Angels and Demons

Phil Zimbardo and the Lucifer Effect
| Tagged in: Think Tank

Wonder, how one can run down 84 people and injure more than 300 with a truck? How a young 21-year old, from an affluent family, with the best of education, a class topper, a maths topper, leading a life like any-other, be motivated to terrorise and kill people? How one can randomly open fire and kill people? How can some gangrape and torture the victim by mutilating her body? How can an angry mob beat up a poor starved boy for stealing a piece of bread? How often does one conform to peer pressure and hurt others in a desire to be ‘cool’? How often does one be part of a group responsible for hurting others, to just avoid ‘rejection’? What levels of evil are we capable of?


Behavioral Oxymorons!

Who is evil? Is one born evil or does one become evil? How does one become evil?

Growing-up I have often heard people say that nobody is bad; that everybody has something good within themselves.  To quote Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian poet imprisoned under Stalin, “The line between good and evil lies at the centre of every human heart”. Then, how are we capable of such evil deeds? More importantly, who is capable of such evil deeds? Who are these evil people? Are we one of them? Am I one of them?

I always believed that we are good or bad depending on the choices we make. So why could the evil people not make the good choices? What made them choose to do evil actions? How do I resist evil choices, if so many others could not? Is our evil actions only related to our personalities, characters, genes or does it depend on circumstances, on Situations, on Systems?


Am I evil or am I good?

Ivan Frederick II, also known as Chip Frederick, was a Staff Sergeant in the US Army. He was amongst the highest ranked military personnel charged for torturing prisoners at Abu Gharib Prison in Iraq. Surprisingly, when the entire world criticized him and the other US Army personnel  for the inhuman torture bestowed on the prisoners, the famous psychologist, Phil Zimbardo, testified for the defense, bringing forward a different perspective. Not that he was supportive of the evil actions nor did he suggest absolving the Sergeant of the responsibility for his deeds, but he introduced the factor of powerful situational pressures. He requested for lessening of the defendants’ sentence stating that although guilty, the Sgt. Frederick, like most individuals could not resist the Situational and Systemic influence. He believed that more than the individuals it was the government policies that were to be blamed. The judge however, disregarded Zimbardo’s testimony and sentenced Sgt. Frederick to 8 years of confinement with a loss of rank and pay and a dishonourable discharge, declaring him to be guilty of conspiracy, dereliction of duty, maltreatment of detainees, assault and indecent acts.

Phil George Zimbardo was born on March 23, 1933, in New York City, in a family of Sicilian origin. He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1954, with triple major in psychology, sociology and anthropology. In 1955, he became a Masters in psychology and subsequently completed his Ph.D in 1959 from Yale University. He has been a faculty at some of the best known schools in the world, teaching at Yale for a year between 1959-1960, followed by New York University (1960-1967), Columbia University (1967-1968) and finally joined Stanford University in 1968. In 1971, he accepted the offer to become a tenured professor of psychology at Stanford.

After the Abu Gharib incident, Phil Zimbardo, returned to completing what was to become another of his most famous works, The Lucifer Effect, Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. The book Zimbardo writes was initiated almost three decades ago but was not completed then as he could not go on. Now, after being an expert witness testifying at the trial of Sgt. Frederick, he was able to review a lot of evidences including photographs, conversational and correspondence details and other background information. He now had better proof to support his theory.

While reviewing the evidences from Abu Gharib, he was surprised to find astonishing similarity between it and one of his earlier and very famous experiments called the The Stanford Prison Experiment or SPE. “Had I written this book shortly after the end of the Stanford Prison Experiment, I would have been content to detail the ways in which situational forces are more powerful than we think, or that we acknowledge, in shaping our behaviour in many contexts. However, I would have missed the big picture, the bigger power for creating evil out of good- that of the System, the complex of powerful forces that create the Situation” , writes Zimbardo in his book. He adds that although there is strong evidence in social psychology, to support the concept that Situational power triumphs over Individual power, many psychologists have chosen to ignore the deeper sources of power, that which are inherent in political, economic, religious, historic and even cultural matrices. He highlights the importance of understanding the dynamics of human behaviour to understand the limits of an individual. He stresses on understanding the effect of Situations and Systems on an individual’s behaviour and proposes it to play a key role in preventing or altering the latter’s undesirable behaviour. However, it is to be remembered that understanding of Situational or Systemic factors on behaviour, does not absolve an individual from the immoral, unethical, illegal or evil deeds.


