o, as “good turns evil.” In The Lucifer Effect, Philip Zimbardo offers his first-hand account as the conductor of the experiment, pulling from an extensive career as a psychologist and professor to supplement the details of the experiment with his own analysis after nearly 40 years. What marks the tipping point
About halfway through the novel, Zimbardo writes a 10-page section with the overarching title of ‘Why Situations Matter.’ Placed within the chapter of ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’s Meanings and Messages,’ this subsection captures perhaps some of the most important writing within the novel conveying the author’s perspective. He focuses on an argument which claims that individuals, though dispositionally unique, are ultimately molded via the complexities of novel situations. Although it is much easier to imagine and attempt to emulate the human that is morally stable, right, and “good,” this requires a simplification of the human experience through “erecting a seemingly impermeable boundary between Good and Evil.” The ease of falling in either category is so high that we are not forced to question the in-between, or even entertain the possibility that we encompass pieces of both good and evil. Zimbardo uses multiple case studies to supplement the detailed account of the Stanford Prison Experiment, citing historical atrocities including those in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, and Burundi, and offering analogous experiences in cases such as Holocaust concentration camps and Abu Ghraib prison-guard interactions. Using these cohesive narratives as additional support for his claim, Zimbardo focuses on the role that everyday situations are at play in shaping who we are. We are formed by the common, everyday interactions and familiar situations in which we are placed including “rules, laws, policies, and pressures that constrain us.” However, the test of our “true colors” occurs when we are thrown into unknown territory with entirely new limitations and social standards.
A significant aspect of Zimbardo’s research is found in the voice of the experiment volunteers, who share their personal shock of their own transformation from “good to evil.” Many of the prisoners sought some sort of feedback loop, expecting policing on their own actions (despite serving as police figures themselves). One guard, noted as the most sadistic and aggressive, emotionally questioned, “why didn’t people say something when I started to abuse people?.” Zimbardo pens that knowledge democratizes evil, centralizing blame around Them, rather than Us when faced with a widespread issue. However, this is specific to Westernized societies modeled by individualism, which takes a very dispositional approach. This approach looks at the essentialist elements that “make you who you are,” from genetic makeup to unique personality traits.
The Lucifer Effect, though rooted in the gripping and disturbing narrative of the Stanford Prison Experiment, prompts compelling conversation through Zimbardo’s constant contributions of analysis and personal commentary. Additional case stories help ground the primary experiment and offer comparisons and contrasts by which the ethical and scientific elements of Zimbardo’s work are questioned.