The Lucifer Effect: What Kind of Monster Are You?

This is not a relaxing book on any level.

The Lucifer Effect: What Kind of Monster Are You?
The Lucifer Effect: What Kind of Monster Are You?

Author Philip Zimbardo was in Washington D.C. when unbelievable images were flashing across the screen from CBS's program 60 Minutes II; naked men stacked in a pyramid with American soldiers grinning on top. 

It was on April 28, 2004 when pictures of tortured Iraqis from Abu Ghraib prison were unveiled. Professor Philip Zimbardo was particularly touched by the scenes as he had been a witness of a similar situation before.

In 1971, as a young psychologist in California's Stanford University, Zimbardo set up a mock prison for the purpose of conducting a study on the psychology of imprisonment. He divided a group of volunteer students into "guards" and "prisoners".

The prisoners and guards were assigned by flipping a coin, and Zimbardo himself played the role of the warden. The researchers were concerned that the volunteers wouldn't take the experiment seriously enough. 

"If you put good people in a bad place, do the people triumph or does the place corrupt them?" 

The first prisoner gained his "freedom" in less than 36 hours, because of extreme depression, uncontrollable crying and fits of rage. After three days, three prisoners were also released for showing symptoms of anxiety. 

The guards started to punish the prisoners for no reason whatsoever. They forced the prisoners to yield to trivial orders. The prisoners had to sing certain songs, laugh, or stop laughing on command. They were forced to sound off their number tags loudly with endless pushups. 

Even Zimbardo felt that he was getting too much into his role as warden. Eventually, the study was aborted because it has gone too far. The Stanford University experiment lasted 6 days.

Zimbardo's experiment became a cornerstone of social psychology. His investigation proved that situations are more powerful determinants of behavior than the intrinsic personality traits of the people involved. The findings of this experiment is best proof that insane situations can create insane behavior even in normal people.

The part where Zimbardo elaborates more about his experiment is bogged down by excessive detail. It's at least 100 pages too long to the extent that it feels like reading a numbing textbook. Although the context is interesting, at a certain point, the book sounds redundant. 

Once you finish a certain number of pages in the first chapter, you'll find yourself rushing to the following chapter to avoid repeating the same subject on the psychological findings of the Stanford study. 

The interesting part

Zimbardo explains how propaganda specialists have designed underlying campaigns in films, magazines, and posters to denigrate and dehumanize the "other". 

The author cites the United States as an example to highlight how it created the "illusion of security" to justify its war on terror all over the world, especially after the 9/11 attacks. 

"The ideology was created by the system in power."  

The other half of the book investigates the torture practiced in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq following the US invasion. 

In the past, the prison was designated by the Western media as "Saddam's Torture Central", because it was the place where Saddam Hussein orchestrated the torture of "dissidents" and “insurgents”.

During the US occupation, many of these prisoners were blameless Iraqi civilians who had been picked up randomly from different military areas or checkpoints.

The detainees would include entire families; men, women, and children. And although after their arrest they would be found not guilty of any charges, they would still not be released, because "nobody wanted to take the responsibility for making such decisions." 

Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the former Head of Abu Ghraib prison with no experience whatsoever in running any, denied that this prison was under her supervision. General Karpinski was later admonished and suspended from duty. 

After the pictures surfaced, seven guards were charged, including Ivan "Chip" Frederick, and Zimbardo attended his trial as an expert witness.

Fredrick who was thirty-seven years old at the time was a "disciplined soldier". Chip showed no evidence of a psychopathic personality that would make him abusive or without guilt.

The environment in Abu Ghraib prison, according to Zimbardo, "was as extreme a setting for creating deindividuation as I can imagine." 

Zimbardo asks:

“What was the nature of the ‘barrel’ into which this once ‘good apple’ was dropped? What was the situation that brought out the worst in this otherwise good soldier?"

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in addition to several heads of the CIA and the US army, were blamed by the Human Rights Watch in a 2005 report for “policies that facilitated serious and widespread violations of the law." 

Zimbardo agrees, as he says, "The seeds for the flowers of evil that blossomed in that dark dungeon of Abu Ghraib were planted by the Bush administration in its triangular framing of national security threats."

Yet, he argues that we all are capable of monstrous acts, if given the chance.

Zimbardo left one concept unanswered: What is it within the human nature that causes us to respond to situations in a negative fashion? Why do we change? What is that thing that changes within us? 

The book's style of writing, as well as its content, makes it difficult to read at times, but it is ultimately very rewarding once you reach the second part of the book. 

In the last chapter of the book, Zimbardo promises us beforehand that he "will let the sunshine in to illuminate" the dark corners of the human psyche and that he'll state how one can resist unwanted influences, yet no expression whatsoever in that last chapter reflected that nuance.