Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect: The Angel And Devil Within Book Reviews Example
The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford University psychologist and designer of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, is an ambitious and meticulous exploration of humankind’s potentiality for evil. Much of its difficult nature arises not necessarily from its moral exploration but rather the starkly simple nature with which the psychology of evil is exposed. 35 years after his unprecedented human behavioral experiment took place, Zimbardo finally collects his extensive thoughts on the experience and describes the inner-workings as well as the implications of his study in this densely informative book. Juxtaposing unthinkable acts of cruelty alongside descriptions of perpetrators who are invariably stable and ordinary individuals, Zimbardo effectively suggests that human beings are merely animals that are easily socialized in and out of widely differing sets of behavior. Ultimately, every page echoes the most disturbing—and also the most revelatory—questions of all: what kind of evil are you capable of, and more importantly, are you willing to face it and take responsibility accordingly?
It is important to feel connected to the author when reading a book about human behavior, especially in the field of morality and the human capacity for both good and evil. Feeling assured of both the tenacious objectivity of the author’s pursuits as well as the purity of his intentions are essential to introduce the explored ideas into one’s own life and psyche. His compassionate viewpoint is apparent, as he declares that “one of the worst things that we can do to our fellow human beings is deprive them of their humanity, render them worthless by exercising the psychological process of dehumanization” (Zimbardo 222). In addition, in the preface, Zimbardo laments the inherently difficult nature of completing this book. Reviewing the horrendous content of the Stanford Prison Experiment, he stated that, “Time had dimmed my memory of the extent of creative evil in which many of the guards engaged, the extent of the suffering of many of the prisoners, and the extent of my passivity in allowing the abuses to continue for as long as I did—an evil of inaction” (Zimbardo ix). Immediately, the reader is acquainted with the heart of the author, whose idea of evil consists not only of outward cruelty but inward apathy. His own remorse in regards to his willful ignorance of the horrific events that transpired allows us to feel at ease with the content that is to follow.
In nearly 500 pages, Zimbardo’s entire book is based on a single premise: situations have the power to persuade human beings to act upon impulses—both heroic and inhumane. As he explores the unraveling psyches of Stanford undergraduates who, at the forefront, appeared to be balanced and sane individuals, he speaks of the broader implications in regards to humankind. While we often assume that evil individuals are drawn to power, Zimbardo’s research suggests that the allure of power is what draws people to evil. With little instigation, formerly good individuals abandon completely their once-staunch convictions. For example, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko was a women’s empowerment lecturer who was sent by an interim government to the village of Butare to aid in its defense against Hutu invasion. The same woman eventually gives the unspeakable orders: “Before you kill the women, you need to rape them” (Zimbardo 13). Further examples such as a 12-year old boy forced to rape his 45-year old Rwandan mother in front of her husband with her “five other young children forced to hold open her thighs” fill the heart with utter tragedy, disgust, and disbelief (Zimbardo 14). The disturbing nature of the examples in the book, however, serves an even greater purpose than merely emotional outrage. His primary aspiration was to challenge the prevalent notion that personality is the sole cause for behavior as well as highlight the power of situational influences. Therefore, the distressing atrocities he discusses are meant to trigger awareness of the psychological transformation that can readily occur when a human is put under pressure. Zimbardo seems to challenge the comfortable assumption that most human beings are, for the most part, moral individuals. He likens human morality to a “gearshift that at times gets pushed into neutral. When that happens, morality is disengaged” (Zimbardo 17). Rather than bring about fright and a feeling of insecurity, Zimbardo seems more concerned with personal awareness and proactive responsibility rather than passive dependence on the automatic perception of one’s moral goodness.