Trophy Photographs from Abu Gharib

The Stanford Prison Experiment (Ref- A study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison, Naval Research Review, 1973, 30, 4-17)

In 1973, Phil Zimbardo performed the famous Stanford Prison Experiment in an attempt to understand whether human behaviour was more influenced by Disposition or Situations. The experiment involved randomization of a group of 24 individuals to play the role of either a prisoner or a guard, in a simulated prison, at the basement of Stanford University psychology building. The volunteers were all screened so as to be mentally and physically healthy. The experimental design mimicked the prison situation very closely, eg. guards worked 8 hour shifts in sets of 3, while the prisoners were housed 3 per room and woken at 2:30am. Prisoners were treated like ‘real life’ criminals, being arrested without warning, fingerprinted, photographed, booked and blindfolded and brought to the prison. As part of the de-individuation process, they were even stripped naked and provided with prison clothes (no underclothes) and IDs, which was to be their identity during their stay. Their hair was covered with a tight nylon cap and they wore a locked chain around their ankle. The guards on the other hand wore identical khaki uniforms (depersonalization process), carried a whistle and billy club and wore sunglasses to prevent eye contact with prisoners. The role of the guards was to maintain law and order in the prison, although they were instructed not to use physical violence. Zimbardo himself also actively participated in the study, playing the role of a prison warden in addition to observing the behavior of the volunteers in their roles as prisoners or guards.


Phil Zimbardo and the Stanford Prison Experiment

All the volunteers in the study were observed to promptly adapt to their respective roles. From the very first day onwards, the prisoners showed signs of distress, gossiped about the guards, discussed prison issues, obeyed rules (some even went against their fellow inmates who disobeyed rules), while the guards were aggressive and assertive. On the second day, when the prisoners rebelled, ripping their uniforms and locking themselves in their cells blocking the cell doors with their beds, the guards retaliated violently, using fire extinguishers to open the doors, stripping the prisoners and even placing those who were thought to have initiated the rebellion into solitary confinement. They even resorted to awarding the prisoners for good behaviour.

The experiment became so real-life, that one of the prisoners had to be released within 36 hours because of emotional disorder and early signs of severe depression. Soon three others also showed similar signs. On the third day, when the prisoners were allowed visitors, the prisoners were already conspiring an escape plan. On overhearing, the guards disciplined and harassed the prisoners with an iron hand.

The experiment, initially planned for a fortnight, had to be called off by the sixth day.


The Stanford Prison Experiment

After the termination of the experiment, most participants accepted their involvement and commitment. Zimbardo himself many years later confessed how engrossed he too was in his role as a superintendent rather than a research psychologist. The research had felt real to all. One of the guards recollected that he made the prisoners use abusive language for each other and made them clean toilets with bare hands. He confessed that he considered the prisoners to be cattle. And, this guard was not alone. Others too confessed how much they enjoyed and abused their authority and power.

The behaviour of the volunteers was a surprise to all, including the actors themselves. Most had not known their abusive (guard)/ submissive (prisoner) sides. The actors not only rapidly adapted to their respective roles, but they also stepped beyond their predicted and desirable boundaries, leading to dangerous and psychologically damaging situations. The experiment was a clear indication of how Situation had greater impact than Disposition.

The Lucifer Effect

Having now witnessed the similarity between the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Abu Gharib case, Phil Zimbardo, now questioned the fundamentals of human nature. How is it possible for ordinary, average, even good people to become perpetrators of evil? How did normal, healthy human beings just playing the roles of prisoners or prison guards, transcend so deep into their characters that they were ready to inflict pain on one another? Zimbardo called it the Lucifer effect, drawing an analogy of this chronological transformation in human behaviour to that of Angel Lucifer. According to Biblical account, Lucifer, was once God’s favourite Angel, till he challenged God’s authority and was cast into Hell.

