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The Lucifer Effect:
Understanding How Good People Turn Evil


The Lucifer Effect book cover
US Cover

The Lucifer Effect paperback book cover
Paperback Cover

C l i c k   t o   B u y!

The Lucifer Effect book cover (UK version)
UK Cover





Random House: U.S.A. and U.K.
Hardcover publication date: March 13, 2007
Paperback publication date: January 22, 2008


Professor Zimbardo deserves heartfelt thanks for disclosing and illuminating the dark, hidden corners of the human soul.
               -- Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic

This is a book for our times, a multilayered classic. What is truly remarkable is its blending of sensitive personal exploration, brilliant social-psychological analysis, and sustained ethical passion.
               -- Robert Jay Lifton, author of The Nazi Doctors and Superpower Syndrome

If there has been a more important and compelling book written in the last twenty-five years, I've not encountered it. Phil Zimbardo's engaging and beautifully written tour de force uncovers the sources of evil--big and small. The Lucifer Effect accomplishes more than simply making the darkness visible; it also helps to make lightness possible. It is crucial reading for everyone.
               -- Jon D. Hanson, Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

Since the times of Job, and maybe sometime before, we humans have always wondered whence evil comes. In the Stanford Prison Experiment, Phil Zimbardo bottled evil in a laboratory. The lessons he learned show us our dark nature but also fill us with hope if we heed their counsel. The Lucifer Effect reads like a novel, is as profound as the holiest of scriptures, and is at all times backed by sound scientific research.
               -- Anthony Pratkanis, Ph.D., founding editor, Social Influence;
                  Professor of Psychology, University of California

As one of the Senior Criminal Investigation Division agents who saw conditions at Abu Ghraib first hand, it is clear to me that Phil Zimbardo truly understands all the factors that came into play there.  His book is a must read for military leaders, mental health professionals and law enforcement officers.
               -- CW4 Marcia Drewry, Retired USA CIDC Special Agent

In another time, Philip Zimbardo might be likened to an Old Testament prophet of doom, but the author is not dealing with omens and unrealities, rather, quite the opposite. His anatomy of human psychology and contemporary culture is as scholarly as it is scary... This book takes us where angels fear to tread, uncovering the 'Lucifer' that sits incubating in each individual and every human institution. Politics, economics, history and even religion are all revealed as being tainted with its evil spoor.. The professor's timely study screams out at us to be on the alert, to be ever mindful and ever ready least we fall into this heart of utter darkness. We should be grateful for his insight and heed his warning...at our peril.
               -- Brian Keenan, author of An Evil Cradling


List of Illustrations
Chapter 1. The Psychology of Evil: Situated Character Transformations
Chapter 2. Sunday's Surprise Arrests
Chapter 3. Let Sunday's Degradation Rituals Begin
Chapter 4. Monday's Prisoner Rebellion
Chapter 5. Tuesday's Double Trouble: Visitors and Rioters
Chapter 6. Wednesday Is Spiraling Out of Control
Chapter 7. The Power to Parole
Chapter 8. Thursday's Reality Confrontations
Chapter 9. Friday's Fade to Black
Chapter 10. SPE's Meaning and Messages: The Alchemy of Character Transformations
Chapter 11. SPE's Ethics and Extensions
Chapter 12. Investigating Social Dynamics: Power, Conformity, and Obedience
Chapter 13. Investigating Social Dynamics: Deindividuation, Dehumanization, and the Evil of Inaction
Chapter 14. Abu Ghraib's Abuses and Tortures: Understanding and Personalizing Its Horrors
Chapter 15. Putting the System on Trial: Command Complicity
Chapter 16. Resisting Situational Influences and Celebrating Heroism


(M.C. Escher: Devils and Angels illusion)

The Lucifer Effect raises a fundamental question about the nature of human nature: How is it possible for ordinary, average, even good people to become perpetrators of evil? In trying to understand unusual, weird or aberrant behavior, we often err in focusing exclusively on the inner determinants of genes, personality and character, as we also tend to ignore what may be the critical catalyst for behavior change in the external Situation or in the System that creates and maintains such situations.

This book is unique in many ways. For starters, it provides for the first time a detailed chronology of the transformations in character that took place during the experiment I created many years ago that randomly assigned healthy, normal intelligent college students to play the roles of prison or guard in a projected 2 week-long study. I was forced to terminate the study after only 6 days because it went out of control, pacifists were becoming sadistic guards, and normal kids were breaking down emotionally. By telling that story in a new way, as my personal, first-person observation in present tense, it becomes like a screen play filled with ever more amazing twists and turns as the situational forces are pitted against individual will to resist and the collective will to rebel against oppressive authority. In a sense, this study and how I am reporting its narrative, is a forerunner of reality TV, as we see ordinary people up close and personal day in and night out, become transformed into something disturbing.

This tale of agony and transformation in a crucible of human nature is developed slowly and richly over eight chapters, following the opening chapter that explains the Lucifer Effect as the cosmic transformation of God's favorite angel, Lucifer, into Satan as he challenges God's authority. We shall here be considering less dramatic transformations, but all on a human scale that potentially can engage any of us. I lay the groundwork for the rest of the book by vivid descriptions of torture in the Inquisition, rape and terror in Rwanda and Nanking, and other venues where human nature has run amok. I also provide the initial scaffolding for how the Stanford Prison Experiment may help us make sense of the abuse and torture of prisoners by American Military Police in Iraq's infamous Abu Ghraib prison.