In the last part of the book, he explores the ways in which human beings are capable of resisting external pressures, while offering the heroic examples of Rosa Parks, Joe Darby, and the first responders of 9/11. In conveying the message that every person possesses a heroic persona within them that can be activated upon demand at the right moment, he offers relief to the disturbing researched discussed throughout the book. His noble stance is to be appreciated, as he declares that praise and honor is to be given to “all those who will discover their reservoir of hidden strengths and virtues enabling them to come forth to act against injustice and cruelty and to stand up for their principled values” (Zimbardo 486). The way in which he concludes the book mimics the hopeful message he attempts to leave the reader with. In many ways, the horrific exploration of countless acts of inhumanity, made even more disturbing by the fact that they were performed by seemingly good human beings, is the necessary backdrop for an authentic catalyst for self-examination. Zimbardo highlights the importance of developing the ability to assert one’s independent mode of thinking, while also remaining aware of the insidious power of the social framework that surrounds us. When his or her time comes to act, Zimbardo appears deeply hopeful in the potential of every man or woman to act for the good of all mankind: “When that bell rings, they will know that it rings for them. It sounds a call to uphold what is best in human nature that rises above the powerful pressures of Situation and System as the profound assertion of human dignity opposing evil (Zimbardo xiii-xiv).
In an attempt to assuage the bleakness of the predominant content of the book, Zimbardo assures us that we are still capable of resisting total control from social systems. His “ten-step program for resisting the impact of undesirable social influences and at the same time promoting personal resilience and civic virtue” include the ideas: “I am mindful,” “I am responsible,” I am Me, the best I can be,” “I respect just authority but rebel against unjust authority,” “I want group acceptance, but value my independence,” and “I will not sacrifice personal or civic freedoms for the illusion of security” (Zimbardo 452-455). Though they may be entirely earnest and even advisable modes of conduct, this can also bear resemblance to a self-help book encouraging personal responsibility that does not truly translate into reality. The unspeakable atrocities discussed all throughout the book make it difficult to believe that a single individual has the power to overcome the seductive persuasion of situation and social system. His research offers generous evidence that individuals who resist the pressures of society are indeed scarce, and are often even reprimanded for their courageous defiance. For example, American Warrant Offer Hugh Thompson, Jr. halted the My Lai massacre by threatening his superiors with gunfire and ordering the medical evacuation of wounded Vietnamese civilians. In response to his courageous act of heroism, he was punished by being “required to fly the most dangerous helicopter missions again and again. He was shot down five times, breaking his backbone and suffering lasting psychological scars from his nightmare experience” (Zimbardo 475). Although people do bear responsibility for their own actions, Zimbardo’s ten-step program in light of the majority of his book’s evidence makes it difficult to perceive that every individual can completely sidestep any potential acts of evil. The notion that every man or woman has the ability to undergo tribulation or face death simply to resist any descent into evil can seem short-sighted, particularly in cases when submission is arguably the most appropriate thing to do. Furthermore, the even more desolate argument that his research abundantly supports: most human beings are susceptible to absolute moral control by any form of strong, persuasive authority.
However, the final message of Zimbardo, as he thanks us for joining him on this journey, gives us lasting reason for optimism and hope. In spite of the attention he places on the susceptibility of human beings to commit acts of evil, Zimardo concludes the book on a positive note. He ends the book with a line from Russian poet Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “The line between good and evil is in the center of every human heart” (Zimbardo 488). He reminds us that the responsibility to choose what is right lies in the hands of the individual. All of the information he disclosed in the book was there to serve us by elevating our consciousness. The stalwart force of conformity, persuasion, and coercion can only be resisted if made aware of their subtle existence all throughout our lives. Only by being truly aware of influential limitations is it possible to harness the power that can never be thwarted unless it is voluntarily relinquished. We realize that he is less concerned with moral exhortation, and rather humbly encouraging the reader to realize the inherent power within. Perhaps he does not demand a clear-cut distinction of good and evil, but rather begets his readers to do what he or she feels is right, even when it is difficult or contrary to what his surroundings suggest to him or her. The power of just one person who stands for what he or she believes in cannot be overstated. Ultimately, Zimbardo reminds us that he is on the same journey as we are, and invites us to recognize that we are not permanent victims, but rather powerful players in this game of life.
Zimbardo, Philip G. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. New York:
Random House, 2006. Print.
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