The Lucifer Effect – How good people turn evil

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Reviewed by Angela Mutiso

Author: Philip Zimbardo

Category: Psychology

Publishers: Rider

How can honest people be induced to behave illegally, and moral people seduced to act immorally?  The answers can be found in this book. It is a fascinating exploration of the darker side of human nature. Examining the causes of evil, the author offers the first in-depth analysis of his classic Stanford Prison Experiment.

This is a thought-provoking book by award winning psychologist Philip Zimbardo.  He explains how, a group of ordinary students was placed in a mock prison and how, in less than a week, the study had to be brought to an end when the ‘guards’ became increasingly sadistic and the ‘prisoners’ pathological. He reflects over the findings of the experiment and its relevance to society today, raising important questions about the nature of good and evil – and how and why most of us could be initiated into the ranks of evil doers. 

This book is so poignant that the author of tipping point Maxwell Gladwell observed that “The Lucifer Effect will change forever the way you think about why we behave the way we do…this is a disturbing book, but one that has never been more necessary.”

In describing the book Brian Keenan, author of An Evil Cradling says, Philip Zimbardo’s anatomy of human psychology and contemporary culture is as scholarly as it is scary. His books take us where angels fear to tread, uncovering the ‘Lucifer’ that sits incubating in each individual and every human institution…This timely study screams out at us to be on the alert to be ever mindful and ever ready lest we fall into this heart of darkness. 

The Lucifer Effect describes how—and the many reasons why—we are all prone to the lure of “the dark side.” Drawing on examples from history as well as his own trailblazing research, Zimbardo explains how situational forces and group dynamics can work in concert to make monsters out of decent men and women.

The author says changing or preventing undesirable behaviour of individuals or groups requires an understanding of what strengths, virtues, and vulnerabilities they bring into a given situation. Then, we need to recognize more fully the complexity of situational forces that are operative in given behavioral settings. Modifying them or learning to avoid them.

He expresses the dangers of dehumanization, obedience to authority, and anonymity, warning that these elements can lead to a loss of personal responsibility and morality. However, Zimbardo also addresses the importance of recognizing these tendencies and becoming empathetic to counteract the incline for evil in society. The book cautions readers to be alert to the dark forces that can emerge in certain situations and systems.

The author says that in this life illusion and quasi-illusion, the person with solid virtues who can be admired for something more substantial than his well-knownness often proves to be the unsung hero: the teacher, the nurse,  the mother, the honest cop, the hard worker at lonely, under paid, unglamorous, unpublicized jobs. Topsy-turvily, these can remain heroes precisely because they remain unsung.

“People on the outside tend to live looking towards the future

The future for the convict is vague and sketchy

His past is gone; people stop writing after a while

The present becomes poignant.”

Ken Whalane – ex-convict and playwright.

This book is available in online and in well stocked bookshops around the country.

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