Second, after this narrative, with minimal psychologizing, we consider the conceptual contributions and research findings from many domains that validate the assertion of situational power over individual dispositions. I review classic and some new research on, conformity, obedience to authority, role-playing, dehumanization, deindividuation and moral disengagement. We consider the “evil of inaction” as a new form of evil that supports those who are the perpetrators of evil.

Two chapters are inserted between my telling the tale of 'the little shop of horrors' that I created in the basement of Stanford's psychology department and these twin chapters (12 & 13) on the social science foundations for understanding how powerful but subtle situational forces can seduce people into evil. In chapters 10 and 11, we want to know more about the broader meaning of the Stanford Prison Experiment, (SPE): What evidence was collected besides the observations the reader has looked in on? What does it mean, what are the take-home messages from this research? What about the ethical considerations raised by this research that is surely "ethically sensitive," to say the least?

A Google search for the word "experiment" uncovers a remarkable phenomenon: out of roughly 300 million results, the Stanford Prison Experiment web site ranks first!  For the word "prison," the SPE web site ranks number two out of more than 150 million results worldwide -- second only to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons.

That notoriety of this study is traced to examine extensions and replications of the SPE in research, the media, and recently as an art form, with critical analyses of the good and the bad directions that have been taken.

Next, the book is unique in systematically applying the lessons learned from the SPE and social science research to a new understanding of the abuses at Abu Ghraib (chapter 14). I do this by integrating my psychological expertise with my special expertise gained by being an expert witness for one of the accused Military Policemen involved in the abuses, Sgt Ivan "Chip" Frederick. I have gotten to know him well and switched my roles into that of investigative reporter as I tracked down his performance evaluations as prison guard in the states, the basis of his 9 medals and awards, corresponding with his wife, Martha and sister, Mimi, and engaging psychologists to provide personality and pathology assessments. I have also been able to get special insights into the nature of that horrid prison from military officers who have worked there. As an expert witness, I also had access to many of the independent investigations into these abuses and all of the digitally documented images of depravity that took place on Tier 1A Night Shift. So in putting Chip Frederick on trial, I give a detailed depiction of what it was like to walk in his boots for 12-hour night shifts without a day off for 40 straight nights. 

Chip got sentenced to an 8-year hard time in military prison, dishonorably discharged, disgraced and deprived on his 22 years of retirement savings, divorced by his wife and is now nearly broken. We see his transformation from good guard to bad guard to prisoner as one instance of the Lucifer Effect. But now in Chapter 15, it is my turn to again shift roles and become the prosecutor who puts the System on trial, the Military Command and the Bush Administration for their complicity in being part of the System that created and maintained this and other torture-interrogation centers across many military prisons. Using the many official independent investigative reports as my sources, all of which I have read carefully, I document what they tell us about the seminal cause of the abuses in the Leadership that was dysfunctional, irresponsible, conflicting or just absent.

After laying out the extent to which the abuses at Abu Ghraib paled in comparison to the more extremely violent and lethal torture and abuses in many other military sites, with testimonies of soldiers who actually took part in them, it is time for the reader as juror to decide was it just the work of those 7 "bad apples," or that of a corrupt system, a "rotten barrel," that has sacrificed basic human values of rule of law, honesty, and support of the Geneva Conventions for its obsession with the so-called "war on terror."

Wow, this is a lot of negative stuff coming down! But optimism is around the corner. I end Chapter 15 with an encouraging story of how an Army Colonel, a military psychologist friend, of mine, took the DVD of my prison study to Abu Ghraib as a training device to teach the new guards about the corrosive effects of the power in their hands in that remote place. He was sent there to develop new procedures to prevent the recurrence of such abuses—and has done so effectively.

Then the sun shines and lights up the dungeons we have been inhabiting for the past 15 chapters in our final chapter 16. Although most people succumb to the power of situational forces, not all do. How do they resist social influence? What kinds of strategies might help the reader to become inoculated against unwanted attempts to get him or her to conform, comply, obey, and yield? I outline a 10-step generic program to build resistance to mind control strategies and tactics. There is also a unique presentation of a thought experiment to involve people in engaging in progressively greater degrees of altruistic deeds that promote civic virtue.

Given that the majority of people in my research and those of my colleagues are impacted by situational forces, it is the minority, the rare person, who resists. I consider them to be heroes. So I end this long journey with a new understanding of what it means to be heroic. We celebrate heroes and heroism as part of new taxonomy that I have developed, which identifies 12 different hero types, with criteria and exemplars, The first such exemplar takes us back to the SPE with Christina Maslach, the young woman who forced me to terminate the experiment (and who I later married and is the mother of our two daughters). The second is Pvt. Joe Darby, the Abu Ghraib whistle blower who exposed the abuses and tortures taking place, and forced their termination. No one has ever elaborated on the nature of heroism as I have here. Finally, we end with a novel twist to our long tale. After considering "The banality of evil" as everyman and every woman's potential for engaging in evil deeds despite their generally moral upbringing and pro-social life style, like Adolph Eichmann, I introduce the new concept of: "The Banality of Heroism."

Heroes come in two main casts; life-long heroes, like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and heroes of the moment, such as, whistle blowers, those who perform sudden acts of bravery on the battle field, or of spontaneous courage on the home front. Those heroes of the moment typically have never before done anything else that was memorable, but they responded to the call to service when they heard it. So any of us may become heroes by being ready to do the good thing, to help others in need when the situational demands give us that rare opportunity. I end with that challenge: When the time comes for you to act the part of the hero, will you be ready for the casting call?

(As a consequence of writing this book and beginning to focus on the positive side of human nature- the heroic imagination--I have begun new research designed to understand the heroic decision at the time of taking a heroic stand against unjust authority; and also to develop a new web site devoted to celebrating heroes and heroism.)

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