In his book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding how good people turn evil, Zimbardo writes that human beings cannot be classified as good or bad, since we have the ability to be both, especially under Situations. He uses the work of the illusion artist, M.C Escher, to explain the congruence of good and evil. Is it the white angels dancing about the dark heavens or are they many black demons, horned devils inhabiting the bright white space of hell? It is a reminder of the ultimate transformation of good to evil, ie. the metamorphosis of Lucifer to Satan. Zimbardo writes that Escher’s work is also a portrayal of three very important psychological truths, (1) the co-existence of good and evil in the world, (2) good and evil being separated by a permeable membrane and (3) the transformation of one to the other, ie. good to evil and may be even evil to good. The transformation of dacoit  Ratnakar into Rishi Valmiki. Laying the groundwork with vivid descriptions of evil such as tortures in Inquisitions, massacre in Rwanda, rape of Nanking, the Stanford professor, reviews his research on conformity, obedience to authority, role-playing, dehumanization, deindividuation and moral disengagement. His Stanford experiment had clearly illustrated many of these theories.


M.C Escher’s Illusion of white Angels and black Demons

Zimbardo believes that the process of dehumanization is at the core of most evil. It is a process by which some people or a group are depicted to be less than human or inferior to others in humanity and personal dignity. For instance, Nazi comic books against Jews, Faces of the enemy with world-wide propaganda with images of the enemy and ‘trophy photos’ of American citizens posing with African Americans who had been lynched or burned alive ( In each of these cases, a sect or group of people were dehumanized by another to an extent that they became ready to segregate them, torment them and even kill them. It created a ‘hostile imagination’, a psychological construction embedded deeply in the minds by propaganda that transformed those others into ’the Enemy’.

In addition to dehumanization, Zimbardo believes that de-individuation, diffusion of personal responsibility, blind obedience to authority, mindlessly taking the first step, uncritical conformity to group norms and passive tolerance of evil form the slippery slope of evil. Consider asking a classroom of students who would be willing to shoot a condemned traitor and there may not be any volunteers, he writes. However, if one is part of a firing squad, in which there is only one real bullet, the inhibition would be reduced since the responsibility is now diffused.

Depersonalization is another powerful tool to breed evil and some of the photographs from the Abu Gharib prison case helped confirm the theory. These were photographs of an Army reservist guard who had his face painted like a skeleton.  “Masks have a terrible power, they’re a medium of terror. And of course the first terrorists in the United States were the Klu Klux Klan”, says Zimbardo. The quick adaptation of actors into their roles as prison guards with uniforms and sunglasses in the Stanford experiment also confirmed the same.


Phil Zimbardo and the Lucifer Effect

Another common trait of humans is blind obedience to authority. In addition to the Stanford prison experiment, the theory is also supported by another experiment, performed by Stanley Miligram, a school friend of Zimbardo and a professor at Yale, in 1961. The classic experiment is famously known as the Milgram experiment and researched the concept of blind obedience of authority. It was designed around three individuals, the experimenter (an authoritative role), the teacher (expected to obey the experimenter’s instructions) and a learner (an actor and recipient of stimulus from the teacher). The teacher would teach and ask questions to the learner and was instructed to deliver electric shocks (with a 15 volt increment for every wrong answer) to the latter, if he failed to answer correctly. Two thirds of the subjects ostensibly delivered lethal shock (oblivious to the fact that they were false) to actors who feigned the agony of the shock. Although they could refuse and withdraw from the study, they followed instructions, to the extent of inflicting pain on others. It showed humans strong inclination to follow the command of authority, even to an extent of being evil.

However, all is not as grim as it may appear. We, human beings, have the potential to challenge situational and systemic power. What seems like a ray of hope is that in all these real-life experiments performed, there were some (although few) who unlike others, resisted and did not yield to evil. They were the rebels but Zimbardo calls them the heroes. They were able to elevate themselves above most of us by resisting compliance, conformity and obedience. One such was a social psychologist, Chritina Maslach, who upon observing the sufferings of the prisoners in the Stanford prison experiment , was the only one out of 50 observers to question the ethics of the study. These heroes are few and special. They conform to humanity. (Zimbardo later married Christina.)

“In contrast to the ‘banality of evil’, which posits that ordinary people can be responsible for the most despicable acts of cruelty and degradation of their fellow, I poist the ‘banality of heroism’, which unfurls the banner of the heroic Everyman and Everywoman who heed the call to service to humanity when their time come to act. When that bell rings, they will know that it rings for them. It sounds a call to you to hold 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”-Phil Zimbardo


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